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Bay area food businesses cater to Christmas shoppers

I call it the Brookstone moment. It is when, four days before Christmas, I stand and consider the relative merits of, say, an electric dog polisher versus a solar-powered flashlight. It's not gift-giving panic, per se, but extreme mall-induced disquiet. • Enacted a couple years ago, Florida's Cottage Food Law has given me some outs. Everyone likes food, especially at the holidays. Now there is a whole raft of new independent, local and other gift-appropriate food businesses.

One word: Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate

At the end of November, Meridith Alexander debuted her 100 Shades of Chocolate's Chocolatica Co., a kiosk just outside Forever 21 at International Plaza in Tampa. The coin of the realm is her Bombshell Brownie, a doorstop-heavy (she says it's mostly Lindt and Ghirardelli chocolate, but I'm wondering if there's some tungsten or osmium in these babies) square of heaven. Alexander, who by her own accounting has her "feet solidly planted in midair," cracks wise that this is Legally Blonde goes chocolate. Indeed, she has Elle Woods' looks and penchant for bling.

A large component of her kiosk is tricked-out brownies in custom gift baskets or vases filled with sparklies. They hardly need much embellishment, but these fudgelike "couture" confections make a great hostess gift tucked into a bejeweled basket. The author of The Alluring Art of Chocolatica, Alexander's second love is clearly canine (she is quick to talk about her own rescue dachshunds, Tinkerbell and Frodo): The kiosk is also a clearinghouse for Swarovski crystal collars and fairytale-pink dog princess costumes. (I watched a big guy buy one of these and he looked queasy with embarrassment.)

The brownies are sold separately at $2.75 each or in gift baskets/vases that start at $19.95. Brownies should be stored in the fridge or freezer, and can be microwaved briefly for extra gooeyness. For information about Chocolatica, call (813) 924-0675 or visit chocolatica.com.

These pretzels are making me hungry

Nick Agostino had a fast food restaurant service company until his wife, Suzy, got irked by all the travel. She wanted to do something that would allow them to spend time together with their four kids. Penguin Pretzel Factory launched in New Port Richey in August. They started playing with pretzel recipes a few years back, selling them at a kiosk at MOSI and during Busch Gardens events like Bands, Brew & BBQ.

To distinguish theirs from those doughy frozen pretzels you wrestle through at Rays games, they formed theirs into long twists. And then things got further twisted. Suzy got a wild hair: What if we stuff them? She started experimenting with fillings like spinach and feta, pepperoni and mozzarella, or Buffalo chicken and cheese.

These are big, puffy pretzels glistening with a bit of butter and pocked with big salt granules. Yeasty and rich, the fillings range from savory (a "Christmas dinner" version with roast beef, gravy, onion and provolone is delicious) to sweet (dark chocolate, Oreo, etc.). Dipping sauces like cucumber dill or marinara make these half-pounders eat like a meal. Unstuffed twists and sweet stuffed pretzels are $2.75, savory stuffed pretzels are $5.75. Penguin Pretzel Factory is at 8521 Old County Road 54, New Port Richey; (727) 807-6963. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but call to confirm holiday hours (they're closing the shop for a couple of days to visit relatives).

There's cheese and then there's fresh mozz

Antonio Casamento started with eight Italian water buffalo a few years ago. Now his herd in Thonotosassa is up to around 30. Not to be confused with American bison, these curvy-horned creatures are the ones that are milked from Rome to Salerno, their milk turned into mozzarella and other prized Italian cheeses. Casamento began selling his cheeses at Tampa Bay markets from Hyde Park to St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market. And in November, he launched the Mozzarella Bar in Palm Ceia.

I'm not going to lie. It's hard to find. Drive south on Henderson Boulevard and when you see Couture Shoez on your right, swing into the strip mall and behind it to a tiny shop with just a couple of bar stools. Peer through the window into the stainless steel laboratory from whence come mozzarella di bufala, ricotta, gorgo, smoked scamorza, burrata, toscano and other delectables.

Whole cheeses are priced at around $9 and up. Casamento also offers them in rolls with prosciutto and arugula, arrayed as a caprese and accompanied by cold cuts and olives. As a gift, a bag of murky water with a white orb bobbing at its center may not look like much, but the musky, rich, earthy flavor of the cheese is far superior to the cow's milk versions you find in most grocery stores. Mozzarella Bar is at 4004 Neptune St. in Tampa. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday (but call for holiday hours). For more information, call (813) 473-2105 or visit bufalinacheese.com.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

Bay area food businesses cater to Christmas shoppers 12/19/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 19, 2013 6:26pm]

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