BHS Grouper Guide: St. Pete Beach Eats

We made our second trip to St. Pete Beach, in Florida, a couple weeks ago, and I learned a lot about myself. Okay, okay, what I really learned is that, on vacation, I am a person who mostly wants to not do my hair and eat beer-battered grouper several times a day. Near the end of our week in paradise (which St. Pete Beach totally is - the sign on our hotel said so!), Shawn asked me to rank all the grouper I'd eaten from best to worst, and the idea for this post was born.

But first, an honorable mention: Castile Restaurant, in the Hotel Zamora, on the bay side of Gulf Boulevard, was our Valentine's Day destination. The ceviche, butter-poached shrimp, and ricotta donuts with pistachio creme anglaise we indulged in there were some of the most developed, delicious dishes of our trip. Castile is a big step up from SPB's typical beach bars, but you should check it out when you visit. Butter poaching is my new standard in shrimp cookery.

5. PJ's Oyster Bar - Beer battered grouper sandwich

I loved this massive slab of flaky, moist fish encased in a beer-forward golden crust served on a toasted kaiser roll with some lettuce and a lemon wedge, but the fries alongside were ice cold. Moreover, Shawn's grilled grouper sandwich was over-seasoned, the fish just tasting salty. PJ's came recommended from a lot of the online research I had done about SPB, but it's pretty dingy and dated inside. It makes my top five, but comes in last on the list.

4. Sea Critters Cafe - Sauteed grouper with key lime butter sauce, rice and black beans

Another run-down restaurant recommended by a bunch of blogs and sites I assume are paid for by local businesses, Sea Critters has seen better days. The bathrooms were a mess, and the service was slow and not particularly gracious. The conch fritters were nearly burnt, and my grouper was overcooked. Though the rice and beans were flavorful and tasty, the rice also was overcooked, the key lime butter sauce plopped on top of my fish tasted neither of lime nor of butter. The only thing bringing this place in above PJ's is location - eating waterfront is always a treat.

3. Crabby Bill's - Beer battered grouper platter

We had a big group dinner at Bill's our last night of vacation, and I got so excited for my last batch of grouper, I forgot to take a photo, but it was delicious. In accordance with the beach prophecy, Bill's is shabby and the carpet badly needs replacing, but the food there is legit and really well priced. My grouper was cooked and seasoned perfectly, and the garlic butter shrimp we fell upon like hungry cavemen as an appetizer was groaningly good. Also, our waiter, Winston, was funny and charming, and if we had each had probably two more cocktails, we may have invited him to an impromptu after-party, we liked him so much.

2. Mad Fish - Grouper and shrimp in tomato caper sauce over risotto

This was the most delicate preparation of grouper I ate all week, and unlike our other contenders, Mad Fish is a delightful venue in ship shape. This renovated diner is slightly upscale, the service is friendly and upbeat, and the vibe is chill but swanky. The tomato caper sauce, by rights, should have overshadowed the seafood in my dish, or the parmesan in the risotto should have clashed, but instead, the acidity in the sauce smoothed out the richness of the cheese and made a marriage between it and the tender grouper and shrimp.

Special mention for Mad Fish, because it also served up our favorite dish of the whole trip: drunken island shrimp, which you are a fool if you miss on your next trip to St. Pete Beach. The blackened shrimp in a wine and cream sauce with some lemon juice and some heat was so good sopped up with an entire basket of slightly sweet, crusty Cuban bread, we almost went back again the next night. This dish belongs on a whole other list - top five dishes I've eaten this year.

1. Dockside Dave's - Beer battered grouper sandwich and onion rings

Dave's, in Madeira Beach, is a similar dive to some of the other spots on this list, but the food here is so good, you could be sitting in the middle of an actual dump and not care. Plus the service is faster than you can imagine. The onion rings were breaded in-house, and the breading actually stuck to the onion after your first bite, a rarity in the homemade ring game. They were well-seasoned without being downright salty, and had the sandwiches not been so incredibly resplendent, we might have eaten the entire basket.

The grouper sandwich was a champion, taking all other grouper sandwiches to fish school (get it?) and teaching them lessons on juiciness, flavor, and lack of grease. The fish was a huge, thick cut, and the batter was fried in the perfect temperature oil, rendering it robustly crunchy without holding on to the grease. It was served on a squishy white roll with romaine lettuce, and big squeeze bottles of ketchup, tartar, and cocktail sauce are brought to your table, but you won't need them, because this fish is everything you've ever needed, right on a bun. Let the truth of this fish set you free, my friends. Let your bun runneth over!

Ahem. So, uh, that's what I have to say about the grouper options in St. Pete Beach. Don't even come at me talking about The Hurricane in Passe-A-Grille, because that place is filthy and its fish is a greasebomb. But if you have other suggestions I might have missed, please do weight in! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


Big Hungry Scacciata

A couple weeks ago, I was craving something cheesy, but wanted something more than pizza. I remembered an old episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives where a guy made a large-format calzone that was sliced up into squares like a sandwich for service, and I thought: bingo.

Put on some stretchy pants, and join me for the step-by-step! Preheat that oven to 450.

