March 1, 2021

Italian-Restaurant

For Everyone Else

Tampa Bay’s best restaurants of 2020, according to local chefs and foodies

Annata and Alto Mare Fish Bar

300 Beach Dr NE, St. Petersburg

I love the food Chef Josh does over at Annata and Alto Mare Fish Bar. The flavors are so clean, the technique is great. The house made charcuterie is a must get, I love his crudo plate plate, and his pastas are the jam. Everything is always super-balanced with good spice, salt and sweet; it’s always fun going here to share a bunch of dishes.
—David Benstock

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Antojitos Latin Cravings and Mi Tierra Latina

Antojitos (2302 W Columbus Dr., Tampa), Mi Tierra Latina (6802 W Hillsborough Ave. no 14, Tampa)

Every Friday I go to Antojitos or Mi Tierra Latina for Colombian food with my pops. We always get a fresh, natural juice and then typically sancocho to eat. It’s delicious and heartwarming. The people working at those restaurants are so grateful and genuinely kind. I guess I love this place because not only is the food good but it’s an hour and a half of family time for me in every sense, which I’m trying to focus more on these days.
—Ferrell Alvarez

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Bella’s Italian Café

1413 S Howard Ave., Tampa

An honorable mention in my quarantine regime goes to Bella’s Italian Café—#Netfllixandchoppedsalad, yo.
—Suzanne Crouch

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Bern’s Steak House and Haven

Bern’s Steak House (1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa),Haven (2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa)

Haven and Bern’s are always in my rotation. David [Laxer, son of Bern’s Steak House’s founders, Bern and Gert Laxer], Brooke [Palmer Kuhl], Hab (Habteab Hamde), Chad [Johnson] and Courtney [Orwig] have my utmost respect and I support them at both locations. Bern’s is a huge driver for wines for us, and Haven is delicious and we love sitting outside in the courtyard.
—Ferrell Alvarez

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Brick & Mortar

539 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

Brick & Mortar always has great specials, and the classics are always incredible; market fresh produce and a fun experience, Jason [Ruhe, chef] is always bringing the freshest fish. (Also recommended by Jeffrey Jew)
—David Benstock

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Castile

3701 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach

Castile has come a long way thanks to Jeff Thornsberry who took the reins and created an amazing experience with a waterfront view. The burrata with eggplant caponata and olive oil crisped bread is insane, and the arancinis are pure perfection along with the scallop appetizer and a caviar beurre blanc. Hats off to him for what he has done to that program over there.
—David Benstock

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Cena

1120 E Kennedy Blvd. no. 112, Tampa

In February, we watched St. Petersburg chef Rachel Bennett—a 2019 James Beard award semifinalist and chef at The Library in St. Petersburg—on Guy Fieri’s “Grocery Games,” where she went to the final round. She shared her favorite restaurants of the year, including Cena.

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Jason Rodriguez

@clammasterjay

My man Jason Rodriguez (@clammasterjay) switches it up every week for Ol’ Dirty Sundays at Crowbar, the best Sunday party in the city. He puts his own flare on classic grill top creations like Philly cheesesteaks and cheeseburgers (often involving his own pepper medley that’s amazing). Pair that with great tunes the above and beyond social distancing rules, mask requirements and capacity restrictions implemented by Ybor City’s mayor Tom DeGeorge—all within the outdoor setting, and what you get is the ::safest:: place outside of delivery I feel comfortable eating at.
—DJ Ku

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Cru Cellars Palma Ceia

2506 S MacDill Ave., Tampa

Cru Cellars Palma Ceia has takeout charcuterie and cheese. Need I say more? The online ordering includes food, beer and wine kits, and you can call the restaurant upon arrival to have them bring your order to you. Must order: Cheese Curds and a Farmer’s Platter with sottocenere truffle cheese
—Jenn Thai

