You could still hear the sound of skates skimming across the ice and children making their way around the rinks, but if you listened very closely on March 24, you might have also heard the sound of delighted taste buds.

“Mmmmm.”

Local food and beverage vendors invaded AdventHealth Center Ice (AHCI) for the third consecutive year, offering samples of some of their most popular dishes and drinks at the 2019 Taste of New Tampa & Wesley Chapel.

“I love Taste of New Tampa,” said New Tampa’s Debra Gilreath. “I love the venue, love the neighborhood, love the fact that it’s indoors. The variety of restaurants and vendors that are here is great and it’s easy to buy tickets online and it’s reasonable. Most tastes are two tickets or three tickets.”

Although the event has been held in the comfortable confines of AHCI for three  years, the Taste has been around since 1995, serving tasty morsels while also serving as a fund raiser for local charities supported by the Rotary Club of New Tampa and college scholarships given out to graduating high school seniors by the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce (NTBC). 

Held at various locations over its more-than-two-decade run, but since a four-year hiatus beginning in 2013 (following the merger between the New Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the Wesley Chapel Chamber), the event has found a convenient, weather-proof home at AHCI.

Roughly 2,000 people attended this year’s event, which co-chair Karen Frashier said was stronger than ever and has become the Rotary Club of New Tampa’s biggest fund-raising event, although the club also puts on a successful Turkey Trot road race Thanksgiving morning every year. 

“Every year in June, the money raised from Taste of New Tampa & Wesley Chapel and the Turkey Trot is given away to the charities we support,” said Frashier, a former president of the Rotary Club of New Tampa. “In 2018, we raised $46,000 (between the events) and donated it to our international foundation, End Polio Now, as well as 36 other local, nonprofit or school-related charities.”

Frashier also said that Rotary Feeds America, Feeding Tampa Bay, Meals on Wheels and the Fisher House residence at the James A. Haley VA Hospital are some of the other charities that will benefit from this year’s event. A 20-person committee of the 72-member club organized this year’s event that featured 38 restaurants and beverage purveyors and 34 non-restaurant sponsors.

The winner of the 2019 Taste of New Tampa & Wesley Chapel People’s Choice Award, which was determined by the weight of the Taste sample tickets collected by each restaurant, was first-time participant Bahama Breeze, followed by Noble Crust (up from third a year ago and a top-three finisher all three years at AHCI) and first-time participant the Ice Dreammm Shop.

According to Frashier, the top 10 restaurants, in alphabetical order, were:

Bahama Breeze

Chuy’s Fine Tex Mex

Ciccio Cali

Cinebistro at the Grove

Fat Rabbit Pub

Ice Dreammm Shop

Noble Crust

Nothing Bundt Cakes

Pomodoro Pizza 

Vom Fass Wiregrass

The four finalists for the beverage division were Blue Chair Bay Rum, The Brass Tap, Time for Wine and Zephyrhills Brewing Co., which repeated its win as the favorite adult beverage provider this year..

Gilreath and her daughter Asha were enjoying some of the samples outside the rink, and had already decided on one of their favorites.

“Noble Crust’s chicken & waffles is my favorite thing so far,” said Asha. “Noble Crust is great because they make everything from scratch.”

Noble Crust events coordinator Brad Elia said his crew was hoping to improve on last year’s third-place finish in the restaurant category. The Italian eatery is now the only restaurant to place in the top three all three years since the Taste returned in 2017, and hungry and eager patrons gobbled up their samples as quickly as Noble Crust’s employees could get them on the table. 

“The chicken & waffles is one of our signature dishes,” Elia said. “When we opened our St. Petersburg branch, it was one of the dishes we opened with.”

Noble Crust, located the Shops at Wiregrass mall, topped the dish with some micro greens from their sister company Fat Beet Farm. 

Last year’s winner, Tampa Palms’ Ciccio Cali, was set up in the center aisle, not out of sight of Noble Crust. Ciccio’s brought the same three items that earned it top honors last year — a hot & crunchy tuna, a spicy Brazilian (blackened chicken) and a Thai chicken bowl, but did not crack this year’s top three.

