ST. PETERSBURG — When James Kirby first started working at FarmTable Cucina, he asked why there wasn’t a local chicken on the menu.
It’s too expensive, he was told. Too hard to find.
That didn’t sit with the restaurant’s new executive chef, a tenured culinary player who had recently moved to the Tampa Bay area after working at the Watergate Hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Kirby knew a thing or two about farming: He used to own a farm in the rural foothills of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. And sourcing locally whenever possible had become a sticking point for him.
So he started asking around. He was having problems sourcing baby carrots that weren’t delivered to him already peeled, and trivial as that may sound, it bothered him. Eventually, the chef-producer pipeline directed him to a source for those unpeeled carrots.
It also led to Lake Meadow Naturals farm in Ocoee, where he finally found the chicken he was looking for.
Kirby promptly put it on the menu, giving it an Italian spin in a cacciatore preparation. The juicy and bronzed half-bird arrives nestled in tomato-rich sauce plumped up with bouncy fregola sarda, briny castelvetrano olives and capers ($28). The chicken carries a slight warm spice with a whisper of anise and cinnamon, and grilled trumpet mushrooms (also local, from Chiqui Farms, in Largo) arrive dressed in a snappy champagne vinegar and herb dressing.
It’s a really good chicken.
And that wasn’t the only change Kirby made when he came on. The Michael Mina-Don Pintabona restaurant-market hybrid in the Sundial shopping center had already switched from FarmTable Kitchen to the Italian-influenced Cucina — that happened in October 2017, under Kirby’s predecessor Jeffrey Hileman. But when the new executive chef came on board in November 2018, the menu underwent several changes.
It still follows a strong Italian current, but increasingly leans more on vegetables and seafood than heavier proteins. (Don’t worry, there is still plenty of steak to be had here.)
In 2018, our former food critic ranked FarmTable Cucina No. 3 on her list of the 10 best restaurants in Tampa Bay. I never got to eat at that previous incarnation under Hileman. I was curious how the space was faring under a new chef.
It still wows.
Kirby sources locally where he can, including on specials — a guinea hen one night, a rabbit on another — and the dishes are now slightly smaller, which makes it fun to cobble together a meal made up of several plates without going overboard.
At happy hour, snacks like a 24-month aged prosciutto with marinated artichokes and crunchy grissini ($7) and a golden hunk of crispy polenta topped with shaved Parmesan and a warm tomato sauce ($6) offer a nice start to the evening. With cocktails like Old Fashioneds and Moscow Mules ($6), the discounted items offer an opportunity to dine on a tighter budget, as the rest of the menu skews pretty expensive.
I love starting a meal here with the warm zeppole ($16), which are like savory doughnuts, served with rich and milky stracciatella, dotted with olive oil and accompanied by a pile of silky prosciutto and caramelized onions. Also lovely are the baby lettuces from Brick Street Farms ($14), which come dressed in a zingy Meyer lemon citronette, with buttery Marcona almonds for crunch and thinly shaved shallots.
Pastas are all made in-house, and it’s a quality effort that shows. Chewy cavatelli ($24), made with spinach, garlic and ricotta, arrive bright green, swathed in a garlicky Pecorino cream sauce studded with pearl onions and country ham.
Some of the restaurant’s most iconic dishes are still here, like the hearty grouper BLT ($22), dressed with a tangy lemon aioli and towering with crunchy slaw and pickled green tomatoes. Another dish with staying power is the rainbow cauliflower ($16), in which fried florets sidle pickled golden raisins, garlicky bread crumbs, guanciale (cured pork jowl), lime and a creamy uni (sea urchin) aioli. It’s an explosion of flavors and textures — crunchy, acidic, salty and sweet.
The industrial farmhouse chic aesthetic manages to feel cozy and modern at the same time. In the evenings, the mood can lean more formal, but at brunch and lunchtime the space feels warm, lively and casual. Dishes like a bright artichoke salad topped with slivers of duck prosciutto ($16) and brunch tipples like the Venetian ($14) — a refreshing quaff made with gin, watermelon juice and basil — are reason enough to visit on weekend mornings.
But it was the puddinglike lemon ricotta pancake souffle ($15) that really won me over: Drizzled in a syrupy lemon poppy seed agrodulce, each bite is fluffy, zesty and almost cloudlike.
One of the most impressive things here is the menu’s breadth and scope, not to mention the extensive wine menu, which is a massive, impressive undertaking on its own. It’s an ambitious approach, overflowing with dishes at all times of day.
A menu this lengthy can trip up from time to time. Not everything here is met with the same level of success. The pizzas are perfectly fine, but there are other restaurants that do them much better. A muesli special topped with bananas ($11) tasted good but felt a little pedestrian for a restaurant of this caliber. And I wasn’t sold on the muffuletta ($16), which needed extra olive salad or pickled bits for balance and comes served on homemade focaccia that is too hefty and toothsome for a sandwich with this much girth.
The restaurant recently hired new pastry chef Amanda Santos to revamp the dessert menu, and among the list, a yogurt cheesecake with raspberry ganache, lime meringue and buttery pine nut brittle ($12) was delightful. Paired with a glass of collefriso sottosopra ($13), a dessert wine flavored with sour cherry from Abruzzo, it’s a lovely cap to an evening.
On both occasions I dined at FarmTable Cucina, the staff recognized me instantly, and made it known. So while I can say that my experiences with service here were above par — smooth, friendly and peppered with excellent recommendations — I can’t assume this will be the same for every diner. I certainly hope it’s just as welcoming.
Given the nature of my job, I don’t often make it back to a restaurant after I review it. But FarmTable Cucina is a place I know I’ll end up at, again and again.
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for
If you go
179 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 523-6297; farmtablecucina.com
Hours: Lunch, dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Sunday brunch, dinner 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Snacks and starters $7 to $17; pastas, pizzas and mains $17 to $42
Recommended dishes: Zeppole, chicken cacciatore, ricotta pancake