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Datz

Multiple locations

Whether it was getting meaty in Riverview (thanks to a new concept, Donavan’s), running “Bougie” pizza ghost kitchens out of Dough, making Bolts doughnuts for the Lightning’s playoff run or making you look at its dummy thicc meatball (pictured), Datz Restaurant Group kept local foodies on their toes. Now if I could just figure out how to eat this Cheesy Todd in my car…
—Ray Roa

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Delco’s Original Steaks and Hoagies

1701 Main St., Dunedin

Food, like music, is intertwined with memory. It provides touchstones in life for us to hang our feelings as we move along. So, even for a food critic who now worships at the altar of truffles, there are indelible memories of hot dogs and brownies. And, for a teenage carnivore, Philly cheesesteak looms large. In years long past, I used to frequent The Philly Hoagie Shop in a strip mall on Cleveland Street. It was my introduction to this American classic and formed a base upon which all other cheesesteaks would be measured. My first column for CL back in 2012 recounts my disappointing pilgrimage to Philly to sample the iconic goods at Geno’s and Pat’s. These touchstones didn’t measure up to my boyhood benchmark. But since returning to Dunedin after a multi-decades long hiatus, I discovered Delco’s on Main Street. They do a range of subs, but the simple cheesesteak of my youth is reincarnated here. Wafer thin, juicy ribeye, caramelized onions, and sharp Provolone combine in an ethereal creamy texture on a crispy Amoroso roll. Perfect for pandemic takeout—but cash only!
—Jon Palmer Claridge

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Dooriban Korean Restaurant

5600 56th St. N, St. Petersburg

Amazing flavors, authentic and the service is great.
—Jeffrey Jew

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Edison: food+drink lab

912 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa

In February, we watched St. Petersburg chef Rachel Bennett—a 2019 James Beard award semifinalist and chef at The Library in St. Petersburg—on Guy Fieri’s “Grocery Games,” where she went to the final round. She shared her favorite restaurants of the year, including Edison: food+drink lab.

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Flor Fina at Hotel Haya

1412 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City

I had one of the best nights of my life on my first visit to Flor Fina at Hotel Haya. Service was excellent, the food was great, and it all made me feel like I was back home in San Juan.
—Antonio Santiago

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Harvest Bowl

6109 N. Florida Ave., Tampa

I go to Harvest Bowl a lot because I can grab something quick and healthy during the day on my way into Rooster. It’s hard to eat clean and quick, so this fills a good void for me.
—Ferrell Alvrarez

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Ichicoro

5229 N Florida Ave., Tampa (with locations in Armature Works and St. Petersburg)

”Ramen done right, no frills, just great ramen.”
—Joe Dodd

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IL Ritorno and Greenstock

IL Ritorno (449 Central Ave., St. Petersburg) and Greenstock (online)

”David Benstock’s food is always full of flavor; the service is wonderful, and they were ahead of the game when the pandemic hit,” Jeffrey Jew told CL. Red Mesa chef Chris Fernandez added, “… Benstock’s Italian cuisine comes from his heart, and I can tell. All the pasta at IL Ritorno is made in house and he has great chef’s course dinners.” IL Ritorno was also mentioned by chef Rachel Bennett.

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Independent Bar & Café

5016 N. Florida Ave. Tampa

“Very friendly team, great ownership, the food and beer is awesome.”
—Joe Dodd

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Jesus Bravo

@bravojesus on Instagram

One of few amazing things to happen to the food scene during 2020 was Instagram ghost kitchens. With restaurants closing due to the pandemic, displaced chefs created guerilla home kitchens serving their own, unsolicited passions before marketing the meals on social media. Rad and delicious. My favorite is @bravojesus, home to Jesus Bravo’s most amazing queso birria tacos!
—Suzanne Crouch

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King State

520 E Floribraska Ave., Tampa

My personal favorite of the year was King State, a neighborhood spot I can walk to—it’s home to an amazing staff and relentless mask and COVID-19 policy (the WiFi is even off to discourage hanging out), but the stars are obviously Aric Parker’s beer, the coffee and the simple, yet out of this world breakfast sandwich.
—Ray Roa

