ST. PETERSBURG — A wild yeast named Little Nicky is on the rise in St. Petersburg.
After traveling all the way from Ischia, Italy, Little Nicky lives in a restaurant kitchen off Fourth Street N, where the sparky starter is used to create a pliable, naturally-fermented pizza dough — a three-day process, from start to finish.
The dough is used to make the chewy, bubble-pocked “NY-apolitan” pies, and — at a higher hydration rate — the Roman-style pizza squares.
For Jay Luigi owner Jay Brunetti, Little Nicky is, without question, the star of the show.
He speaks of the lively leavener endearingly: “Nicky ferments and eats for an entire day,” he’ll say. “Nicky is kind of a big deal.”
Fermentation puns aside, Little Nicky does appear to be off to a pretty bubbly start.
The restaurant, the latest endeavor from the Ciccio Restaurant Group, opened in January and has garnered a loyal following with neighborhood regulars and Ciccio fans. The CRG hallmarks are all here: a smart, fast-casual model coupled with of-the-moment dining trends, a heavy emphasis on gluten- and dairy-free options and a snazzy design.
But I’d stop short of grouping this spot in the same category of restaurants like Fresh Kitchen or Taco Dirty. Jay Luigi kicks it up a notch, with a welcoming, all-day vibe and a menu hinging on creative, modern Italian cooking.
Guests order and pay upon entering, then seat themselves. Tables are outfitted with QR codes, so when the hankering for that second glass of wine or additional slice of limoncello cake hits, all you have to do is pull up the menu, order and pay right there.
For folks who prefer to order from a human being, there’s a handy little tag on the table marker reading “In desperate need of attention,” which can be used to flag down a server.
The seat-yourself format isn’t without setbacks: When the place gets busy, there aren’t always tables available and guests have to wait until one frees up. There’s a bar at which to grab drinks and couches outside so you can linger while waiting.
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I’m a fan of the bar seating, a front-and-center perch that looks straight back into the kitchen. A selection of wines on tap from Tampa-based kegged wine distributor Wine Stream are served by the glass ($7) or carafe ($25) and there’s also a short bottle list, heavy on Italian and Californian labels. Craft beers on draught feature a strong emphasis on local breweries (including Trinity’s Escape Brewing Co., Cigar City Brewing and Safety Harbor’s Crooked Thumb Brewery) as well as the requisite Italian standby Peroni ($5).
Brunetti knows a thing or two about pizza. He was a co-founder of Forbici, another wildly successful Italian restaurant in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village. And he owns Brunetti Pizza, with locations in New York City’s West Village and the Hamptons.
The natural fermentation process he uses for the dough at his restaurants lends itself to a “gluten-friendly” pie, though this being a Ciccio business, there are gluten-free crusts available, too.
A hybrid of New York-style and Neapolitan pizzas, the NY-apolitan pies feature thin crusts with the characteristic char-pocked bubbles of a Neapolitan pizza cooked at blistering high heat (the restaurant’s electric oven, imported from Italy, reaches 800 degrees). But they remain structured — slices hold their shape, so there’s no floppy folding here.
I’m partial to soppressata-topped anything, including the Sweet Jamie Kay ($16), a beautiful pie topped with thin coins of the spicy cured sausage, fresh mozzarella (made in-house) and a drizzle of Calabrian honey. For white pie aficionados, you can’t go wrong with the Green Eyes Bianca ($16), topped with mozzarella, ricotta and Grana Padano cheeses and thick slivers of green olives.
Roman-style squares feature an airy, chewy crust — a good bet is the Scarlett ($17), topped with provolone, braised broccolini, sausage and a spicy Calabrian tomato sauce.
The restaurant’s pasta program hinges on freshly made noodles from Clearwater company Tampasta. For the gluten-averse, there’s the option to substitute with gluten-free linguine (made from potato starch and rice flour) or spaghetti squash.
While not the easiest dish to execute, a classic cacio e pepe ($15) doesn’t disappoint, featuring bouncy spaghetti strands enveloped in a light, peppery sauce where Grana Padano cheese provides salty, umami notes and panko breadcrumbs lend texture. Also good is the limoncello pasta ($14), a dish that’s become a signature of sorts for the restaurant, with chewy rigatoni tubes tossed in a bright and citrusy sauce, punctuated by salty, fruity bites from fermented lemon rinds and a warm heat from Fresno chiles
Everything can be complemented with sides and small plates, including the can’t-miss crispy artichokes ($9), which come served with a creamy aioli that carries a nice kick from Calabrian chiles. Charred broccolini ($8) are a lovely accompaniment and arrive dressed in a nutty cashew vinaigrette, punchy with garlic and lemon.
For folks looking to dine in, the restaurant recently added complimentary valet parking. If it’s raining, an employee carrying a giant umbrella will escort you from your car to the restaurant. Maybe it’s a welcome schtick for some, but the walk to the restaurant while a stranger holds an umbrella over your head can border on awkward and, based on the small size of the parking lot, unnecessary.
Despite the restaurant’s current dine-in success, roughly 60 percent of the spot’s business still comes from take-out — a trend Brunetti isn’t sure will subside.
But maybe that’s what makes this a quintessential Ciccio spot, after all. The element of personal choice — dine-in, take-out, substitute anything and everything you please — is all part of the deal.
If you go
Where: 3201 4th St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-390-8883. jayluigi.com
Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11:30 am-9 pm Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 am-10 pm Friday; 11 am-10 pm Saturday; 11 am-9 pm Sunday.
Prices: Shared plates and salads, $8 to $10; pizzas and pastas, $14 to $17.
Don’t skip: Fried artichokes, limoncello pasta, Scarlett pizza.
Details: Cash and credit cards accepted. Indoor and outdoor seating available. wheelchair accessible. Delivery through Uber Eats. Gluten-free and dairy-free dishes available.