On the opening day of Locale Market, a Pop Craft artisanal popsicle stand offered free samples to the more than 200 people waiting in line Wednesday. Most of the would-be shoppers were saving their calories for what lay inside. A good call.
The two-story, 20,000-square-foot collaboration between celebrity chefs Michael Mina and Don Pintabona was a smorgasbord of sights and smells, with 11 different kitchens going full tilt to offer an experience unprecedented in St. Petersburg.
At the entrance a stack of slender ladyfinger eggplants and deep red charger tomatoes from Faithful Farms in Palmetto didn't nab a lot of attention. People were gaga for the glamorous stuff: Pasta department sous chef Pedro Arreaza, most recently of one of Mark Vetri's Philadelphia restaurants, walked shoppers through the lineup. Five kinds of ravioli (butternut squash, mushroom, prosciutto and two for ricotta), then a range of ragus (duck, shortrib, Italian sausage, cauliflower), plus sauces (pomodoro, marinara, alla vodka, an eggplant-based Norma), then all kinds of cheeses, garnishes and accompaniments. Oh, and tubs of truffle butter flecked with shaves of black truffle.
Yes, there are splurge items: Flintstone-sized tomahawk prime beef steaks, deeply marbled and dry-aged in-house with 196 Himalayan salt plates to absorb moisture, at $39.95 a pound (one of these babies is easily 2 pounds); or "single origin" hazelnut spread for $12.70 a jar; or candied violets inset in delicate little chocolate bars from Ariel Pierre, $5.25.
But bargains, too: Two Docks hardshell clams, pulled from waters near the Sunshine Skyway bridge, at $1.95 per pound; pristine fresh local hogfish, at $14.95 a pound; and free (can't beat free) tastes of Australian Brokenwood Semillon and Aia Vecchia Lagone from Tuscany.
What shoppers were buying: HSN CEO Mindy Grossman's cart was filled to capacity with roast chickens, brisket, pumpkin ravioli with browned sage butter, salmon and cauliflower. "We're having our big celebration on the second night of Hanukkah so I could come to the party (here) last night. I'm having a dozen people coming over tonight so I bought everything." Breaking with religious tradition in honor of Locale Market's debut? "Hanukkah is seven days, so I can get away with it."
Mina's favorite thing: "It's the liquid nitrogen ice cream. We're working on making these giant ice cream bonbons with liquid nitrogen, with different crusts and we'll dip 'em in chocolate and spin them so you get a giant round ball." (Being spun Wednesday by pastry chef Monica Delgadillo in a cloud of eerie Harry Potter fog: salted caramel ice cream, made in 30 seconds.)
Former Mayor Rick Baker's guilty pleasure: "I tried the gator last night (a 6-footer wrapped in bacon, with a turducken in its mouth). I'm a Seminole fan, so having a delicious bit of gator is good. But my favorite is the St. Petersburger ($13.49). It's dangerous because I work across the street. I'll have to pick up my running schedule."
Will it succeed? Grossman said, "We've (HSN) moved so many people here over the past couple years that came from New York, San Francisco and Portland. And they have been dying for something like this."
For St. Petersburg resident Cathy Bretan, it comes down to this: "Now we don't have to cook dinner."
Sean Daly contributed to this report. Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.