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Kooky Coconut

760 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach

Kooky Coconut is all the way over on Indian Rocks Beach—a major hike for me—but it holds the title of my favorite Cuban sandwich at the current moment; the sandwich is made traditional Tampa style (with salami) and Kooky Coconut has nothing but outdoor seating on the beach.
—DJ Ku

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La V

441 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

The food is consistent with authentic flavors and their team is wonderful.
—Jeffrey Jew

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Matteo Trattoria

2402 S MacDill Ave., Tampa

A newer-to-Tampa restaurant, Matteo Trattoria, serves fresh pastas made in-house that certainly don’t lose their luster in a takeout box. You can order online via their website and pick up quickly from the host stand. Must order: Matteo chopped salad and carbonara.
—Jenn Thai

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Koya

807 W Platt St., Tampa

Koya is ever evolving, always outstanding. While I am defiantly in the “working class” tax bracket, this restaurant is a special splurge for me. Koya is Tampa’s only Omakase restaurant. The experience alone is so worth it, and the perfection and rarity of the ingredients served makes it even better.
—Suzanne Crouch

℅ Noble Rice
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Nebraska Mini-Mart

4815 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa

If you want to take it easy outside, Nebraska Mini-Mart, with its new devotion to In-N-Out style burgers and crispy, Duke’s mayo-kissed chicken sandos, was the spot for comforting food.
—Ray Roa

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New World Brewery

810 Skagway Ave., Tampa

When it came to a place to sit down for a meal, New World Brewery was the place I felt safest—not just because the vibe, pizza and wings remind me of the old Ybor location, but because the staff are mask nuts and ridiculously friendly.
—Ray Roa

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Oxford Exchange

420 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa

In February, we watched St. Petersburg chef Rachel Bennett—a 2019 James Beard award semifinalist and chef at The Library in St. Petersburg—on Guy Fieri’s “Grocery Games,” where she went to the final round. She shared her favorite restaurants of the year, including Oxford Exchange.

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Pickford’s Counter

2606 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa

Pickford’s Counter is that besides food, you can find many other things while you’re there at the shop stocked by David Hansen. There’s enough spacing in between tables and chairs to keep distance, plus chefs Adrianna Siller and Ben Pomales are offering a modern twist on classics with non-dairy items and vegan items as well.
—Antonio Santiago

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Red Mesa Restaurant Group

Various locations

Anything that comes out of Chris Fernandez’s kitchen is incredible. From the appetizers to the tacos, filet, and local fish entrees, it’s the best Mexican in Tampa Bay.”
—David Benstock

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Renzo’s

3644 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa (additional locations in North Tampa and St. Petersburg)

Great steaks and seafood without the pretentiousness. The spot has outdoor seating, frequent deep cleans, and is available on Uber Eats.
—DJ Ku

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Rocca

323 W Palm Ave., Tampa

I also hit up Rocca a lot. At that level of restaurant, it is my favorite in Tampa right now. It’s thoughtful, progressive and done properly. Plus it’s relatively new, so it’s a break from the norm. You know I try to eat healthy, so I tend to stay away from going big on the pastas although I have tried them all, and always work my way through the menu since I go often enough, but the salads and crudos are definitely my go-tos. They also have great Italian wines and always turn me on to something new and delicious. Hands down Nikki’s favorite spot, too so I’m sure that plays a role in me going there often—lol.
—Ferrell Alvarez

We celebrated our anniversary at Rocca in October. The food, the ambiance, the service, and the vibe were exceptional. I absolutely loved Rocca and found myself thinking of the food days later. The quality of ingredients and technique applied is absolutely stunning. So I just had to go back! And back! I revisited Rocca about six times in less than two months. I carved out a perfect spot at the end of their bar where I would decompress after work, drink Amarone, listen to their killer playlist, and admire the restaurant’s mechanics. It is my happy place.
—Suzanne Crouch

Jeffrey Jew says he can’t wait to try Rocca when the pandemic lifts, and Koya’s Erick and Adriana Fralick say they’re regulars there, too.

