ST. PETERSBURG — Two years ago, Ichicoro wowed New York City with its Tampa-style ramen, noodles overflowing with Florida freshness and ingredients. Even Gwyneth Paltrow showed up to the pop-up to slurp noodles.
Later that year, Ichicoro Ramen opened in Seminole Heights and the tiny restaurant contained the most sought-after seats of the year. And this autumn, Ichicoro Ane comes to St. Petersburg.
Ane is "older sister" in Japanese, and despite the fact that this big sib will be younger, it will expand upon and add depth to what has continued to make Ichicoro one of the hottest restaurants in Tampa. Noel Cruz, a University of Florida and Culinary Institute of America grad, and partner Kerem Koca have been looking for just the right St. Petersburg location for more than a year, finally inking a deal with Gries Investment Funds partner Steve Gianfilippo for the space that until January was Station House Restaurant and for years before that was Cafe Alma.
Part of what makes Ichicoro so appealing in Tampa is its intimate size (only 40 seats) and its limited menu (a handful of ramen dishes and a few snacks). Ane will be many times that size, with a dramatically larger menu of sharable izakaya and other a la carte Japanese-inspired dishes, plus a full, whiskey-centric bar.
The news joins reports of several new monster restaurant projects potentially debuting in St. Petersburg (Doc Ford's at the Pier, a large one at the new Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement and still another at Hyatt Place) as well as the demise of a longtime downtown destination restaurant, Z Grille, whose owners cited "saturation" downtown as a reason for closure.
Why are we to think Ichicoro Ane will succeed in this increasingly heated restaurant market, especially in a restaurant location that has seen its share of failure?
For one thing, Gianfilippo, who masterminded the Station House Building with its co-work office suites, conference rooms, coding school and other oh-so-21st century hipness (Charles Trippy, vlogger and bass guitarist for We The Kings got married here recently), is all in.
On Sunday, they begin demolition on the right-hand side of the front steps at 260 First Avenue S so the restaurant entrance is front and center, not tucked in the side alley. And despite the fact that Gianfilippo attended to every design detail of the defunct Station House Restaurant, Cruz convinced him to gut the whole thing and start over.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Times got a private tour of the restaurant space: A small ramen shop over here, a central bar and private dining at the back, huge lounge area serviced by a second bar, murals by artists from New York, lots of exposed brick and polished concrete floors.
"It was a much larger space than Ichicoro in Seminole Heights," Cruz said. "At first blush it seemed like a lot to handle, but the more we thought about it..."
Gianfilippo, who lived in Tokyo and has been a huge fan of Ichicoro, feels that the organic growth and foot traffic associated with the Station House Building (more than 200 members, with a huge number of weddings, private parties and young professional gatherings) will assure the new restaurant of a customer base beyond fans hiking over from Tampa.
"My plan from Day One was never to become a restaurateur," Gianfilippo said. "I knew I would eventually turn over the space to more cultured partners."
St. Petersburg is not without ramen. Buya Ramen opened in 2016. And there are plenty of sushi restaurants. Ichicoro Ane will not serve sushi per se, but Cruz says he and co-chef Branden Lenz will offer some raw fish dishes among the small plates and that the ramen element will be less of a focus than in Seminole Heights.
Ane will benefit from the staff's experience at the flagship restaurant in Seminole Heights, as well as at the food hall concept Imoto ("little sister") that Cruz and company debuted in February in Birmingham's historic Pizitz Building. The Imoto concept will be replicated in the Heights Public Market that opens this fall in the Armature Works Building in Tampa.
With much of the build out still in front of him, Cruz is bullish about prospects in St. Petersburg.
"We knew we wanted to be on this side. It's the natural progression, to take it to the next step. It won't be radically different. But in a bigger space we get to push the boundaries."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.