ST. PETERSBURG — The ahi tuna stacker looks awfully familiar. So does the charred octopus and the pesto pappardelle. And it’s likely you’ve seen that pork shank with the black garlic somewhere else before.
If the menu at Two Graces looks (and tastes) a lot like the menu at Beach Drive NE restaurant Annata, there’s a good reason for that: Longtime Annata and Alto Mare chef Joshua Breen is now running the kitchen at the west St. Petersburg restaurant, and the current menu reads like a revamped rundown of Annata’s best hits.
But this is a fairly new development.
Owners Marlin Kaplan and Lisa Masterson opened their charming al fresco-forward restaurant in the space formerly home to the Reading Room last fall. The duo also run Grace, in Pass-a-Grille, and their new venture was pitched as a modern American restaurant that highlighted pizzas from a wood-burning oven, incorporated some Grace bestsellers and used seasonal ingredients wherever possible, including the lush vegetation cropping up from the property’s many raised bed gardens.
The outdoor space is a highlight here, and Kaplan and his team spent the better part of a year constructing the spacious dining patio, which is flanked by flower beds and stretches out beneath a long pergola.
Breen officially started at the restaurant in early 2022, and the menu has since been overhauled. The pizzas, for one, are gone. (Breen has replaced them with two flatbreads.) And Annata fans may recognize many of the new dishes. But the menu here is distinct, and the spot’s emphasis on seasonality and utilizing what’s grown onsite still feels like its defining characteristic.
I dined at Two Graces when it first opened and have been several times since Breen took over, and the menu now feels more streamlined and polished, though it’s clear that some things are still in flux.
Breen helmed the kitchen at both Annata and Alto Mare as executive chef for seven years, developing a creative and European-leaning menu that wooed Beach Drive diners with bountiful charcuterie spreads, bold flavors and colorful presentations — and dishes that paired fabulously with the restaurant’s extensive wine selection. (Annata and Alto Mare were sold to Volet Hospitality in December 2020, and will merge into a new restaurant called Annata opening this summer.)
At Two Graces, Breen is far from the only Annata alum. General manager Rene Hernandez, plus the entire kitchen crew, are former Annata employees. Chef and staff shuffles in an industry as tight-knit as St. Petersburg aren’t unusual. But it is noteworthy to find a group of expats from one restaurant running the show at a completely different one.
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Breen’s culinary style is instantly recognizable.
This includes dishes like the charred octopus ($24), which comes served on a bed of fregola with colorful strokes of a burnt orange romesco and large dots of lemon aioli painted onto the plate. Other good starters include the arancini ($18), which arrive golden and crispy on the outside and come filled with creamy risotto and flecked with prosciutto and gooey Fontina cheese. A sweet roasted tomato sauce provides the accompanying tartness and zing to pull it all together. And the excellent stacked ahi tuna appetizer ($26) is a must-order, featuring a towering display of glistening pink chunks of tuna atop a roasted tomato and red pepper agrodolce, avocados and rice. The whole thing is drizzled in fat ribbons of thick balsamic soy reduction, spicy aioli and a homemade pesto.
Fans of Annata’s toppling cheese and charcuterie boards might be slightly disappointed that the same choose-your-own design is absent here. But the nightly selection chosen by Breen (market price, around $36) still includes a selection of Annata guest favorites — Prairie Breeze cheddar and the bruleed Buche de Chevre, a creamy and caramelized treat that never ceases to delight.
There’s a decent amount of space on the menu dedicated to vegetable-forward items, and dishes are noted as gluten-free or dairy-free when applicable. Brussels sprouts ($16) are sweetened with a coconut caramel that’s textured with cashews and golden raisins. It’s an incredibly sweet dish that could use a jolt of acid to break up some of the more cloying aspects. A generous kale and fennel salad ($17) is a fairly straightforward version, salty with Piave vecchio cheese and topped with togarashi-dusted cashews and a light herbed vinaigrette.
The lush landscaping and outdoor gardens surrounding the restaurant are a big part of its appeal. The kitchen often uses vegetables and herbs grown right outside, and on any given day that could include fresh lettuces, radishes, squash, zucchini and baby carrots.
A pesto pappardelle ($22) uses leaves from a neighboring moringa tree in its slight and zingy sauce, which is paired with baby roasted artichokes, confit tomatoes, peas or fava beans and topped with a dollop of sheep’s milk ricotta and crumbled pistachios. All the pastas are made in-house and include a decadent carbonara ($18) made with thick bucatini noodles and a dice of smoked pork belly that are swathed in a creamy, cheesy sauce and topped with a poached egg.
The showstopper dish is the roasted pork shank ($32), which gets a slow braise before being wrapped in a soy and black garlic demi-glace and finished in the wood-burning oven.The outside is crispy and the meat inside is soft and falls effortlessly from the bone. Finished with a sprinkling of fresh chives and crispy garlic and nestled on a bed of creamy cacio e pepe polenta, it’s a hearty and delicious dish (and one that could easily be shared).
Breen brought in menu changes gradually, and there are still some elements being added. In the coming months, Hernandez is readying to overhaul the wine list and some of the cocktail menu, but in the meantime, drinks like the Azalea ($12), a bourbon, campari and vermouth cocktail flavored with rhubarb bitters, and the Mockingbird ($12), a refreshing blend of Meyer lemon vodka, prosecco, cranberry and rhubarb bitters, have been on the list since the opening, and for good reason.
One thing hasn’t changed: Spending an evening on Two Graces’ outdoor patio, underneath the limbs of a large Southern live oak and dangling pendant lights, is still one of the loveliest ways to dine right now.
If you go
Where: 6001 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-803-6050. twogracesrestaurant.com.
Hours: Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers and shared plates, $16 to $28; pastas and entrees, $18 to $54.
Don’t skip: Ahi tuna stacker, carbonara pasta, black garlic pork shank.
Details: Cash and credit card accepted. Ample outside seating available. Wheelchair accessible. Several vegetarian and gluten-free options.