Start with a pound of pizza dough from the store, and roll it out into as close to a rectangle shape as you can. Drape what will be your bottom half on a sheet tray, with the other half off the side.

Layer on provolone cheese and salami. I used sopressata this time, which is really robust. Genoa is milder, if that's your preference. 

Next up, layer on vegetables that you like. I used jarred roasted red peppers, black olives, and (gasp!) canned mushroom slices because we had some leftover from something Shawn made last week. If you like artichoke hearts, use 'em! If you hate olives, leave them out! I would just go with something not too watery for the veg, so you don't mess with the moisture level in the delicate ecosystem of your scacciata.

Prosciutto and sliced mozzarella will round out your chief ingredients, and then I sprinkle on a little dry basil and garlic salt, for oomph.

Now it's time to tuck all those delicious babies in for the night. Pull the other half of the dough on top, and crimp all the way around so your delicious cheese doesn't bubble out while cooking.

Egg wash is a good idea. Why? Because it gives a sprinkle of pecorino romano cheese something to grab onto. Like a salty, funky hug!

Poke a steam escape hatch in the top and slide that scacciata into the oven for 18 minutes. Heat up a little cup of marinara for dipping in the meantime. Try not to drool once you start to smell this wonder of gastronomical innovation.

Fetch it from the inferno, slice it into quarters, and behold:

Big Hungry Scacciata

  • 1 lb Pizza dough
  • Packages of sliced provolone, mozzarella, prosciutto and salami
  • Jarred roasted red peppers
  • Sliced black olives
  • Sliced, canned mushrooms
  • Dry basil and garlic salt, to taste
  • 1 egg
  • 2 T Grated Pecorino Romano
  • Marinara sauce
  1. Preheat oven to 450
  2. Roll out pizza dough on a floured surface into the biggest near-rectangle you can manage; drape half on, half off a cookie sheet.
  3. Layer six slices provolone, then salami, then vegetables to taste, sprinkle with basil and garlic salt, then top with prosciutto and finally, six slices of mozzarella. 
  4. Fold top of dough over the ingredients. Crimp edges to seal.
  5. Brush with beaten egg, sprinkle with romano cheese, and poke a small hole in top to vent. 
  6. Bake for 18 minutes, until golden brown. 

Enjoy this easy dinner this winter with your fam, and tell them Big Hungry loves them!


The Sounding Joy

What’s your favorite sound of joy at the holidays? Is it the carols playing in the shops? The squeal of delight when a tiny tot finds her heart’s desire under the tree? Or the contented moan of a colleague biting into your famous Christmas cookies?

I’ve always loved the line “repeat the sounding joy,” from Joy to the World. It is a time of year to find joy in unexpected places, and repeat it to those around us. If you have foodies on your gifting list to whom you’d like to repeat some joy, I have you covered again this year with my gift list.

I am one of those people who can totally take violence in a movie or TV show, unless that violence is of the stabbing/cutting variety. I have an unreasonable fear of cutting myself, even though my knife skills are pretty good. Chalk it up to an early job at a bagel shop and some pretty nasty cuts on the line, I guess. So this BladeBrush from Joseph and Joseph would make a terrific stocking stuffer for me. It allows you to really scrub your knives with a solid piece of plastic between the blade and your hand, rather than a sponge or dishcloth.
I’ve waxed poetic about the delicious attributes of DiBruno Brothers’ Black Lava Cashews to you before, and to satiate my hungry heart, those mad geniuses have cooked up a new treat using them this year: the Black Lava Cashew Dark Chocolate Bar. I can’t even image how good those buttery, salty flavor bombs are going to be enrobed in high quality, bitter dark chocolate. Mine are on order already, but you can (and should!) get yours now.

Confession: I received an Instant Pot last year for Christmas, and I’ve only used it twice. I’m not sure it’s my jam. I have a big one, and by the time the pressure’s built up in that sucker, it doesn’t feel quite so instant. But then Williams Sonoma came out with this line of Instant Pot sauces and starter kits this year, and I’m hoping to try some out and that they’ll make this whole thing feel easier. I have my eye on the carnitas sauce and the tortilla soup starter.

If your giftee loves Harry Potter AND eating (like me!), you might want to go for the Solemnly Swear appetizer plates from Pottery Barn. They were on my list this year, and I can’t wait to feast from them. I love that they’re Harry Potter-themed, but not obviously for kids. There’s some sophistication to the spell these will put on you.

If you want to help someone make their kitchen elegant AND festive, you can’t go wrong with Kate Spade Christmas kitchen towels. I’ve already gifted this set, and more are on their way as the season progresses.

