In 2013 the real estate blog Movoto ranked St. Petersburg the seventh worst city in the United States for food lovers, citing a tremendous dearth of decent baked goods (it had the fewest bakeries per capita, with one for every 17,500 people). Since that time, Pinellas County has pulled together to clear its good name with a raft of new bakeries, and Tampa has even pitched in with a couple of its own. From bread to pies to artisanal doughnuts, it's a great time do some retail reconnoitering, many of these goodies perfect for the holiday table.
At the top of the heap is St. Pete Bakery (1961 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 954-8837), the brand new project of superstar pastry chef and educator Michael Ostrander. The indefatigable baker who looks a little like Mr. Clean has been a cornerstone of the Saturday Morning Market for the past 10 years and most recently had a baking academy in Largo. He brought it all together when he debuted his new retail spot in September where Cold Stone Creamery was, offering Sunday classes on single subjects like holiday desserts (9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., $100, and this is no picnic, he makes you sweat) and longer-term internships for the very serious.
Ostrander does wholesale baking and wedding cakes and such, as well as the kinds of breathtaking decorative work and sugar alchemy that won him loads of gold medals in international culinary competitions. But all that seems less important when you're standing in front of the glass case and trying to decide between an almond horn (you've got to get an almond horn) and a pumpkin cheesecake muffin. These are classical pastries made with real butter and natural ingredients, no corners cut. Puff pastries are delicate and flaky, bars and cookies are rich without being cloying.
For the holidays, Ostrander offers a variety of pies (blueberry-cranberry pie, chocolate bourbon pecan tart, pumpkin and apple together, etc.), Italian rum cakes and buches de noel, tartes Tatin and something he calls a red velvet cheesecake, in prices that range from $25 to $65. Although bread baking isn't his main passion, he will also take orders for holiday breads and biscuits. (While it's not new, Ostrander's recipes and aesthetic are also evident at the very good Sweet Caroline's Bakery, 3347 Tampa Road, Palm Harbor; (727) 781-1888, which he started back in 2009 before selling to his partners.)
Amber Wardia and her sister Jade Stoll opened a bakery in Michigan in 2007, then moved to Florida and launched a brick-and-mortar bakery in Tarpon Springs called Enchanted Oven in 2013. Wardia's injuries from a car accident caused them to close the shop and focus on a virtual bakery business. Enchanted Oven (enchantedoven.com, (727) 940-5391) is going strong, wedding cakes and birthday cakes the anchor of the business. For the holidays, though, the sisters and their small staff offer 20 kinds of Christmas cookies (candy cane peppermint twists, coconut macaroons, kolazcki, decorated sugar cookies, gingerbread, etc.), and they'll load them into beautiful gift baskets and deliver them locally as holiday gifts starting at $30. It's all from scratch, all using real butter and whipped cream, with homey offerings like bundt cakes and sweet potato pies.
But here's an idea for a holiday centerpiece: Wardia is an expert in those elaborate 3-D cakes folks collect wistfully on Pinterest. Give her a picture of your home and she'll make you a replica in gingerbread. Gives a whole new meaning to "house proud."
Joey Biscotti (839 Main St., Safety Harbor; joeybiscotti.com, (813) 716-6401) is really a hobby run amok. Joe DeBortoli and Steven Wright lived in New York and baked in their spare time, bringing the goodies into their respective offices to get temptation out of the house. Friends started putting in orders and eventually they moved to Florida, working the farmers markets before opening their mostly takeaway shop last year. Unlike Wardia, these guys are not cake decorators — you won't see fondant and flowers, but more homey and inviting concoctions like chocolate toffee cake pudding (a top seller) and the namesake crunchy cookies (the shop name was inspired by The Sopranos).
For the holidays they will offer pumpkin pie with cinnamon pecan streusel, raspberry swirl white chocolate cheesecake, and pumpkin crunch cake with a layer of walnut cookie crunch and cream cheese frosting studded with crunchy bits. They request a minimum of 72 hours notice for whole desserts. Here's the one I can't seem to get out of my head: pumpkin cheesecake with cranberry orange biscotti crust and a cranberry orange fruit compote ladled over the top.
