Monday, August 20, 2018
Dining

Restaurant review: Noble Crust doing smart Italian-Southern fusion

ST. PETERSBURG

We watched it go up: Fourth Street N's decrepit Hideaway bar was gutted, knocked down to its 1920s skeleton, built up with a tiara of girders, a sleek surface of wooden slats and finally a glamorous 800-square-foot wrap patio with a retractable roof. It sits askew on its lot, at an odd angle to the busy street. And in a way this off-kilterness is metaphoric. The sign went up: Noble Crust. So, another pizza place on Fourth Street N? Not exactly. It's a novel kind of fusion, where rustic Italian meets gutsy Southern.

It's the project of partners T.J. Thielbar and John Mays, veterans in the restaurant business, with years as operations managers for Bonefish Grill and executives at Hops Grill & Brewery. With third partner Jeff Strouse and Rob Reinsmith as chef, Noble Crust opened in January and has been busy from day one. The owners seem to have bargained correctly that St. Petersburg residents are ready for a hip independent far north of downtown. MJ's Martini Jazz & Tapas Lounge and many others have tried, but the time seems right.

There's a lively scene along the funky-industrial sheet-metal bar, some hightop and communal tables, an open kitchen, and lounge furniture on the patio clustered around inviting gas fire pits (the patio is both heated and air-conditioned). In short, there's not a bad seat in the place. They might be hard to come by for a while, and the noise level can ratchet up pretty high with new-restaurant buzz.

Noble Crust is a family-appropriate place where a shared strategy seems most effective: a couple of appetizers for the table, a communal pizza, then maybe a pasta or a more substantial entree, and finally a shared dessert. You have to get dessert. My first visit I was perplexed: Hmm, just two soft-serve gelatos offered in paper cups with old-timey wooden spoons? What, did their dessert bowls not arrive yet? But there's method to it, evoking a bit of nostalgia and also allowing you to take them on the road after you've settled your bill. One is orange-flavored in a Creamsicle way, with crunchy cocoa nibs scattered over the top to give it texture and interest; the other is vanilla and olive oil, with discernible saltiness, strewn with chopped pistachio and pomegranate seeds. Both are $5 and both are fabulous, simple but sophisticated.

Continuing on with my favorite things, the bar program is savvy, with eight wines offered in barrel (because they are more environmentally responsible and affordable to ship this way, a slight savings is passed on to diners — a trend in many cities) and a short list of cocktails and craft beers that features some real winners. The 4th Street Fling ($9) brought a girly-looking flute of chilled prosecco, bracing grapefruit, floral St. Germain and a bitter edge of Campari, everything an aperitif should be to awaken the taste and gin up a little hunger.

To best see where Italy meets the South, start with an order of pimento cheese arancini ($8), bread-crumbed and fried rice balls with the sweet tang of that Southern cheese oddity at their center, sitting on a generous dribble of pepper jelly (to my mind too sweet for the balls, but still a fun idea). You'll see it again with a pizza that pairs Italian sausage with slow-cooked collards ($14), an idea that feels totally natural on the plate.

Pizzas come in a large personal size, maybe 12 inches, with a crust that doesn't yet have the nuance or flavor of Pizzeria Gregario in Safety Harbor or Bavaro or Ava in Tampa, but they are nice pies (and gluten free). The Cedar Key clam pie with bacon and pickled cherry peppers ($18) brought great ideas together with a lot of savor, though it is a little scant on the clams.

I could happily make a meal of the grazeable finger foods: a little ramekin of herb-topped whipped ricotta with a passel of olive oil-glossed baked pizza dough wedges ($7); a bowl of warm pitted olives elevated by the inclusion of orange zest, smoked almonds and dried apricots ($6); spicy-sweet roasted chicken wings, served simply with curls of crunchy celery ($10).

While eavesdropping, I learned the mushroom kale lasagna ($13) has already emerged as a crowd favorite, and it is indeed good, a simple wedge with the sharp saltiness of pecorino and a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts. I was also smitten with the buttermilk mashed cauliflower underneath an order of braised short ribs (the short rib itself was tough, but with nice flavor; $17). While not huge, both of these represented good value — in fact there's nothing on the menu that tips above $20.

Between now and the end of March, nearly 20 restaurants are slated to open in St. Petersburg, a number of them along Fourth Street N. If Noble Crust is any indication of what's to come, St. Pete will be cemented as a restaurant destination worth driving over any of our bridges for.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

     
 
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