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Rooster & the Till

6500 N. Florida Ave., Tampa

With online ordering and their weekly Sunday Supper offerings, Rooster & the Till has plenty of options for takeout. Good news: the fan-favorite gnocchi tastes just as delicious after a 20-minute drive back home. Must order: Smashburger and gnocchi.
—Jenn Thai

Antonio Santiago added that, “Besides knowing their food quality Rooster & the Till has been one of the most consistent restaurants when it comes to safety with everything going on,” while Joe Dodd said, ““who doesn’t love them?”

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Sa Ri One Korean Restaurant

3940 W Cypress St., Tampa

My family’s go-to comfort restaurant for over a decade has been Sa Ri One Korean Restaurant. Intimate seating, absolutely no frills, just damn good food. We love to feast there, and I am pleasantly addicted to the Buldak “fire chicken”—it burns so good!
—Suzanne Crouch

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Saigon Deli

858 W Waters Ave., Tampa

Joe Dodd said, “Saigon Deli is definitely my favorite spot in Tampa for pho.”

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Sea Worthy Fish + Bar

1110 Pinellas Bayway S, St. Petersburg

Sea Worthy Fish + Bar has been open since around the beginning of the pandemic, which says a lot. It specializes in creative seafood dishes, and my go-to there is the secret off menu ceviche, but I also love the fried chicken sandwich.
—Chris Fernandez

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Siam Garden Thai

3125 Martin Luther King Jr., St. Petersburg

Siam Garden Thai is one of the first Thai restaurants in St. Pete. All of its curry dishes are awesome, but order the panang curry chicken and shrimp Thai spicy if you like it hot!
—Chris Fernandez

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Sola Bistro & Wine Bar

700 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach

Chef Artem crushes at Sola Bistro, and nobody in Tampa Bay can pull off the ingredients he does. On my last visit, I had camel tartare—it was incredible. His rabbit is insanely tender, the bread is great. Staff makes you feel like family there, and you won’t leave without having an amazing experience—it’s the best hospitality on the beach.
—David Benstock

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Steelbach

1902 N Ola Ave., Tampa

In February, we watched St. Petersburg chef Rachel Bennett—a 2019 James Beard award semifinalist and chef at The Library in St. Petersburg—on Guy Fieri’s “Grocery Games,” where she went to the final round. She shared her favorite restaurants of the year, including Steelbach.

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Strandhill Public

309 W Palm Ave. and 10288 Causeway Blvd. in Tampa

”An awesome brunch with a new chef and great atmosphere.
—Antonio Santiago

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Sushi Ninja

3018 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa

You’ll have to call to place your order from Sushi Ninja in Tampa, but the pickup process is seamless. They’ve got plexiglass set up nice and tall at the host stand and their sushi rolls and Korean food are always packed beautifully. Must order: Spicy tuna salad and tteokbokki (spicy stir-fried rice cakes).
—Jenn Thai

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Sushi Sho Rexley

214 2nd St. N, St. Petersburg

The service is fun and attentive, their fish is always fresh, and the presentation is the best.
—Jeffrey Jew

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Swann Ave Market & Deli

1021 W Swann Ave., Tampa

A neighborhood joint I ride my bike to frequently is Swann Ave Market & Deli. I’ve had every sandwich on the menu, and they’re all amazing (highly suggest the Ultimate Turkey Bacon Melt, Gobbler, and The Gambler). Also available on Uber Eats if you don’t do the bikes.
—DJ Ku

