With 11 kitchens, Locale Market unlike any gourmet market in bay area

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ST. PETERSBURG — When Locale Market opens mid-December in the newly launched Sundial complex, it will be a game changer.

The scale — a fresh market and dining experience with 11 different full kitchens and legions of high-priced equipment — is hard to imagine. But what's more heady is that celebrity chefs Michael Mina and Don Pintabona, two savvy restaurateurs, calculated that St. Petersburg is the right place and this the right time for their ambitious vision.

"This is a concept we've been toying with for a long time," Pintabona said Thursday morning, taking a break from rolling in truckloads of gleaming stainless-steel equipment to give tours of the space. "We originally planned on doing it in New York. But we thought this was a better fit in St. Petersburg, because it's up and coming."

In New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, Locale would be another hopeful in a long list of high-end markets. But here, it will be a quantum leap from the gourmet markets that have been attempted on either side of the bay, including longtime favorites like Mazzaro's Italian Market in St. Pete, Duckweed Urban Market in Tampa or big chains like Fresh Market. This is more reminiscent of Mario Batali's Eataly in New York or Chicago, or the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, a dizzying Disney World for foodies and the culinary cognoscenti.

Set on two floors, with Ruth's Chris Steak House on one side and the upscale Sea Salt on the other (both shooting for a January opening), Locale is nearly 21,000 square feet of meat and seafood, produce, prepared food, grab-and-go stuff, cheese and charcuterie, baked goods and wine and craft beer. It's not just about size, though (the new Publix on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg boasts 49,000 square feet).

It's a chef-driven market where it's hard to tell exactly where the market ends and the dining begins (e.g., you can shop while sipping a glass of wine or beer, or sit down at a communal table and sample something from the "grilled cheese program"). This is about a curated experience, every element carefully sourced, much of it from local farms and purveyors.

And that right there says something about the changes that our market has undergone in the past couple of years, both on the demand and the supply side.

Ed Chiles, whose Gamble Creek Farm in Parrish has been tapped to provide some produce for the market, says, "Don Pintabona and Michael Mina's new project speaks volumes about the progressive food scene nationally and now, more and more locally. … This is going to be a very big deal for those of us who are all about the food! I think people in St. Pete will be all over this."

This remains the big question: Will locals support Locale?

With apartment projects like the $65 million Hermitage, the Beacon 430 and Modera Prime 235, and ambitious condo developments like Rowland Place, the Salvador and the Kolter Group's upcoming 41-story condo tower between Central Avenue and First Avenue N, downtown is booming with new residents. Locale's owners hope they're hungry.

Locale and its second-floor wine bar and intimate restaurant called FarmTable Kitchen (which will not open until January) won't be cheap. There's high-end equipment: You'll see the Cadillac of dehydrators (for their "jerky program"), sous vide baths, a walk-in wine cooler, top-of-the-line juicers and a machine that looks like R2-D2 that makes rolls. They even have a walk-in refrigerated butchery station adjacent to a walk-in freezer so meats aren't degraded by temperature fluctuations, plus a dry-aged beef case flanked by 196 Himalayan salt plates to absorb moisture. It will offer valet parking (wowzers, for a grocery store!) and 50 bike-rack spots.

And there's a large staff: 200 employees, many of them local but a number of the chefs imported from other American cities to head different departments. Pintabona himself will be on-hand full-time; Mina and his management team only periodically.

But it's the food's quality and provenance that may make price tags justifiably steep.

Aaron Welch Jr., who with his son Aaron III runs Two Docks Shellfish in Bradenton, reached out to Pintabona via Facebook. Two Docks pulls 8,000 hardshell mercenaria mercenaria clams a week out of waters near the Sunshine Skyway bridge, and that number will go up to 20,000 in February and March. A native species at the southern end of its range, they get pulled out of the water, purged overnight, refrigerated overnight (by law) and then it's off to customers. According to Welch, this is an ideal place for these clams to grow, and selling them locally means a lower carbon footprint and maximal freshness.

For farmers like Tara Kipp, who with her husband, Stephen, and Marcie and Loyd Tomlinson own Faithful Farms in Palmetto, it's also Locale's ability and willingness to work directly with farms that will set it apart. Faithful already provides spinach, microgreens, kale and more to Mazzaro's from its 50,000 plant hydroponic farm.

"We've had Don (Pintabona) and all the chefs down; we had a sit-down this week," Kipp says. "I like being able to work with the chefs, and then we're off to the races. Florida is supposed to be an agricultural state. By keeping the money in town, we're supporting local families. That's a big deal. And having Michael Mina from California and Don from New York, it brings the ultimate kind of foodie thing to St. Pete."

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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