So much charm packed into so little space.
Lolita's Wine Market is the latest in a string of endearing cheese-and-charcuterie-centric restaurants to open in St. Petersburg. It's a tiny, adorable thing. There are grape-purple flower boxes, gauzy white curtains, funky pendant lights and just a few tables including one long, communal high-top. You chalk your name on the board with the number in your party, and then you mill around, check out the cheeses in the case, peruse the wines on the shelves, maybe step outside to escape the hubbub, check your watch, throw yourself in a despond into one of the upholstered lounge chairs, and then your table is ready.
Owners Alex and Kelly Rodriguez have notable pedigrees. Alex grew up in Puerto Rico and started cooking there, moving to New York at age 18 to take a job at Geoffrey Zakarian's Forty Four at the Royalton New York. The couple owned a 6,000-square-foot restaurant in Powell, Ohio, called Luce Enoteca, an Italian/Mediterranean powerhouse with a 450-bottle wine list. They sold the restaurant in 2012, and Alex continued as a hired gun, working at a number of high-profile restaurants such as Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Atlantis and the Bazaar South Beach by José Andrés.
Fatigued of living in Miami and the Bahamas, they fell in love with St. Pete. Alex became executive chef at Castile at the Hotel Zamora in St. Pete Beach, then at Annata Wine Bar in St. Petersburg. And then, they decided, it was time to open their own place. Named after the Rodriguezes' dog, Lolita's launched in June.
I have exactly three problems with Lolita's, and they aren't small. It's an assemble-your-own cheese and charcuterie concept with loads of wonderful accouterments and jars of housemade deliciousness. Problem 1: On the long, skinny check-the-boxes menu/ordering chit, the cheeses and many of the meats are "market price." This means your final bill can be an utter mystery and often a shock to the system. Which brings me to Problem 2. You don't receive an itemized bill at meal's end, one on which you might conceivably check their math. And they don't have a printer, so the total bill is email-only (and I never received mine). That is far too loose and requires far too much trust for my comfort.
My third problem is with the wine. There is no written wine list, so once you're seated, you are flying blind. This really precludes a lot of learning — if I'm going to a wine bar to sample a couple things in a particular varietal or region, I want to be able to see what my options are, memorize the names of the ones I like, and, this again, I want to know what they're going to cost me. If I like the $9 glass of sauvignon blanc more than the $13 one, then bully for me. It's difficult to glean this information at Lolita's without a lot of conversation from the servers, and they seem to be extremely busy all the time.
That out of the way, there are loads of wonderful nibbles here. A small jar of ricotta ($6) is infused with lavender and honey with a swirl of kale pesto and a few heirloom cherry tomatoes, beads of balsamic and microgreens. Eat these with the crusty housemade toasts, then pop a fat olive ($2 for a little bowl) or cornichon ($2), or maybe the more exotic truffled goat cheese-stuffed tiny peppadew peppers ($2). Or combine a swath of the fudgy, sinful Delice de Bourgogne triple cream ($3.65 for a wedge) with a luminous hunk of weepy honeycomb ($2). Or savor a crystalline slice of mimolette ($6.30) by itself, crunching it between your teeth (fun fact: The French cheese was banned in the United States for a while because tiny cheese mites on the crust add flavor — Americans are queasy about mites).
The desserts in jars are a must (especially the gorgeous toasted coconut tres leches cake with pepita brittle, $5, and the triple chocolate decadence with dulce de leche, $6), and there are more small plates that make wonderful juxtapositions to the finger foods, although it's always fun to eat a whole meal sans fork. We enjoyed one evening's butternut squash risotto richened with a big puddle of burrata and two mounds of thinly shaved prosciutto, as well as a beet salad, yellow roasted wedges contrasted with raw shaved watermelon radish, peppery arugula, oily marcona almonds and a truffled goat cheese mousse, the salad's vinaigrette a tangy-sweet quince spin that married perfectly ($9).
Lolita's stocks a nice array of regional beers and sophisticated nonalcoholic drinks. The wine list thus far is hard to assess for reasons already mentioned, but it appears to be a very Old World-New World mash-up with no particular emphasis, markups fairly standard (it's cheaper to buy by the bottle). As with all places that specialize in cheese and charcuterie boards, it's largely food assembling, not cooking, but at Lolita's the presentations are opulent and attractive. I'm just going to have to butter up accounting before I turn in the receipts.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.
Lolita's Wine Market
16 18th St. S, St. Petersburg, (727) 505-0503
Cuisine: Wine bar
Hours: 4 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday; 1 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 2 brunch, charcuterie and salads 2 to 5 p.m. and full menu until 9 p.m. Sunday. Monthly wine dinners always on a Sunday.
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; no reservations; beer and wine
Prices: Dishes $2-$10
Rating, out of four stars: Food: ★★ Service: ★★ Atmosphere: ★★ ★