What makes a cheese board exceptional?
Range is important. You've got to have different animal types (goat, sheep, cow), but also different rind types (bloomy rind cheeses like Brie, Camembert and triple creams; washed rind or stinky monastery-style cheeses; natural rinds) as well as different styles (a fresh cheese, a pressed cheese like Manchego, a cooked pressed cheese like a Gruyere, maybe a flavored cheese or a blue cheese).
There should be something splintery and crystalline, something oozingly gooey, something firm and sliceable.
And those cheeses should be served at room temperature, with sturdy bread or crackers and a range of accompaniments from good olives to cornichons and marcona almonds and something sweet like quince paste or honeycomb.
It all shouldn't be too crowded, but arrayed prettily and with the right spreader/cutter tools to do the job.
Whew, that's a lot to get right. Mary and Kurt Cuccaro already had a leg up. When they opened Annata Wine Bar on Beach Drive on Aug. 19, they already had years of cheese and charcuterie know-how behind them at Mazzaro's Italian Market, their family's longtime St. Petersburg institution. But it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Annata would rock.
They had to assemble the right team (general manager Justin Chamoun, former owner of St. Pete Brasserie; chef de cuisine Nate Bohn, overseen by Mazzaro's chef Ben DeNavarra). And get the decor right: a rustic modern look juxtaposing brick and steel and marble and a lot of walnut.
Then, of course, they had to attend to the wine list, sipping through 500 Old and New World wines to come up with about 30 wines by the glass, ranging from $7 to $18 (that's the Caymus cab), with 90 bottle selections, most under $75.
Kurt Cuccaro, who once had 4th Street Shrimp Store and St. Pete Bagel as well, has stuck the landing on all counts. Annata is a stylish and fun addition to Beach Drive, filling a hole that seems odd now looking back. Why wasn't there a hip wine bar with great small plates and insanely good cheese and charcuterie along St. Pete's Restaurant Row?
Let's get back to Annata's cheese.
There's a Chabichou du Poitou, sturdy-fluffy goat going just gooey at its natural rind; a robiola "due latte" (which means two milks: sheep and cow) shiny and spreadable with a tang and herbal notes that stay with you; Mazzaro's own grana riserva with the faintest crunch between your teeth; and a Swiss raw cow's milk Le Cousin that's workhorse-firm but with a buttery flavor. Mix and match with a selection of archetypal meats: salami, soppressata, chorizo, it's three for $12, five for $18 and seven for $25.
Sadly, there are loads of other good things on the small-plates menu, so you have to step away from the cheese. I'd say the lobster Newburg fondue ($14) would be more creamily tantalizing without its bread crumb crust, but flavors are good. A trio of pan-seared sea scallops ($18) get a cool presentation in shells and paired with creamed corn, dabs of bacon and a spicy cilantro pesto. And a swath of snowy gulf grouper ($19) is enrobed in thin zucchini and matched up with a scoop of seafood risotto and a citrus-tangy beurre blanc.
It's a nibbles kind of place, with a few Asian-inflected dishes and a larger lineup of Italians (fat porcini tortelloni with wild mushrooms, $15; a deeply flavored lamb ragu on thick pappardelle with a swirl of goat cheese and confetti of fresh mint, $16). Already you can see this is shaping up to be a girls' night out go-to, women of all ages passing around little plates of crostini and baby kale Caesar salads. Yeah, they know that sharing is caring, but then dessert comes.
Coolest thing I've seen in a while is a shallow bowl of quicos ($4), huge corn nuts salted and then enrobed in chocolate and dusted with cocoa. Salty, sweet and crunchy, the perfect accompaniment to a little glass of ruby port. And then there's a lemony ricotta cheesecake ($7) imported from Italy, which gets topped with rounds of preserved black walnut that I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to identify: "Food writer stumped, thinks it's more vegetable than mineral, but finds it delicious nonetheless."
Annata may only be a few weeks old, but it's operating at full tilt with effective service and a resoundingly full house, especially on weekends. It's no reservations, so you may end up milling about on Beach Drive's sidewalk, but as the weather cools, is that such a bad thing?
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.