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Dine

A blockbuster in the making

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[Times photos: Bill Serne]
Mangia serves a wide range of food, including, clockwise from left, pan-seared sea scallops with fresh basil and tomato, sangria, petit filet mignon and lobster spring rolls.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 20, 2003


New American and tapas step into the spotlight at Mangia, where food and patrons get the star treatment.

ST. PETE BEACH -- There's an impressive new feature and some tasty short subjects playing on Corey Avenue this season, and we're not talking about the Beach Theater.

Mangia, which bills itself as New American and a tapas bar, would be a perfect fit with art house films. It's full of foreign flavors and new ideas, clearly put together on an indie budget, with friends and family pitching in.

As with a film shot with a handheld camera, you can sense that the food is made by hand, maybe not those of a veteran pro but loving hands passionate and curious about the art.

My steak tartare, for instance, was made on the spot by the hostess/manager who served my table. "That's one I make myself," she said. "I don't like it sitting out."

This was not just seasoned raw beef, but a clever plate that included scoops of pureed olive tapenade and an earthy garnish of marinated mushrooms and crisp noodles.
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Jill Johnson-Milley and her parents have turned an ordinary storefront into a charming restaurant that’s already winning fans in St. Pete Beach.

That meal was on a lunch menu that bounces around the world from Morocco to Japan and still happily serves hefty, homey sandwiches of fresh roasted turkey or mushroom daube with cheese from cheddar to chevre.

The setting is an ordinary storefront, the 1950s beach kind. There are no exposed brick walls, hardwood floors or nifty architectural details, yet the Johnson family (Jill and parents Frank and Maria from upstate New York) put a personal stamp on it. Instead of using odd china, they use institutional standards. It's the tables and chairs that are a witty mismatch, a history of 20th century America in dinette sets. Artwork rotates; on my visit it was perhaps 50 travel photos by a local globe-trotter who put a colorful garland of native portraits and market scenes around the room.

The menu feels like a collection of treasured experiences brought back from everywhere and given a home on the kitchen table of a family willing to try it all. Maybe the snowbird lunch bunch wants a Caesar salad or a sandwich, but if it tries a bowl of Thai chicken soup, it'll like it. Who says no to coconut and ginger? The rest of us certainly have made noodle salads, hummus, gazpacho and yellowfin tuna part of the mainstream diet, whether any of us called them tapas or not.

Tapas here, by the way, are not strictly Spanish. They follow the modern American model, smaller servings and less expensive than entrees.

Mangia impressed me not just by having the variety of Alice's Restaurant, but by doing it well and adding unique touches. The tuna gets a watermelon salsa, smoked salmon wears a pepper currant sauce, and there's a salad of cold lentils, asparagus with fennel. That speaks of professional skill and competence in the kitchen, Max Helmer and Jill Johnson-Milley.

I'm a big ceviche fan, and Mangia's is a good one, for sharing or a light meal. Sliced scallops and shrimp in lime juice with onions and peppers is served in a big martini glass with an iceberg bonnet. Put together several tapas like that and you've got plenty of finger food for dinner or a small apres-cinema party.

For full-fledged entrees, scallops, lasagna, fish and small steaks are standards on the menu, but they can come smartly garnished. My petite filet and a sweet pepper glazed pork tenderloin came with smoky sweet potato mash and a sturdy ratatouille punched up with olives.

Desserts went beyond tiramisu to offer an old-fashioned baked apple (not hot enough for me) and a real all-American surprise: a cake of the day. On my lucky day it was a moist yellow cake, laced with custard, and topped with fresh berries.

A menu and cooking like this would be an addition to any neighborhood. The Johnsons deliver modern food without attitude, high prices or intimidating style. Service from the owners or staff is food-knowledgeable but old-fashioned in its welcome, comfort and thoughtfulness. Casual good sense and imagination rule on the wine and beer list, with two dozen bottles almost all between $18 and $28, include Septima malbec and other everyday favorites of mine.

I don't know if Mangia would be a winner at Sundance, but it already has won plenty of fans in a tough market, where bigger-budget Aqua Blue failed.

Maybe it's the cast. It's already planning a sequel, a martini bar next door. I think it's in for a good run.

Mangia

  • 338 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach
  • (727) 363-6088 Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
  • Details: No smoking; reservations suggested; restrooms adapted; beer, wine; credit cards accepted.
  • Prices: Lunch, $5.95 to $8.95; dinner, $7.95 to $14.95; tapas, $4.95 to $8.95.

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