I’m mad for tomato salt. Well. There’s a sentence I’ve never written before. Listen, salt infused with dried tomato powder is good for many dishes, but the flavor punch it gives plain white rice really makes my skirt fly up. I found some made by Saltopia, and it’s going in some of the holiday baskets I’m making for folks this year, so I thought you might want some, too.
I always give you a cookbook to buy, yes? This year, I love Chrissy Teigan’s Cravings: Hungry for More, which I received for my birthday, but what might be even cooler for the Gen X foodie you love would be the Beastie Boys Book – part memoir, part cookbook, with illustrations and playlists that will make your beloved’s next kitchen romp so much edgier.
So that’s my list, Hungries! I hope you find that elusive gift for the food lovers on your list right here, and I hope you repeat the sounding joy whenever and wherever you can this holiday season, whether than means baking treats for your office, making snow angels with your kids, or snuggling up with a hot toddy by the fire. As for me, I’ll be watching enough Hallmark movies to give myself a toothache. Happy Holidays!


Dispatch from Denver: Binghamton Son Shuns Spiedies

Remember that old slogan with a name like Smuckers, it has to be good? Well, if you're from in or around Binghamton, you might think: with a name like Lupo, it has to be spiedies. Spiedies are a Binghamton staple, and Lupos is a big name in the marinated meat arts in these parts.

So when my colleague, whose surname happens to be Lupo, encouraged me to try her son's restaurant out during an upcoming trip to Denver, I wasn't sure if I should just expect a marinated chicken breast sub, or what.

Her son, Jesse Lupo, is sous chef at FNG Restaurant, a new hot spot in Denver right next door to a Detroit-style pizza shop, and utterly devoid of the crunchy granola stoner aesthetic the Mile High City sometimes serves up. I was visiting my friend Big Hungry Jill in Denver, and she had never dined at FNG, so we added it to our schedule.

FNG is exceedingly cool inside, but not so trendy that it comes off as pretentious or intimidating. They're playing rock music, and the clientele is a mix of olds and youngs. I'm pretty sure I've officially crossed over to the old side of that equation, so the fact that our server didn't show any outward signs of disgust at our hideous countenances helped put us in a partying mood.

We ordered the mac and cheese with green chile as an appetizer, because that's completely sensible, and told our waiter that we craved a word with his sous chef. The cavatappi pasta was al dente, the cheeses were rich and well-blended between sharp and round to add tons of flavor, and the green chile was savory rather than off-the-charts spicy. The kicker was the topping of toasted, crushed goldfish crackers, which added texture but also a secondary cheese flavor that was surprisingly complex. I would have guessed it would just be gimmicky, but the crackers actually added to the satisfaction of the dish.

Jesse came out to greet us, and was delightful, of course. FNG has an open kitchen, and we were there on a Saturday night, so the joint was jumping. The fact that Jesse took the time to come out and say hi, and then returned to bring us a charcuterie and cheese taster on which nearly every single item was house-made, was kind of amazing. The Colorado fruit mostarda might have been my favorite item on the board. It was a mix of pureed fruit and mustard seeds that made that whole sweet/tang thing really come to life. We also loved the house made salami, which was garlicky and silken in texture. I highly recommend this starter if you visit.

Lamb dip is not a sandwich I've ever seen on a menu before. It is now a dish I wish would appear on many more. You like a French dip, correct? Of course you do, because you're wise. Who doesn't like a chewy roll topped with tender roast beef just begging to be dipped in a well-seasoned beef jus? Now swap out the beef for lamb, a protein that almost always outpaces beef for meaty flavor (it does in this case). Grilled onions and red pepper pesto added sweetness to what can sometimes be a salt bomb, and the jus in this instance was robust and delectable - very rich.

Jill went for the gusto with the chicken fried steak. That thing was stellar: crowned with fiery/savory green chile sauce and served atop a mountain of mashed potatoes. The crunch on the steak was perfect and somehow uncompromised by the sauce, and a few crisp-tender green beans were draped over the pile to make you feel less guilty about the carb and fat overload. Every element of this plate was given the individual attention needed to make the whole thing come together deliciously. No one item stood out, but everything balanced and worked together. That's the mark of a kitchen in harmony.

Jill and I began to joke at this point about how our slogan should be "I'm so full," but we ordered dessert anyway, because it seemed like the right thing to do. Maybe it was the numerous Bang Your Head cocktails we had consumed by that point guiding us? Passion fruit foam is a compelling temptress. Or maybe I earned the name Big Hungry for a reason. In any event, the desserts at FNG are just a legit as the rest of the eats.

The banana cream pie was Jill's favorite - it was a thick banana custard with just a few thick slices of fresh banana, but a decadently buttery graham cracker crust. I preferred the Oreo pudding. Sounds boring, right? Wrong. It isn't easy to made a chocolate pudding this dense, smooth, and rich with dark chocolate. Sprinkling it with crushed Oreo cookies is pretty simple, but the whole here was worth more than the sum of its parts. Trust.

I liked more than just the food and individual attention we received at FNG. The vibe there is really cool - we were seated at a big, communal table right near the open kitchen, and made quick friends out of the folks next to us, who were eating the gorgeous slabs of focaccia with cheese and loaded tater tots. The environment is loud, but not so much so that you can't talk across the table without shouting. And that open kitchen lends an energy to the dining space that's kind of infectious. You see those guys hustling on the line, and smiling while they're cranking, and you just want to have a good time.

Our Lupo is making really good food out west, and there's nary a marinated chicken sub in sight. If you head to Denver, you should pay him a visit, and tell him his mom misses him.