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Pinellas tastes better than ever

I came, I saw and I ate; I didn't conquer the Taste of Pinellas. If anyone did any conquering it was Ol' Sol. But even the unrelenting heat couldn't shrink the record crowd that filled Straub Park to taste the sampler of local restaurant specialties and raise money for All Children's Hospital.

Now in its fifth year, the Taste of Pinellas has become a waterfront leviathan, the food festival that ate St. Petersburg _ and left most folks smiling. A little heat, okay, a lot, doesn't slow it down.

And, thankfully, the actual taste of the festival was fresher and spicier than ever.

In six hours on Sunday, more than 70,000 nibblers and quibblers tasted the specialties of 62 restaurants and raised more than $162,000 for the hospital as part of the Channel 8 telethon, which raised a total of $1.6-million. "It's beyond our expectations," said Lewis Kroll of the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Restaurant Association.

Having fought my way through the crowds for two years, I arrived at the starting line at 12, but even so, plenty of folks were not afraid to go out in the noonday sun.

I spent two hours, 60 tickets (at 50 cents each, $30) and most of my energy before I had my fill. Yet there was more of Pinellas to taste, like Smokin' Tony's smoked octopus and Alessi's chocolate eclairs and cannolis, and more of Pinellas coming to taste it. At 5 p.m., the crowds were still thick and restaurateurs trucking in more food.

To keep them cool, restaurateurs redesigned the layout this year to let people and air flow better.

Nice try. Breezes did provide occasional relief, the layout offered patrons more sheltering trees, and the National Weather Service said it was only 86 degrees at 3 p.m., but the heat was not to be denied.

Still, food's the thing and picking the right foods was the best way to beat the heat.

Barbecued ribs and hot sandwiches drew lines, but for me hot stuff was not the right stuff. I spent most of my money on cold anything from soups and pastas to ice creams and mousses.

That didn't have a chilling effect on creativity; just the opposite. Local restaurateurs showed they could be creative, contemporary and healthful using fruits, seafood and sweets and Florida and Caribbean recipes. It wasn't a vegetarian dream, but fried foods were in the minority and red meat scarce.

Scanning the overall "menu" I noticed that Caribbean flavors now outnumbered Cajun; miniature reuben sandwiches, veal bratwursts and pickle on a stick may be trends of tomorrow; and that more ethnic restaurants, both Asian and Latin, need to join the Taste.

Taste attendees also improved this year, demonstrating mastery of the Zen principle of walking in crowds: Go with the flow; don't stand still in the rapids. I didn't snarl at strollers once (just a few grown-ups).

My blue ribbons for the day went to three great coolers: a creamy lobster gazpacho from the Lobster Pot, that was rich but still refreshing; conch ceviche sweetened with coconut from Michael's Conch Cafe, and marinated cucumbers with a nutty sesame taste from Ming Dynasty.

Runners-up were mighty refreshing, too. The Wine Cellar's Caribbean grilled shrimp and scallop was good, but the cold pasta with yogurt basil was worth eating on its own. Smoked trout with sweet cream and red onion from the President's Club and Parma proscuitto on cantaloupe from Gioia Delicatessen were wonderful bites. Best light sweet was creamy chocolate mousse from Bon Appetit.

Though I skipped intriguing chilis, I did find some good hot deals. Crabby Bill's Maryland crab cakes may not satisfy the crabbiest customers but mine was packed with crab and covered with a crisp crust. Shrimp and beef kabobs from Jesse's Landing was a bargain surf-and-turf on a stick.

More creative and spicier was a robust fruit-vegetable curry over rice from Jezebel's and an ooey-gooey quesadilla of blue crab and cheese from the 94th Aero Squadron.

And the single best ticket I spent?

No contest. It was at the Wechsler Coffee booth for iced coffee. More than once.

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