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Blending pretty with funky

Gulfport always had its own unique charm. A new wave of businesses are adding another layer.

Published October 4, 2006

GULFPORT - The sound of a karaoke singer channeling Shania Twain pours from a nearby bar, mingling with the salt in the air, but on a recent Saturday night, this couple are not impressed.

Louise Murphy steers her husband through the crowded sidewalk toward the trattoria up the street, but Patrick Murphy wants to eat along the waterfront.

The compromise is cocktails and fresh seafood at Aqua Bella Raw Bar. The karaoke bar sits across the street from the beach where the tables are bustling, packed with neighbors and, oddly enough, dozens of people whose faces they have never seen.

In the past 16 months, a new crowd of merchants have set up snazzy new cafes and restaurants and hip shops in an area once known as a beatnik hideaway. Among this new crop of merchants, many are recent transplants and first-time business owners who want to convert downtown Gulfport into a destination spot known for fine cuisine and artistic charm.

"We are cute," said Ann Hartwig, owner of StarGazer Quilting on Beach Boulevard, stretching the last word into three syllables as she described the city. "We want to stay cute. We are just trying to get a little foot traffic in the area."

Hartwig moved to Gulfport 10 years ago, and quickly fell in love with its quirks. Last May, she renovated a cottage on Beach Boulevard dating back to 1935 and opened StarGazer Quilting, the perfect showcase for the homemade quilts she sells.

For some residents, including the Murphys, who retired to Gulfport four years ago, the new businesses are a welcome change from the standard buffet of cheap beer, ho-hum chicken wings, and tacky T-shirts.

"They are nice, but they aren't too fussy," Patrick Murphy said.

At Aqua Bella, owners Sandi Gellar and Chris Midulla spent more than a year remodeling it, and in January, they reopened it as a colorful bar and restaurant, with a second-floor balcony overlooking the sea and an airy, almost lounge-like vibe.

The idea, merchants say, is not to make Gulfport prissy, but to pretty it up while staying true to its casual atmosphere.

The most opulent of Gulfport's new additions, La Fogata, is set to open in late November. With all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue platters starting at $40 per person and a wine list that climbs to $2,000 a bottle, La Fogata is not your average beach snack shack.

"We just thought how boring would it be to build another sports bar," said Hans Gery Klenke, a co-owner of La Fogata. "We thought it would be nice for the people of Gulfport, and for other people out in the beaches to have something very expensive, a destination restaurant."

La Fogata will be a dramatic change from Gulfport, a place where free spirits once outnumbered the regular folk, creativity was the most sought out commodity, and beach bums reigned.

These were not exactly people you would market an upscale Brazilian grill to. But in recent years, as younger families have moved into the area and property values have gone up, a new clientele with a taste for fruity cocktails and fresh orecchiette is emerging.

Pete Hayden moved to Gulfport two years ago and advertises his restaurant as "your little caf in the city by the bay." The Patio Caf of Gulfport, a cozy breakfast and lunch nook along Beach Boulevard with homemade croissants, opened in May 2005.

"I don't think you will be able to recognize Gulfport in five years," he said. "I have seen it happen in so many other cities where a certain neighborhood gets an aura about it and then all the cool, funky people start to come and make it hip."

Pia Maria Goff fits the bill. She spent years combing the Tampa Bay area for an Italian restaurant where she could eat fresh pasta. When she couldn't find one to her liking, she designed her own.

Pia's Trattoria opened on Beach Boulevard in March.

The stylish bungalow is painted in warm golden tones, the same color as her father's house in Pozzuoli, a small city outside of Naples that also just happens to be Sophia Loren's hometown.

"You know when you have a party and you have guests and you just want them to feel good," Goff asked, her thick Italian accent vibrating. "That is how I see this. I just bring down all my friends to Gulfport and say here, enjoy."

[Last modified October 3, 2006, 21:59:49]

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