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Tara’s Roti Shop

10006 N 30th St., Tampa

With my mother being from Guyana, Caribbean food is in my blood. I could literally eat dhal puri and curry goat from Tara’s Roti Shop every day of my life. R.I.P. Mrs. Maraj (Tara, passed on July 20 at 76 years old).
—Suzanne Crouch

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Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish

1350 Pasadena Ave. S, St. Petersburg

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish has been in its spot for over 60 years and was one of the first smoked fish houses in the area. For me, it’s home to one of the best fish spreads that I have had.
—Chris Fernandez

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Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu

8104 W Waters Ave., Tampa

Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu, hands down is the most frequent place I’ve been ordering from this year. Comfort Vietnamese food, and great price points; even with the Uber Eats delivery fees and tips, I still feel like I’m getting the best food and deal for my dollar. (Thinh An is also a favorite of Koya’s Eric and Adriana Fralick.)
—DJ Ku

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Three Generations Food Truck

2830 22nd Ave. S, St.Petersburg

At St. Pete’s Three Generations Food Truck, chef Melly serves delicious eats, and you can order and pay online before heading over to pick it up. It’s OK if you sit tight on the grassy lot and eat it all in your car, we’ve done it. Must order: Fried lobster, shrimp and crabby fries
—Jenn Thai

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Wepa

222 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg

In St. Pete, Wepa is serving great Puerto Rican food in an equally top-notch atmosphere.
—Antonio Santiago

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The Wheelhouse

7220 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

The Wheelhouse is a really cool little place with a unique selection of beers. I love their chicken wings and the Drrd Birdy (stylized “DRRDy Birdy”) sandwich.
—Chris Fernandez

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Wicked Oak BBQ

6607 N. Florida Ave., Tampa

“I’m a sucker for their Sunday sliced brisket.”
—Joe Dodd

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Wild Child

2710 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

Wild Child is a really cool, fun new spot with lots of energy. The octopus is delicious, along with the squash and burrata, tuna tostada; the Korean fried chicken is out of control. Rob [Reinsmith]’s food is always super clean and creative.
—David Benstock

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I’m not sure about you, but March 20 feels like a couple of lifetimes ago for me. That was the day Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order calling for all Florida restaurants and dining establishments to immediately suspend onsite consumption of food and alcohol. The order ushered in this new era of kitchens pivoting to takeout and/or delivery of meals and booze. Anyone paying any kind of attention to the news cycle knew the development was inevitable, and signs of the devastation coming to the local restaurant industry were already there.

A week before DeSantis’ announcement, Cigar City Brewing Hunahpu’s Day—one of the biggest beer celebrations in America—canceled. Three days before that, I was on the phone with Tampa chef and James Beard Award semifinalist Ferrell Alvarez , audibly choking back his sadness, who told me that Proper House Group—which oversees his restaurants Rooster & the Till, Nebraska Mini-Mart and two Gallito taquerias—was laying off 41 of 53 employees. Since that day—through some innovation, but mostly grit and an unwavering belief that a company’s employees are what makes it great—Proper House Group has been able to rehire every one of those laid off employees who wanted their job back.

While other local restaurants also pivoted, with just enough success to stay afloat, that wasn’t the case for so many more. By September, as we all tried to figure out what positivity rates, new restrictions and a bungled response to COVID-19 really meant for the local restaurant scene, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay alone had already counted more than 30 restaurants—including iconic Clearwater concept Café Ponte, Ybor City staple La Tropicana and 40-year-old Skipper’s Smokehouse—that shuttered doors. 

To put it bluntly, it’s been a nightmare year for restaurants and the people who love them. And while CL’s food critic Jon Palmer Claridge might normally use this week to definitively name the best restaurants of the year, doing such a ranking felt almost immoral considering what’s unfolded over the last nine months. So instead, CL asked Claridge and a few local chefs and foodies to share some restaurants that got them through, well, **gestures at the entire world.**

What follows is not a list or a ranking by any means, but a simple look into how and where you might find a good plate of food to make you feel a little bit better about what’s still unfolding in front of us. Be well, eat well, and don’t forget to try and do more for the folks who don’t have the luxury of wondering which local restaurants they can support this week.

