ST. PETERSBURG — Outside on the balcony overlooking Central Avenue, a steady hum from the action down below provides the soundtrack for the evening: groups of 20-somethings dressed to turn it up, couples on dates, bouncers readying for a busy night ahead. People laugh and cheer, cars honk. The bump of the bass winds up a notch, and then a few notches more.
This is the 200 block of Central Avenue, the hub of downtown St. Petersburg’s nightlife. The audiovisual stimulation serves as a constant reminder of where you are, even if your immediate circumstances might feel somewhat at odds with the events unfolding downstairs.
But that’s just part of the fun at Sauvignon Wine Locker & American Trattoria, a charming new restaurant that has managed to make a quick home in the few months since opening.
Guests trickle in off the sidewalk and enter through a hallway that peeks out from between two bars, then head up a staircase to a giant wraparound Vitale Bros. mural, a tattoo parlor and, finally, a large red door. Inside, there’s a clubby, intimate vibe, with roughly 65 seats plus an additional 13 at the bar wedged into the tight, cozy space. Here, there’s a different kind of soundtrack underway: the buzz of people laughing, eating, clinking silverware and glasses, saying hello, shouting goodbye. This place just feels busy.
Owner Chris Ciarcia opened the wine-focused restaurant earlier this spring, following a year-plus of renovations to the space, permitting delays and the inescapable lags caused by the pandemic. A level two sommelier and former manager of nearby Beach Drive restaurant Annata, Ciarcia designed the concept with an eye toward wine education and appreciation, including a private membership program for guests looking to net discounts on boutique and hard-to-source bottles.
Beyond the food, wine and genuinely spirited dining atmosphere, Ciarcia feels as much a part of the tapestry here as anything else. A gregarious oenophile, he makes a habit of stopping by most tables to check in and, if you’re looking for advice on how much to splurge on a bottle, he’s the person to ask. (Problem is, there’s only one of him.) Service from the rest of the staff is swift and friendly, though some of the employees are better versed in the menu than others.
The wine list — a rotating cast just shy of 200 selections by the bottle — includes a range of wines at both lower- and high-end price points, ranging from $30 to $1,200 with roughly 60 available by the glass. It’s fun to explore your way through several glasses here, maybe starting with some bubbly, like the Delamotte Brut Champagne ($16), and moving on to a glass of Le Mont Sancerre ($14) or an Argentinian Malbec from the Uco Valley ($9). But the more economical choice is springing for a bottle — the pours aren’t heavy-handed here — or, alternately, visiting during happy hour when everything by the glass is half-off.
Where the kitchen is concerned, there have been some changes, including the loss of chef Christopher Stockwell (formerly of Parkshore Grill), who departed shortly after the restaurant’s opening. Helming the operation now is executive chef Burton Pratt, who previously worked at Copper Shaker, and though some menu items have changed (there are a few additions, too), most dishes have not.
Though described as “contemporary New American with an Italian twist,” the menu feels more classic than contemporary. For the most part, the kitchen plays it safe, with dishes that highlight time-tested techniques and crowd-pleasers without coloring too far outside of the lines. While not particularly adventurous, it’s a straightforward approach and one that excels with consistent execution, time after time.
Warm, crusty focaccia ($6) arrives glistening with garlic oil and flaky Maldon salt crystals within minutes of ordering and comes served with whipped butter and a garlicky, herb-packed bagna cauda — an anchovy-laced elixir that’s so good you’ll want to order extra.
Dishes lean heavily on quality rather than quantity. A plate featuring fresh figs ($12) arrives with an almond ricotta cream, sprinkled with crushed marcona almonds and paired with sticky, sweet chunks of Florida honeycomb. The perfect bite is one that hinges on the soft ambrosial nature of the dark pink fruit, the brittle crunch from the nuts and the sweetness of the honey; it’s a plate with nothing to hide behind, where the quality of ingredients dictates everything.
Then there’s the burrata appetizer ($16), a collection of high-caliber ingredients, most of which are imported from somewhere else. There’s the creamy tang of buffalo milk mozzarella, sourced from a producer in Connecticut; the juicy, sweet pop from Italian tomato confit; and the velvety finish of a sultry 12-year aged balsamic vinegar from Modena. Finished with fresh basil, it hits the mark with simplicity.
A roasted beet dish ($13) reads like a salad but is more of an appetizer, featuring bright beet segments fanned over a bed of wilted arugula with generous nibs of chevre (a goat cheese) and an avocado creme fraiche. Candied, spiced pecans add a salty crunch while pickled shallots and a lemon vinaigrette lend just enough acidity to match some of the richer players on the plate.
Mussel lovers will swoon over the Prince Edward Island bivalves ($15), which come swimming in a buttery, tarragon- and rosemary-scented broth flavored with white wine, garlic, shallots, pancetta and roasted tomatoes. (Ask for extra bread for dunking.)
The handmade pasta selection is the highlight here. One of the restaurant’s best dishes features thick ribbons of pappardelle ($20) hugging a deep crimson lamb sugo — a hearty ragu thick with meaty oyster mushrooms and caramelized tropea onions. The plate is finished off with a quick grating of Parmesan and a chiffonade of fresh mint. Each bite is like wrapping yourself up in a warm, cozy blanket — maybe not the most appropriate dish for a balmy Florida evening, but delicious nonetheless.
Though ordering the ubiquitous truffle mac and cheese ($16) can be somewhat of a gamble (too many places go overboard with synthetic truffle flavoring), it’s a winning bet here, flavored by shavings of black truffle and oozing with melted Prairie Breeze aged white cheddar. A fine crumble of focaccia bread crumbs and a wisp of lemon zest add some additional dimension and texture to the decadent dish.
Entrees take a steep turn back to comfortable New American territory: an airline chicken breast, lamb chops, a fresh catch of the day. On one occasion, diver scallops ($35) — while cooked well — arrived nestled on a bed of somewhat lackluster stone-ground polenta and could have used a little more of the salsa verde advertised.
For larger appetites, look no further than the whopping 16-ounce prime ribeye ($48) from Creekstone Farms, wet aged for 40 days and served with a heavy, flavorful sear, a bone marrow demi-glace and snappy heirloom carrots. The pieces de resistance are the beef tallow-braised fingerling potatoes, which are addictively good. (It doesn’t hurt that the carrots also get a bath in some of the tallow and steak juices, either.)
For dessert, the short but sweet menu includes a black pepper buttermilk panna cotta with raspberry vin cotto ($8) and homemade gelato ($6) in a rotating cast of seasonal flavors. Or, you could mull one of the cheeses or meats from the restaurant’s expansive charcuterie selection, which features beautifully arranged boards and are never a bad bet.
Whatever you choose, be sure to call Ciarcia over, and ask him to pour you another glass.
If you go
Where: 241 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-827-7896. sauvignonstpete.com.
Hours: Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday. Brunch, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $18; pastas, $16 to $32; entrees, $26 to $48.
Don’t skip: PEI mussels, pappardelle, black truffle mac and cheese.
Details: Credit cards accepted. Stairs and elevator access. Some vegetarian options.