ST. PETERSBURG — Monday will mark the next chapter for a hallowed St. Petersburg space.
Callaloo and Pipo's will open on the ground floor of the Manhattan Casino, a landmark building in the city's historic African-American business and entertainment community. The Tampa Bay Times had a private tour on Wednesday to speak with the principals of the Callaloo Group and to taste the food of what is a novel, and boundary-pushing, marriage of Southern cuisine and foods of the Caribbean.
In November, the St. Petersburg City Council voted unanimously to award the Callaloo Group a five-year lease to conduct business in the historic Manhattan Casino. Still owned by the city, the group will pay a base rent of $40,000 a year for the space in addition to taxes and a percentage based on revenues.
And that right there is a tricky thing: The previous tenant, Sylvia's, an outpost of a famous New York soul food restaurant, opened to great fanfare in 2013. It struggled to find its way, closing finally in 2016 and owing the city $67,000 in rent, late fees and property taxes.
Why didn't Sylvia's work? It had the famous space in the "The Deuces," a music venue that had hosted some of the country's most famous African-American performers, from James Brown, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Count Basie and Cab Calloway. And it had iconic soul food straight from Harlem.
Ask around and there were rumors that the business was run poorly and that the kitchen trafficked in great big cans of sweet potatoes and such. But its failure is also likely to be this: It served the kind of historic soul food that didn't read as contemporary, that didn't speak to diners' health preoccupations and that didn't court the elusive and highly desirable millennial customer. It is no accident that St. Petersburg's hottest, and nearly only, soul food restaurant right now is Ray's Vegan Soul on Martin Luther King Jr. Street. That's right, vegan soul food.
The Callaloo Group may have hit things just right. Director of development Mario Farias and vice president Vincent Jackson, a former Buccaneers wide receiver, have set the stage. But it is chef Gary Moran at Callaloo Southern Fare and Ramon Hernandez, owner of Pipo's Cuban restaurants in Pinellas County who are working synergistically toward something fresh.
They're prepared for skeptics of a Cuban-American and a white guy producing Southern and Caribbean food in this space.
"I'm from the South, too, from Cuba," Hernandez said only half in jest. "Southern food goes from Georgia to the Equator."
Moran, who previously owned Wimauma in Tampa and has worked at a number of restaurants from Mermaid Tavern in Tampa to Cuvee 103 in Clearwater, sees parallels between the foods from this wide swath.
"Florida has always been this incredible melting pot; we're referencing that shared history. Most Caribbean and Southern foods start with humble ingredients, they're la cucina povera (poverty cuisines). But I'm mindful about not trying to appropriate other people's voices."
So what does this mean in real terms? After a few "friends and family" walk-throughs this week, on Monday Pipo's will be open for a mostly takeout business just until 4 p.m. Hernandez will use the 3,200-square-foot kitchen space as a commissary to make dishes for his other locations and for training new hires.
And on the other side of the to-go counter is Callaloo's, an attractive but not fancy destination for buttermilk biscuits with hot honey and whipped butter; boneless pork chops with callaloo (a Caribbean version of stewed greens that changes island to island) and mashed potatoes; and fried shrimp with a hurricane sauce and a flurry of fresh cilantro, fried and raw shallots, garlic and bits of jalapeno.
But here's the thing. That pork chop? It's had a day's brine to give it moisture and bounce, then spends a spell in the smoker for extra flavor, before it is sliced into individual chops and thrown briefly on the grill for a little charry crosshatching. The overall effect is rich, juicy, smoky — not precisely the stuff of la cucina povera. And chef de cuisine Kyrie Rotolo, formerly pastry chef at Little Lamb Gastropub in Clearwater, is sending out desserts like a flaky-crusted buttermilk pie, not too sweet, with a scoop of sweet sliced strawberries and a musky-dusky molasses Chantilly cream. Yes, dishes pay homage to the South and the Caribbean, but they feel inventive and fully 2018.
With 164 seats in the restaurant and 27 new employees staffing the two restaurants, this may be a welcome new beginning for a beloved but beleaguered St. Petersburg space.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.