Marni Atherton started 20 Shekels Bread (1877 Drew St., Clearwater; (727) 279-5415) last year primarily as a wholesale business, but there are retail hours when it's open to the public (6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday). She grew up baking but got to the point as an adult where she couldn't eat commercial breads anymore. So she started experimenting with her own organic sprouted breads. These are sturdy, textured loaves, protein- and nutrient-dense. The signature bread is what's called an Ezekiel loaf, a classic that must contain wheat, spelt, barley, millet, lentils and beans (she uses a mixture of pinto, northern and kidney beans). Then there's the muesli loaf studded with seeds and nuts (a killer bread for toast), a chocolate blackberry bread, one that marries walnut with pear, and then a dense, deeply crusted peasant bread.
For the holiday season you'll also encounter rosemary ciabatta, seasonal gingerbread and — something she has been tinkering with — a caramel baguette that uses chocolate stout for the water base. Prices range from $2.50 for small things up to about $7.75 for the sprouted organic loaves.
Okay, La Casa Del Pane (7110 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 367-8322) has been in St. Pete Beach for the past 23 years. But it just moved into a new and much larger space in June and has some of the best Italian holiday goodies around. They make their own focaccia (tomato, garlic and onion; spinach, broccoli and cheese; potato, mushroom and cheese; artichoke and cherry tomatoes; all $8, yielding eight to 10 slices) and import the traditional panettone holiday bread from a boutique producer in Sicily.
Loaves range in price from $8.99 to $25, with six varieties to choose from (classic orange zest and raisin; hazelnut and raisin; pistachio; chocolate and others, each serving 12 people). It makes a festive seasonal treat sliced and served with hot chocolate or cider or a sweet moscato. And while it's not strictly for the holidays, sfogliatelle are stunning: a ridged pastry that separates into delicate leaves like phyllo, cradling a filling of sweetened ricotta flavored with candied peel of citron. They're $2.99 each and make a distinctive dessert or brunch offering.
Also opened in September, Perk's Donut Bar (2109 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 254-5374) brings some new temptation to South Tampa. Buddy Brew coffee and TeBella tea, and then hot, fresh cake doughnuts ($1.25 each, $12.95 dozen) that you customize: Choose from one of nine coatings (cinnamon, chocolate, lemon or maple are options), then toppings (bacon, rainbow sprinkles, chocolate sprinkles, coconut, peanuts), and then a drizzle (raspberry, chocolate, caramel).
Owners Katie and Shane Perkey are following a trend they've seen in other metro areas in the past couple of years: the fetishization of upscale doughnuts. Picture a maple glazed doughnut studded with bacon or (this was the best one) a lemon glaze topped with a flurry of flaked coconut. The doughnuts themselves aren't as transcendent as those at Anna Maria Donuts (a long drive but I'm saying they're the best on Florida's Gulf Coast, 210 Pine Ave., Anna Maria; (941) 896-3172), but these are warm with a perfect crumb and just a bit of crunch at the crust, a quantum leap from big-chain doughnuts.
Kim Yelvington had her South Tampa shop Chocolate Pi for years before swooping in to become the pastry chef at Bern's. With the debut of the Epicurean Hotel this year, Chocolate Pi (1205 S Howard Ave., Tampa; sweetchocolatepi.com, (813) 831-2195) is back in an absolutely stunning little shop decorated in fuchsia and dusky chocolate. You'll find macarons and petit fours, cupcakes, ice creams and elaborate confections to eat on site (and on sight) with a cup of coffee or tea, but then there's lots to have boxed up beautifully and presented at home to the assembled hordes.
For Thanksgiving they're going heavy on cheesecakes (pumpkin, chocolate chip cookie dough and an interesting one that's studded with sweet corn; all $31.40 for 6-inch, $45 for 8-inch), as well as pies ($31.40) in flavors from apple cranberry to buttermilk basil. And if you are a guest who wants to show up as the Thanksgiving hero, Chocolate Pi makes it easy with small bites from mini eclairs to lemon bars and salted caramels. How many should you get? Pi is an irrational number, after all.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.