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Dining planner: Festa Italiana, Florida Loquat Festival, Pepper Fest

Cuban sandwiches.
Cuban sandwiches.
Published Apr. 5, 2017

IM-PRESSED: Cuban Sandwich Festival wrapup

I ran into Hyunmin Cho and Geunmin Kang in the thick of the Cuban Sandwich Festival on Sunday. Cho and Kang were taking a break from crafting their entry, waiting for the time to present their sandwiches to the judges in the Student Services Building on the Hillsborough Community College campus in Ybor City.

Despite the fact that this was their first time in Tampa, and despite the fact that they make Cuban sandwiches in Seoul, South Korea, they emerged victorious, nabbing first place for most popular Cuban sandwich.

But before I knew anything about that, I sidled in to see who the judges were and precisely how they were evaluating sandwiches.

"I look at how it's layered," said Andrea Gonzmart Williams of the Columbia Restaurant Group. "And I look at the bread. The last one, the bread was a little questionable."

There was serious firepower among the judges, from Ocala mayor Kent Guinn to Eli Vazquez of the Tampa Police Department. But perhaps no one was quite as prepared as Amy Freeze, a four-time World Food Champion (twice for desserts and one time for sandwiches — her first round a straight-up Cuban). "I look for slippage, how much the sandwich falls apart. It can't be dry but it can't be messy. And then I break each one down to look at its component parts."

In the "most popular" category, Cho and Kang would eventually best the Floridian restaurant in second place and Benitez Bistro in third. In the historic category, the winning lineup emerged as Las Palmas in first, Tia's Authentic Latin Food in second and Holy Hog in third. Tia's took first in the traditional category, with La Flor Cubana coming in second and Cubanito Subs in third. And in nontraditional, the list went Empamamas, BarbaCuban and Fridays.

Outside, little kids had taken over the abandoned salsa dancing stage and folks were turning to fruity drinks in carved-out pineapples as the afternoon warmed, but inside the HCC building, the judges stayed on task. There was pressing business.

MANGIA: Festa Italiana

Italophiles know where to go. From Thursday to Sunday, it's all about Tampa's 20th annual Festa Italiana. There's a bocce ball invitational, Italian Idol singing competition and homemade vino competition, but we all know the main attraction is the food. At the La Cucina Galbani Cooking Pavilion, local chefs will be demonstrating dishes, from homemade ricotta gnocchi and grilled chicken parmesan to s'mores cannoli. Galbani also hosts a "say cheese" photo booth and its mascot will be doling out string cheese samples. More than 35 area restaurants will offer food, and on Sunday, Italian singer-songwriter Zucchero headlines the main stage. Benefits the Italian Club Restoration Fund. $5 advance, $10 day of, 11 and younger free; $75 VIP. Centennial Park, 1800 E Eighth Ave., Tampa. (813) 394-0559. festaitalianatampa.com.

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QUAT LIKE IT'S HOT: Loquats and more

Don't know squat about loquats? Here's your chance. Often called a Japanese plum, these little yellow fruits, shown right, are tart like an apricot, but sweet and floral like a guava. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, head out to the fourth annual Florida Loquat Festival celebrating the fuzzy, sweet-tart fruit with samplings, preserves and other loquat products, workshops on cooking and canning an open mic and readings of loquat-related poetry and short prose. Free. Frances Avenue Park, 5580 Frances Ave., New Port Richey. (727) 849-1626.

If loquats aren't your thing, there's other produce to celebrate. You could stop into the Palm Harbor Citrus Festival this weekend downtown, with carnival rides, games, a festival queen pageant, demonstrations, kids crafts and live music, plus vendors selling all things citrus. Admission is free (games and rides for a fee). 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Along Florida Avenue, Palm Harbor. (727) 784-4287.

And finally, the Pepper Fest in England Brothers Bandshell Park in Pinellas Park turns up the heat. Look for spicy barbecue and other sauces, rubs, marinades, pickled products and other hot pepper foods to sample, along with plants for sale, hot sauce and salsa competitions and, of course, a hot pepper-eating contest. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday (with an After Burn Party from 5 to 9 p.m.), 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. $3, 12 and younger free. 5010 81st Ave. N, Pinellas Park. (727) 423-8433.

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