Find out about our contributors for this list below, and see the print version of this story via cltampa.com/magazine. —Ray Roa

Antonio Santiago After training at Michelin star restaurants and under Tampa’s top chefs, Antonio Santiago—together with pastry chef Johanna Petel—is rejuvenating old flavors at Tapas Spanish Café in East Tampa. 

Chris Fernandez In May—despite having taken a huge financial hit and DeSantis’ opening of phase one—Red Mesa’s Executive Chef said he’d continue operating carryout until it was safer. That same month, Fernandez, who also opted out of St. Pete’s Fighting Chance Fund so even harder hit businesses could have relief, re-invented his concept by introducing Red Mesa Quatro test kitchen so his team could try twists on new dishes from Cuban sandwiches to pad Thai. 

David Benstock In August, IL Ritorno’s chef, in partnership with Hype Group’s Brooke Boyd, launched St. Pete Meat & Provisions a digital butcher shop that gives the community a new approach to buying restaurant-quality meats and cooking products like lamb sausage, chimichurri marinated skirt steak, and brussel sprout kimchi.

DJ Ku Four days after DeSantis’ March order, Tampa DJ Ku told CL that he lost his income to the coronavirus. He lamented the struggle he and his colleagues were going through, but in a way, he was OK with clubs trying to be safe. “The worst part of it all is that there’s no definitive way of knowing how long this will last,” he said at the time. Nine months later, he gets a rapid coronavirus test weekly and masks up whenever he plays a rare gig. As this went to press, Hillsborough County put the kibosh on congregating on the dance floor, so we’ll see how it plays out for the club scene.

Ferrell Alvarez On March 18, Tampa chef and James Beard Award semifinalist Ferrell Alvarez’s Proper House Group—which oversees his restaurants Rooster & the Till, Nebraska Mini-Mart and two Gallito taquerias—laid off 41 of 53 employees. Since that day, Proper House Group has been able to rehire every one of those laid off employees who wanted their job back.

Jenn Thai When it comes to safe dining and supporting local restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jenn Thai, a Bay area blogger who posts about food and occasionally style and beauty pretty much got takeout ordering strategy down to a science—”the less amount of contact, the better,” she wrote to Tampa Bay. Here are her picks for the top five local making ordering and picking up food a stress-free experience.

Jeffrey Jew Last month, in response to COVID-19, Jeffrey Jew pushed the opening of his new St. Pete restaurant, Lingr on 6th St, back. While Lingr—which will serve Nordic and Asian-inspired food—gets outfitted with new technology to enhance safety, Jew has opted for takeout during the pandemic, but these were some of his favorites before it all went to shit. Still, he’s optimistic. “Restaurants I can’t wait to get back to and new ones to try: Brick and Mortar, Rooster & the Till, Alto Mare, Baba, and Rococo,” Jew wrote to CL “New ones I can’t wait to try are Rocca, Wild Child, Urban Stillhouse and Sea Worthy Fish + Bar.”

Joe Dodd Mr. King of the Coop has been busy tweaking a gluten-friendly fried chicken recipe, and he told CL about his pandemic go-tos.

Suzanne Crouch In April, chef Suzanne Crouch was tapped by James Beard winning chef Edward Lee to take part in the Lee Initiative’s Restaurant Workers Relief Program, which provided grant money so that Crouch’s kitchen could provides meals and provisions to laid off hospitality workers every night from 5 p.m.-7 p.m., for 21 days straight. A month ago, Cass St. Deli’s founding chef moved to Rocca (a hands-down favorite of 2020 among those who spoke to CL) where she’s been finding peace by making some of the finest bread and pasta in Tampa Bay.

Also contributed: Eric Fralick, Rachel Bennett