TAMPA — On Wednesday night, about 60 people got a sneak preview of what Tampa diners soon will experience at Sparkman Wharf, part of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa neighborhood that Jeff Vinik and Strategic Property Partners are developing in what was Channelside Bay Plaza.
Still very much under construction — lots of cranes and dirt and temporary tents — it was a thrilling look at what will debut in late October. It's a phenomenon playing out all over the country in cities from Philadelphia to Detroit: Shipping containers repurposed to comprise a series of small restaurants or food vendors. Think of it as a food truck rally with no wheels. Or an open-air food hall.
"It's hip, it's cool and cutting edge," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn while sipping a cocktail called Pillow Talk, something that will be offered at Jeannie Pierola's shipping container restaurant, a dive bar/fish shack she's calling Edison's Swigamajig (the "swig" is for the cocktails and the "jig" is a reference to fishing lures). Pierola sat nearby in her chef whites, gearing up for the 7 p.m. unveiling of what she called a cracked conch coconut "caipirinha," a Key West pink shrimp toast "Monte Cristo" and a surf and turf dog with charred octopus.
"We started talking to (Strategic Property Partners) so long ago, more than a year ago. We want to do something here that's all local seafood," Pierola said, her inspiration drawn from a now-defunct fabled seafood house on Anna Maria Island called Fast Eddies. She described what would be on the Swigamajig menu (heady stuff like cracked conch silver dollar funnel cakes dusted with Key lime sugar), and how she was going to get this up and running as she simultaneously debuts Counter Culture, a new concept she's launching at the former Pach's Place in South Tampa.
In the makeshift kitchen for the evening, Noel Cruz, Brandon Lenz and their executive chef Anthony Messina prepped for the pizza course, examples of the Detroit pizza they will serve at Sparkman Wharf's the Corners.
"Tampa Bay has been all about thin-crust, soft-at-the-center Neapolitan-style pizza the past couple of years," Cruz said. "This is a crispy edge with an airy crust, cut into squares, and it travels well. The cheese is on the bottom and then the sauce. It's a style with origins in Sicily and Rome."
For Cruz, who is co-owner of Ichicoro, Ichicoro Ane, c.1949, and Chismis & Co., all Asian cuisines, this is his first pizza-focused restaurant, although he started his cooking career at the pizza station at Roy's in Hawaii years ago. For many of the chefs and restaurateurs coming to Sparkman Wharf, this represents an opportunity to cover untrammeled ground, as long as it doesn't step on any of the other restaurateurs' toes.
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"I was honored when I heard who else was involved in this project," restaurateur Dave Burton (Heights Melts and Heights Fish Camp, both in the Hall on Franklin, one of Tampa's other new food halls) said Wednesday. "I decided I had to do something that would fill a niche or a void. I'm doing Flock and Stock, which is chicken and burgers."
The assembled group got to sample one of his chicken sandwiches after a couple of wedges of Detroit pizza, the evening culminating with a Whatever Pops cart offering a range of artisan ice pops.
As the crowd craned their necks to check out the lavish mural work on the exteriors of the shipping containers executed by local art studio Pep Rally, (it did the "We Are Seminole Heights" mural), James Nozar, CEO of Strategic Property Partners, spoke briefly about what Sparkman Wharf is all about.
Named for former U.S. Rep. Stephen M. Sparkman, who in 1905 engineered a major congressional appropriation to dredge a channel for Tampa's port that would change the city's future, "he was a mover and shaker in Tampa. We're using his legacy to rebrand a reimagined Channelside. With the shipping containers, this is about what's happening beyond Tampa and in the rest of the country."
On Thursday night a second round of tastings would gear up, with Boat Run (a concept developed by Salt Block Hospitality) serving oysters, Montados (by Mise en Place) offering up tapas and Gallito (the vision of Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez) serving duck carnitas, maduros and ceviche tostadas. For now all the chefs and restaurateurs are shuttling cooked food from their flagship restaurants to a temporary kitchen in the construction zone — but it's easy to see that the array of offerings at the dozen casual, order-at-the-window vendors will change the culinary landscape in Tampa.
Contact Laura Reiley at
(727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.