It used to be so simple. You buy the Whitman's Sampler in the heart shape. Your sweetie opens the box, claps with glee and then maybe makes a dent in the bottom of each chocolate to avoid the yucky pink cream kinds. Yes, you can still buy Valentine's chocolates — go with William Dean in Belleair Bluffs or Toffee to Go in Tampa for extra style points — but there are lots of ways to think outside the (chocolate) box.
Nothing Bundt Cakes
The cake with the distinctive fluted ring shape, inspired by a traditional European confection known as kugelhopf, is back. We've got two Tampa outposts of the store selling nothing but, well, you know. Maureen Funk and her husband, Chip, own the Nothing Bundt Cakes franchise in South Tampa. There is something old-timey and nostalgic about the packaging, printed materials, storefront and even the shape of the cakes, but all with a modern twist. Cakes are offered in four sizes: single-serve bundtlets, 8-inch cakes that serve eight to 10 people, 10-inch cakes that serve 18 to 20 people, and tiny "bundtinis" sold by the dozen.
Core flavors include lemon, marble, red velvet and chocolate-chocolate chip, with featured flavors like confetti. Each is adorned with signature thick icing petals made of cream cheese and butter frosting, and there are 40 different decorated cake designs on offer. Specifically for Valentine's Day, they offer a special peanut butter chocolate swirl flavor all month and "Love you to pieces" decorations with a red bow. The special flavored bundtlet tied with a festive bow is $6.29. 1155 S Dale Mabry Highway, Suite 5, Tampa, (813) 515-6891; 13252 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, (813) 999-4024. Additional locations in Wesley Chapel and Riverview.
Two Docks Clams
Hear me out on this one. Oysters are the ultimate aphrodisiac, right? So they're a little obvious as a V-Day gift. But how about you buy a pound of local middle-neck, hard shell clams, ones grown in Joe's Bay on the southeast edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Then you steam them in buttery, garlicky wine, ladle the whole thing over a pound of good al dente linguini, grab a crusty loaf of bread and eat out of the same bowl.
The company name is a bit of a pun. Aaron Welch the senior has a Ph.D. in plant pathology from North Carolina State University and grew citrus and tomatoes for years. His son Aaron has a Ph.D. in aquaculture from the University of Miami and has worked in the aquaculture industry throughout Latin America. So they are two "docs." Together, they plant seed clams in mesh bags at the bottom of the ocean and allow them to grow, a totally natural process. They are ready for market in about 15 months.
And trust me, their clams are delicious. You can find them in many restaurants to the south of us (Beach Bistro, the Sandbar, the Waterfront, the Blue Marlin, the Mar Vista, the Eat Here restaurants, the Blu Mangrove, Speaks Clam Bar, and Barnacle Bill's and Boca) or you can buy them retail at the Citrus Place in Palmetto, Locale Market and the Bayway Country Store in St. Petersburg, and Detwiler's Farm Markets in Sarasota, Venice and Bradenton.
This started as a hobby for Michael Jones and his partner Carlos Kanamori, who for years owned Pondscapes in South Tampa. They fell in love with cheese and it gradually grew into a passion, first as Friday and Saturday night cheese tastings with wine at their pond design and water garden store. That led to a retail space of its own. It is now one of the better cheese shops around, a great place to pick up a wedge of Dutch potato chip goat Gouda, aged Italian truffled Pecorino or triple creme French Delice d'Bourgogne.
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Not sure what to get? There are themed cheese baskets. (One pairs them with craft beer, another with sparkling wines; there's one they call the "caveman basket" with lots of meats.) They also offer Thursday night wine and cheese pairings in the private tasting room from 7 to 8 p.m. (four special wines paired with four cheeses and condiments) for $25, as well as Friday and Saturday cheese tastings from 7 to 9 p.m., eight cheeses paired with condiments and wine for $35. (Their special Valentine's Day tasting is sold out on the 14th, so pick a different day.) Reservations are required for the tastings, but you can always hang out at the bar and nibble a few cheese selections and a glass of wine. 3225 S MacDill Ave., Suite 103, Tampa, (813) 766-0060.
Florida State Fair
You might not think of it as romantic, but there's the Ferris wheel where you sit close, the baby animals to ogle, and then all that food on a stick. (Pro tip: Sharing is caring.) This year's fair runs through Feb. 18, and shock-and-awe fair foods include a quarter-pound mozzarella stick; a savory funnel cake filled with red beans and rice; grilled cheese four ways, including one that is rainbow-colored (strictly for Instagram); and a Cuban pizza with roast pork, Dijon mustard and pickles. Oh, and there's a concession selling loaded potato bowls three ways and safe-to-eat-raw cookie dough in three flavors. Come to think of it, maybe ride the rides before getting chummy with any of this new fair food. The Florida State Fairgrounds are at 4800 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. floridastatefair.com.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.