The evolution of downtown Clearwater: An infusion of international dining

(This is part 3 of a 4-part series about the continuing evolution of downtown Clearwater.)

Clear Sky on Cleveland in downtown Clearwater has become a booming restaurant entrepreneurial success, serving a combination of bar-food favorites and imaginative fusion fare. With the help of financial incentives from the Clearwater Redevelopment Agency, more eateries are poised to follow suit.

You could compare downtown Clearwater to San Diego, says Keanan Kintzel, President of Buzzazz Business Solutions, in his Facebook review on The Downtown Clearwater Scene page. 

“Of course, it's a bit smaller than San Diego,” he says, “but the potential is just as big. The restaurant scene is extremely diverse and expanding rapidly.” 

Indeed, it is. “Opening soon” signs line sidewalks announcing new restaurants. A Filipino restaurant will replace the former Basil Fusion Vietnamese cafe, and other new eateries are popping up at an exponential rate.

Through grants to property and business owners, the CRA has invested in businesses that provide more opportunities to eat and drink in downtown Clearwater on evenings and weekends.

Outdoor seating like what you can near Roxy's is creating a sense of place.“We will soon have more options when Tequila’s (now open), Roxy’s, and new restaurants on the first floor of The Nolen apartments open in the next year,” says Amanda Thompson, Director of the Clearwater Redevelopment Agency. “Since providing these grants, the new businesses have initiated Art Walks and other events that have brought new patrons to downtown.”

Not only are a good number of these independently owned restaurants earning four-plus stars online, but they reflect an array of cultures, many owned by people from other countries.

Among them, Sicilian chef Nello Mensa, has only been in the United States for a couple of years. The native of Catania discovered downtown Clearwater while visiting Tampa from San Diego to help Giuseppe Lomonaco open his restaurant Genuino Italian Cafe this past summer. Mensa’s wife turned him onto Clearwater and his sons found a spot downtown. 

“My wife said to me, 'Oh, I have to show you a beautiful place,’ and brought me here,” Mensa says. “I knew immediately that I wanted to live here.” 

In short order, Mensa’s sons helped build and design the contemporary restaurant interior, and the chef from Italy opened Soul Sicilian Fusion on Sept. 4. The menu has a mix of authentic Italian favorites, Sicilian dishes, and twists on American-Italian favorites like meatballs. “Meatballs are not Italian, but I make them my way (Soul Meatballs, $12) without tomato sauce, Mensa explained.

The appetizer Polpo Dorato in Crema di Patate (Octopus on Mashed Potatoes, $19) is a must for seafood lovers. It's just a touch seared on the outside and buttery soft inside. Other staples of Sicily such as arancini or pasta Alla Norma can also be enjoyed at Mensa’s ristorante. The deserts are sumptuous and traditional. Favorites like tiramisu and cannoli are on the menu.

Where did Mensa train? “In the kitchen of my mother and grandmother,” he shares. While he loved to cook, he worked in a dentist's office and later trained to be a diver. While leading diving expeditions, he got a license to operate a yacht and, while onboard, he wound up correcting mistakes made by the chef and eventually started cooking full time. 

Chef Nello’s adventurousness and simultaneous affection for tradition show up on his lunch and dinner menus. Likewise, he says he seeks to attract a similarly open-minded and eclectic clientele who will gather, be merry, and savor the detailed efforts of his home cooking. 

However, Chef Nello warns that he sometimes runs out of certain items because he makes everything homemade from scratch. “Nothing is frozen,” he assures.

Also, make sure you check out the restaurant’s Facebook page to see new, inventive items on his specials menu, which changes weekly.

Additional International flavors downtown

The culture of Puerto Rico is on display at La Fondita de Leo in downtown Clearwater.Three already thriving downtown Clearwater restaurants have an average of four-plus-star ratings -- La Fondita de Leo, a stylishly homestyle Puerto Rican restaurant at 528 Cleveland St. serves mofongo and other staples, some happy hour nosh,·late-night fare, and comfort food for those rough days.

Chiang Mai Thai & Sushi Bar, at 415 Cleveland St., offers an opulently traditional Thai dining experience with Pan-Asian inclusions such as sushi.

Hispania, 34 N. Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater, serves popular Spanish tapas and gazpacho, classic Ensalada Rusa, empanadas, and seafood paella, sangria, espresso, and a variety of desserts. 

More on the periphery of the Cleveland Street District

Mana Mana Middle Eastern Restaurant, an Israeli restaurant and quaint eatery specializing in traditional Middle Eastern fares such as falafel, shawarma, and kebobs can be found at 530 Park St.

Hacienda Corralejo Mexican Kitchen, at 1228 Cleveland St., has only been open a few months but already has gotten buzz as one of the most flavorful and authentic Mexican eateries in Clearwater. The spot even converts into a nightclub on weekend evenings.

Cristino’s Coal Oven Pizza, at 1101 S. Fort Harrison Ave., is a longtime Clearwater favorite and mainstay for people who enjoy authentic Italian pizza. Owned by brothers Leonardo, Joe, and Marco Cristino, who hail from Mola di Bari, Italy, the welcoming trattoria serves homemade sauce, pasta dishes, and gelato.

For more information, visit these websites:83 Degrees Media's 4-part series on the evolution of downtown Clearwater:
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Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.