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Foodie crowds grab a tasty bite of St. Pete at festival

ST. PETERSBURG

After customers and staffers had gone home for the night, David Benstock made 4,500 mezzaluna stuffed with braised short rib this week. The chef-owner of Il Ritorno in St. Petersburg made them by hand, staying up until 4 a.m. rolling out dough. And on Saturday afternoon at the first St. Pete Wine & Food Festival, napped with truffle fonduta and topped with shaved truffle flown in from Italy, 4,500 didn't seem like such a crazy number. For a small restaurant like Il Ritorno, going all in for a first-time festival represents a serious vote of confidence in festival organizers Dawna Stone and Matt Dieter.

"We haven't been a part of a lot of local events," Benstock said as he scooped pasta half-moons into a saute pan. "But this seemed like a great addition to downtown St. Petersburg. We need stuff like this to get restaurants involved with the community."

For chef Ted Dorsey of St. Petersburg's new The Mill, the festival was an opportunity to showcase what he's doing on his menu: In one of the two massive tents in North Straub Park, his team put together cooling bruschetta of watermelon, cuke and heirloom tomato, a little pop of smoked pistachio brittle as garnish, as well as sweet pea hummus with pear chutney on cool leaves of endive.

And it seemed to pay off. Festival-goers Jon Wue, 26, and Bhavana Jami, 23, both from Tampa, weren't too familiar with St. Pete restaurants and were using the festival to shop around. He liked the pork bun from Souzou; she liked the gazpacho with tiny grilled cheese from Sea Salt. Having been to food and wine festivals such as Epcot's annual event, which also started Friday, Jami was the primary motivator for the outing: She found a Groupon that brought the fairly steep ticket price of $95 down to $70.

He wanted to do Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, and she said, "Nope, let's do this."

Stone said the Friday night craft beer component of the festival drew 1,300 attendees plus walk-ins, better than they expected. Saturday's event sold 1,000 tickets, with a slightly lower number sold for today.

According to Dieter, who with wife Stone owned a large running event company before selling it in 2012, the higher price point for this festival requires some education.

"People are familiar with festivals with lower admission prices, but they pay for tasting and drink tickets. With this, everything is included."

For Danielle Hutchens and Amy Daniels of Tampa, Shannon Moyles of Clearwater and Lisa Lossie of Atlanta, the festival represented a girls' day out opportunity. Because they attend the Bern's Winefest every year and Hutchens had been to South Beach Wine & Food Festival, a major annual event for foodies, they were in a good position to assess this first-time St. Pete venture.

"The food is excellent," said Daniels, who was celebrating a birthday. "And I appreciate that they have included wines that regular people could buy, but the wine booths are all staffed with volunteers and they don't know much."

This isn't the first time a large-scale food and wine festival has been launched in St. Petersburg. In 2013, Enjoy Arts & Tastes St. Petersburg drew impressive crowds and an even more impressive lineup of celebrity chefs associated with HSN. It was deemed not economically viable to put it on a second time.

Based on restaurant participation and event turnout, Dieter and Stone have high hopes for a second festival.

"We had a short runway on this event," said Dieter. "We decided to do it around April or May, then didn't get approval from the city until July."

Still, it drew a who's who of downtown St. Petersburg's booming restaurant community.

"Very few restaurants said no," Stone said, catching her breath for a moment outside one of the busy 12,000-square-foot tents. To go from 0 to 60 for an event of this magnitude is a coup.

"I told the kids," Stone said, "Come October your mommy will be back."

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

Foodie crowds grab a tasty bite of St. Pete at festival 09/26/15 [Last modified: Saturday, September 26, 2015 10:12pm]
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