There were certainly some other unique culinary merchants at the event. The Main Ingredient, located off Collier Pkwy. in Lutz, isn’t really a restaurant, but more of a cook-to-order specialty grocer that offered samples of their oils and hot sauces over noodles.

“We sell most everything by the ounce,” owner Christina Sweet said. “People can come in with a recipe and get the exact amount they need instead of getting something and it’s sitting in their cabinet for who knows how long. Everything we sell is organic, non-GMO and gluten-free. We also have a line of specialty spices and tea leaves.”

Helping out at the Main Ingredient table was 11-year-old Sophia Contino, who knows a little about convincing people to try samples, as she has garnered a lot of media attention (including in these pages) for raising money for the Pasco Sheriff’s K-9 Unit. 

Contino said she really liked The Main Ingredient’s noodles and hot sauce. 

Cinebistro at the Grove doled out samples of soft tacos, meatballs and ceviche-style seafood dishes. The Hilton Garden Inn’s chef Frank Skalitza gave out ahi tuna poke spoons and herb-cheese-and-dates Endive Bites.

Other food/restaurant vendors included Vom Fass in the Shops at Wiregrass, offering samples of not only their vinegars, oils and sangria, but also some of the chain’s new gourmet prepared foods. Vom Fass did not have a sign telling you what they were serving, but there were four different unique appetizers, one with prosciutto, bruschetta with strawberries and more. The foods were provided by Vom Fass in conjunction with Kaixo, a local caterer with a food truck, and Walkabout Bakery Café in Lutz, which served a unique-looking Australian pastry.

Taste attendees Ashvin and Kitty Maharaj got a brief respite from their duties— Ashvin as a Rotary volunteer and Kitty with the All County Alliance Property Management table — and used it to sample some of the fare. 

“This is a huge benefit for small businesses and it’s a great community event,” Ashvin said. 

All County Alliance Property Management sponsored the cruise that was given away as one of the 50-50 raffle prizes. 

Kitty said one of the best things about the event was that it introduced local residents to some places they may have previously not heard of, like Ava’s Low Country Cuisine, which provides private chef service, catering and classes and doled out samples of macaroni and cheese, cupcakes and rice bowls. “Ava’s doesn’t even have a store front, and I hadn’t even heard of Walkabout,” she said.

The Schoolfield family of Tampa Palms enjoyed offerings from all of the aforementioned providers. 

Jake Schoolfield works at the CenterState bank in downtown Tampa, which was one of the event’s sponsors. His favorite offering was Ciccio’s crunchy tuna. 

“An event like this brings awareness to local owner/operators,” Jake said. “You drive past all these places how many times in a week? I hope that it translates into more business for them. It’s also fun to see your neighbors out here.”

Dessert items were high on the list of favorites, too. Nothing Bundt Cakes, which was third in 2017 before it even had its current Wesley Chapel location in the Shops at Wiregrass, handed out samples of strawberry, lemon, chocolate and white chocolate raspberry bundt cakes. The strawberry cakes, however, were the most popular of the day, according to manager Crystal Cadet. Also serving amazing strawberry cake was Canterbury Hall, the new catering/banquet hall at Grace Episcopal Church in Tampa Palms.

Adult beverage purveyors were also once again on hand at this year’s Taste, including 2018 beverage winner Zephyrhills Brewing Co., which took first place beverage honors again this year, second-place finisher The Brass Tap, and Time for Wine and Blue Chair Rum, which finished in a tie for third this year. 

Other than playing music, some of Freedom’s marching band members worked on navigating a gigantic ‘Operation’ game brought in by AdventHealth Wesley Chapel, the event’s primary sponsor, which also offered chair massages. And, sponsor Pinot’s Palette, which combines the love of wine and painting, gave the kids some fun art activities to participate in (but no wine!).

Ashley McKibbin of Tampa brought her friend, Amber Cherry, all the way from Jacksonville to enjoy the event.

“I love it, it’s a great event, fun, family-friendly,” said McKibbin.

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