Willy’s – St. Pete Beach, FL

If you find yourself in beautiful St. Pete Beach, Florida you have to find your way to Willy’s for a burger, grouper sandwich, or one of their tasty and affordable specials.

Willy’s is about the smallest place on “the beach” with 6 tables in a covered open air area, a small covered bar, and an even smaller indoor dining room with 4 small tables and a half dozen bar seats. The small and unassuming appearance might cause a visitor to walk on past but the food is well worth the stop and the wait (during busier peak-season evening hours).

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During our many visits with family and friends we have seen and tasted the Grouper Sandwich, the Fried Dover Sole, the Big Blue Burger, the BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwich, and the Blackened Sea Scallops (the priciest item at $8.95). We usually add an order of the Onion Rings (served with a spicy sauce) or the Tater Tots. Most dishes come with your choice of coleslaw or barbecued-baked beans.

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Willy’s offers an interesting array of appetizers, including Spam Fries – fried slices of Spam. Ample Bites particularly likes the Smoked Fish Spread which is smoked mackerel in a mayonnaise-based spread. It is not too smoky and the taste of the mackerel shines through. We were told that it is made in bulk by Ample Bites’ favorite area fish house, Shaner’s Land & Sea in Pass-A-Grille.

Ample Bites has tried most of the items above and my wife covets the Grouper Sandwich and must have it at least once during each visit to St. Pete Beach. During my last visit I tried the special, which was the BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwich. It was outstanding. The beef was tender, smoky and the barbecue sauce was flavorful but did not overpower the beef. At $5.95, it was a bargain. This is true of all of the daily specials including a Spaghetti and Meatball Dinner for $4.95 – you cannot make most of this food at home for the price that Willy’s charges.

Willy’s also offers a food selection of cold beers. The Yuenling Lager is cold and goes well with all of their meals. The wine selection is limited and, I will admit, we haven’t tried the “beach drinks”.

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Willy’s is not right on the beach but it less than a block away from the Inter-coastal Waterway where it comes in from the Gulf of Mexico between Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach. If you walk to the public parking lot along the Inter-coastal you can see a great sunset and perhaps spot a dolphin or two.

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Italian Seafood Salad

When good quality, fresh seafood is available this Italian Seafood Salad is a fantastic way to serve them. When preparing this salad you can substitute seafood items as needed based on availability and the preferences of your guests. The recipe below includes shrimp, sea scallops, calamari and mussels but you can easily substitute clams for the mussels, bay scallops for the sea scallops, or different sizes of shrimp.

The dressing for this salad and the thinly sliced fennel gives the salad its Italian flavor profile. Italian Seafood Salad is best made and chilled for several hours before serving or even overnight.

Bon appetito!

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Italian Seafood Salad
(Adapted from recipe courtesy of Barefoot Contessa Foolproof)

1 Tbsp Old Bay Seasoning
Kosher salt
1 ½ pounds (16 to 20 count) peeled and deveined shrimp
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 pound sea scallops, halved crosswise
1 pound cleaned fresh calamari, sliced crosswise in ½-inch thick rings
2 pounds fresh mussels
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 tsp minced garlic (about 4 cloves)
2 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
3 plum tomatoes, seeds and pulp removed and medium-diced
1/3 cup limoncello liquer
Grated zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and thinly sliced crosswise
2 stalks celery, sliced 1/4″-thick
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly packed
12-16 pitted green olives
2 lemons

Fill a large pot with 3 quarts of water and add the Old Bay seasoning and 1 tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil, add shrimp, lower the heat and simmer for 3 minutes, until just firm. With a skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to a large bowl. Leave 2 cups of the poaching liquid in the pot and discard the rest.

Add wine to the poaching liquid and bring to a boil. Add the scallops, lower the heat and simmer for 2 minutes, until just cooked.

With skimmer, transfer the scallops to the bowl with the shrimp. Bring the poaching liquid back to a boil, add the calamari, simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, until just cooked. With the skimmer transfer the calamari to the bowl.

Bring the poaching liquid back to a boil, add the mussels, cover, and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes, until the shells have opened, discarding any that don’t open. Turn off the heat and set aside until the mussels in the broth are cool enough to handle. Remove the mussels from the shells and add to the bowl. Ad 12 shells to the seafood and discard the rest. Set aside ½ cup of the poaching liquid, discarding the rest. Drain the seafood in a colander and put all back in the bowl.

