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Edible monuments to imagination

Everybody likes to play with food, even trained professionals.

Tampa Bay interior designers got their chance last week to build and decorate, using dried fruit roll-ups instead of bolts of cloth, and waffles and crackers for wood and steel.

Using almost all edible materials and a taste for fantasy and bad puns, design teams concentrated on furniture, office layouts and buildings for the annual Incredible Edible Design Competition, hosted by the local chapter of the International Interior Design Association at the Cuban Club in Ybor City. Money raised benefited the Child Abuse Council.

First prize went to what looked like a sandwich platter the day after the Super Bowl but was actually the Seven Edible Wonders of the World. It was a miniature theme park of visual/edible puns: Sconehenge, the Great Waffle of China, the Space Noodle (hamburger floating on spaghetti pylons), the Pyramints (of chocolate), the Linx (of cocktail wieners), the Taj MaAlcohol (with mini-bottle minarets) and, of course, a Leaning Tower of (frozen) Pizza. Mechanical engineer Robert Tintera says an office full of designers at Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum created the gags.

More polished visually _ and the Nibbler's favorite _ was the third-place winner, a gingerbread replica of a penny arcade fortunetelling machine, specifically the device that made Tom Hanks so Big. The magic here was in carving the gingerbread and painting it with food dye for the cabinet, festooning it with piroulines, dragees and pasta wheels; the papier mache head had cinnamon face powder, a fruit candy scarf, eyebrows and beard of tea leaves with a Ming collar made from a spinach tortilla.

The talent behind it was a crew of nine young designers from Interior Design Services Inc. of St. Petersburg.

It's proof that food can make you smile regardless of whether you eat it.

Big Tim, big time. St. Petersburg downtowners are delighting that Tim "Big Tim" Walters, who has smoked up the city for more than 30 years, has moved uptown to open a second barbecue restaurant, this one in the shadow of the dome.

Walters sticks to the staples: ribs, chicken, chopped pork and chopped beef, slow-smoked with two sauces; the mild red sauce is too sweet for the Nibbler, but the hot stuff stokes my fire. So far, I like the rib dinner best; the finger-length riblets are a double treat that balances plenty of dry, lean meat with the bubbling fat I must have. They're at least a six-napkin meal for anybody.

Whatever your druthers in meat, don't leave without trying fried corn. Corn on the cob, that is, and deep-fried so that the corn is perfectly cooked yet gets a crispy brown edge that's almost caramelized, more fun than you can have for 65 cents anywhere else. I would have never thought of it. Thank goodness Walters did.

Big Tim's Uptown Bar B Q (1555 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg; 727-898-2833) will be open Monday through Saturday and plans to have blues on weekends. The first location (530 34th St. S, St. Petersburg; 727-327-7388) is also open daily except Sundays. Sandwiches and dinners run $5.25 to $7.75; ribs are $18 a slab; custom smoking is available for hams and turkeys.

Big Italian. Forget veal and risotto: Think red-checked tablecloth Italian, and think big _ very big. The newest flavor in fun 'n' food chains is Buca di Beppo, with lusty southern Italian served in the big-portion, big-crowd format pioneered in Chicago and New York late last century.

The first local outlet of Minneapolis-based Buca (11511 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, 813-962-6673) is set to open in Carrollwood on Feb. 16 with 1950s paisano panache and jokes ("Italian Dinners and Sanitary Bathrooms" plus pocket protector).

You can get a table for 18 and family-style entrees such as whole-chicken cacciatore, snow shovel pizzas, and pastas by the bowlful that are almost that big, with hefty a la carte side dishes of mashed potatoes, escarole and beans. Entrees run up to $19.95.

Eureka. California cabernets are getting boring, but the consistency of delicious, affordable vintages is a boredom I'm happy to live with.

From tasting some of the first '97s at the fifth annual Einstein on Wine benefit at the Museum of Science and Industry last weekend, they are as good if not better than anything in the remarkable back-to-back string from 1989 to 1995. (Not that California's recent vintages are all that variable; 1996 and 1998 are just not as outstanding, but 1999 probably will be.)

Virtually every new '97 cab I tried had rich, round texture, with a bouquet and taste full of fruit and already easy to drink, but I suspect they'll last. My favorites in the $10 to $20 range were Carmenet, Sterling, Charles Krug and, best of all, the DeLoach from Los Amigos Ranch on the Russian River, with a candy box of chocolate, berries, plums and mint.

Good zinfandels in the same price range from '97 also showed beautifully dark and full. Karly's Warrior Fires, at $24, was the richest; deep, plummy and worth the premium. Looks like a good year for merlot too, judging from Chateau St. Jean.

Dipping into other regions and vintages turned up other goodies. The biggest surprise was a rare 1994 cabernet franc from Kalyra in Santa Barbara, turning less-appreciated Bordeaux grapes into a full, rich varietal equal to merlot. I knew the Balmoral shiraz would be my best of show before I tasted it, so purple it was almost black and so full of fruit it smelled like an open case of jam. At $40 or so, it's the high-end showpiece of Rosemont Estate, better known for "good value" Aussie wines; think of this as its Grange, and still a steal.

The bargain buy for Everypalate, however, is a delicious red blend that costs only $10 yet has genuine star appeal: the '98 Rosso from Coppola (as in Francis Ford). Yes, he makes wines as well as films, and it's not just a celebrity name pasted on plonk. He established critical credibility with superb high-end wines from the Napa's historic Niebaum vineyards. Rosso is just as good at the affordable end, an odd but delightful mix of zinfandel, syrah, cabernet and sangiovese, full and not too dry, that'll please crowds as well as critics.

Speaking of consistency, the fifth vintage of the MOSI tasting marks it as one of Tampa Bay's best. The wines offered were high-quality, not low-end, and the event is so popular that organizers ran out of wineglasses an hour after opening the doors.

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