For the dressing, heat olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes and cook 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook over medium heat for 2 more minutes. Add the reserved poaching liquid, the limoncello, lemon zest, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper and cook for 1 more minute. Pour the sauce over the seafood and toss gently. Add the fennel, celery, olives, and parsley. Cut a lemon in half lengthwise, cut it thinly crosswise, and add it to the salad. Toss gently to combine and cover with plastic wrap. Chill for at least 3 hours or overnight.

To serve, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt , 1 teaspoon pepper, and the juice of the remaining lemon. Taste the seasonings and serve cold or at room temperature.

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Frogmore Stew

Ample Bites found this recipe in a cookbook co-authored by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. The Gift of Southern Cooking features an abundance of great dishes from the American South including Frogmore Stew, which does not include any frogs. In fact, Frogmore Stew derives its name from the Frogmore Plantation in the South Carolina Low Country where it was first created.

Frogmore Stew combines shrimp, smoked sausage, vegetables, new potatoes and spices in a rich broth to yield a hearty light stew that is perfect when served with warm crusty bread.

I will share more gems from The Gift of Southern Cooking in the weeks and months to come.

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Frogmore Stew
(Adapted from recipe courtesy of The Gift of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, 2003)

1 ½ pounds smoked turkey sausage
2 medium green bell peppers
2 teaspoons canola oil
8 cups low-fat, low sodium chicken stock
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 bay leaves
1 tsp dried thyme
18 small new potatoes, cut in half
2 medium onions peeled and sliced lengthwise into 1/3-inch wedges
3 ears corn, shucked and silked, each cut into 4 pieces
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded, and cut into ½-inch pieces
36 large fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 Tbsp chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 425F.

Put sausage in a baking pan. Rub peppers with oil and place them in the pan. Roast until the sausage is browned and cooked through and peppers begin to blister, about 20 minutes. Turn the sausage and peppers to ensure even cooking. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle. Cut the sausage into ½-inch thick pieces on the bias and the peppers into ½-inch chunks.

Pour the chicken stock into a large nonreactive Dutch oven or heavy pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat to a simmer and season with salt and pepper. Add bay leaves, thyme, potatoes and onions and cook, partially covered, for 10 minutes. Add the sausage, bell pepper, corn and tomato and simmer, uncovered until the potatoes and corn are done, about 10 minutes. Taste the broth for seasoning and add salt and pepper, as needed. The broth should be highly flavored.

Add the shrimp and cook until they are cooked through, 3-5 minutes. Remove from the heat and sprinkle the parsley on top. Serve immediately making sure each serving receives shrimp, sausage and vegetables. Ladle broth over top and serve with warm, crusty bread.

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The Wharf: Pass-A-Grille, Florida

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It would be very easy to drive or walk past The Wharf without blinking an eye. Ample Bites happened to read an article in The Gabber, a free weekly paper, about this spot favored by locals. The article declared that The Wharf has the coldest beer on the beach, several Happy Hours each day, and daily specials that include Tacos on Wednesday and fresh oysters on the weekends. It turned out to be right across the street from Ample Bites’ favorite spot in the area to buy fresh seafood, Shaner’s Land & Sea.

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We choose a chilly winter evening to walk St. Pete Beach to the north end of Pass-A-Grille to arrive just in time for the latest Happy Hour of the day. Our journey took us past the legendary Don Cesar hotel, a coral-colored jewel that can be seen for miles along the Gulf coast. We also noticed a rustic beach house that was decorated with an attractive dolphin sculpture. The beach was pretty barren during our trek due to the strong and gusty north winds but we did see a lone windsurfer hugging the shoreline.

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The Yuenling lager was indeed cold and the house cabernet sauvignon was by all accounts pretty good.

We started our meal with a Sesame Tuna that was perfectly seared and crusted with white and black sesame seeds. The tuna was drizzled with a wasabi sauce and a tangy house sauce that appeared to be Sriracha-based. The tuna was garnished with a generous serving of pickled ginger and a less generous serving of seaweed salad (though additional seaweed salad could be purchased for an additional $1.00).

The Taco Wednesday specials included chicken, pork, shrimp, Mahi-Mahi and grouper tacos. Ample Bites enjoyed two of the blackened grouper tacos with sweet Thai chili sauce. The lettuce and tomato was fresh and the generous serving of grouper was perfectly cooked and warm, obviously fresh from the pan. The tacos were served with a small but very tasty serving of red beans and rice.

The Grouper Reuben also included a very large, perfectly prepared piece of grouper with the traditional Reuben ingredients. Served with coleslaw, french fries or the red beans and rice, the sandwich was a plentiful entree.

A return visit to The Wharf for the weekend fresh oysters is undoubtedly in the works for Ample Bites and our visitors.

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Vinegar-braised Chicken

Vinegar-braised Chicken is rustic dish that is perfect when served over creamy polenta. Braising the chicken in a combination of balsamic and red-wine vinegars creates a tender, flavorful chicken and a savory broth. The most important element of preparing Vinegar-braised Chicken is to take time to thoroughly brown the chicken pieces. This process creates some nice browned bits and locks the juices in the chicken meat.

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Vinegar-braised Chicken
(Adapted from recipe courtesy of Epicurious.com, 2013)

2 pounds cipolline or pearl onions
Kosher salt
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces pancetta (Italian bacon), cut into 1/4″ pieces
4 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed
5 pounds bone-in chicken pieces (breasts, thighs, and/or legs; breasts halved crosswise) skin removed
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 bay leaves

Cook onions in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender, 5-8 minutes. Drain and let cool. Trim root ends; peel.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add pancetta to pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until fat is rendered and pancetta is brown, 8-10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to a large bowl.

Add onions to same pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Transfer onions and garlic to bowl with pancetta.

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Working in batches, add chicken to pot and cook, turning, until browned on all sides, 10-15 minutes per batch; transfer to bowl with onions.

Carefully drain fat from pot and return to medium-high heat. Add both vinegars to pot and bring to a boil, stirring and scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pot. Add broth, bay leaves, and reserved chicken, pancetta, onions, and garlic to pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, partially covered, until chicken is fork-tender, 35-40 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer chicken and onions to a large platter. Skim fat from cooking liquid and discard. Remove bay leaves, and season sauce with salt and pepper. Reduce over medium heat until sauce thickens, about 5 minutes.

To serve, spoon sauce over chicken and onions.

Serve with rice, pasta or creamy polenta.

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The Best Pizza Dough

The pizza dough recipe I posted earlier is a good one but this is the best I have found. The key ingredient is the farina 00 flour, which is very fine. This flour is what is used in most pizza restaurants. It can be found in any Italian market, such as Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Petersburg, Florida, or Italian grocery store, such as Caputo’s in the Chicagoland area.

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The Best Pizza Dough
(Mark Kelly, 2013)

Makes crusts for 4 pizzas of about 10 – 12″ diameter

1 package of active dry or fresh yeast
1 Tbsp sugar or honey
1 1/4 cup warm water, 105 to 115F
2 ½ cups farina 00 flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp Kosher salt

Heat the water in the microwave for 1 minute. Test with an instant-read thermometer to make sure the water reaches at least 105F.

Place the yeast in a small bowl, pour ¼ cup of the warm water over the yeast and, with a fork, mix it to form a slurry. Put the sugar in the remaining water and whisk to dissolve. Pour the slurry into the sugar water and let it stand for 2-3 minutes until the yeast begins to foam.

In mixer, combine the flour and the salt and whisk to thoroughly combine the dry ingredients. Add water-yeast mixture. Mix on low speed until the mixture comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl and starts to climb up the dough hook.

Place the dough in to a medium-sized oiled bowl and cover with a clean towel. Let the dough rise for about 2 hours in a warm spot. Use proof setting on your oven, if you have one.

Divide the dough into 4 balls, about 6 ounces each. Work each ball by pulling down the sides and tucking them under the bottom of the ball. Then on a smooth, un-floured surface roll the ball under the palm of your hand until the top of the dough is smooth and firm, about 1 minute. Cover the dough with a damp towel and let rest for about 1 hour before rolling out and dressing with pizza topping ingredients of choice.

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