Covert cuisine: Tales from the first Illumineati dinner

Illumineati's first mystery meal brought nine courses, what felt like endless wine and more.

click to enlarge Reuben Pressman and Jimmy Breen, two of Illumineati's co-founders, said a communal table keeps the meals intimate. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
Reuben Pressman and Jimmy Breen, two of Illumineati's co-founders, said a communal table keeps the meals intimate.

Underground dinners. The secret happenings are nothing new to culinary scenes worldwide. However, I was invited to dine with Illumineati, the area’s latest invite-only dinner club, last Sunday at its inaugural hush-hush meal.

The gathering’s location, my dining comrades and the cuisine (aside from knowing it’d be nine courses, and who the chef was on accident, thanks to a slip-up during my first chat with club co-founders Reuben Pressman and Jimmy Breen) were unknown. Here’s how it went down …

Before I entered the dinner’s venue — a club member’s home in St. Petersburg — around 6:30 p.m., bartender Chris Marsicano welcomed me behind a bar setup outside. Illumineati’s pre-nosh cocktail hour was underway.

A member of the Tampa Bay Bartenders Guild and Red Dwarf Hospitality Management’s founder, Marsicano showcased a beverage called One For Tucker using Angel’s Envy Bourbon, orange-blossom honey water, lemon juice, lavender and Angostura bitters. Johnny Ciani, the club's third co-founder, created the drink to honor a friend who passed away.

Bourbon? I thought. I’m in.

Inside, the first few people I spotted were Pressman, Breen and Bob Devin Jones, [email protected]’s artistic director. I thought Jones might be the host, since Pressman hinted it’d be a notable St. Petersburg resident, but wasn’t certain. I greeted the club members I knew, and was introduced to some I’d never met.

Breen handed me a place card with my name. I was told to leave it where I wanted to sit at the table.

I passed through the kitchen, which Il Ritorno chef and co-owner David Benstock and his staff invaded for the evening, and entered the dining area while sipping.

CL restaurant critic Jon Palmer Claridge raves about Benstock and his wife Erica’s Italian eatery that took home three BOTB awards this year. Breen, Ciani and others talked about what David had in store, including bone marrow and tuna tartare.

The pop-up dining room’s communal table, covered with a white tablecloth, caught my attention, and made me smile. Breen and Pressman mentioned integrating the table into the Illumineati functions but didn’t confirm it as a fixture.

“I love the idea of one long table,” Pressman said at the beginning of the month.

“If it can fit,” Breen added. “It’s more familial.”

And there it was.

As Billie Holiday played over speakers, Breen told me we were grubbing in Jones’ abode, as I suspected. I asked Jones why he agreed to host the dinner.

“I live to eat,” he said, “And Il Ritorno is one of my favorite restaurants.”

Jones said he’s used to having many people over for a meal, and cooking for them, too. On Tuesday, he prepared a down-home lineup for a group of 17 that included Southern-fried chicken, baked sweet potatoes and pecan pie.

“With me, the answer’s always yes,” Jones said.

We, 21 of us, sat down to chow a little past 7. Many members, whose professions range from teaching to running food establishments to contracting, said they know one of the founders.

As offerings like charred octopus and tagliatelle with smoked venison, along with lamb and pork bellies, came and went, so did the wines. They weren’t large pours, but I couldn’t down ’em fast enough.

Throughout the meal, which lasted more than three hours, Benstock introduced each course and shared Il Ritorno’s story toward the end of the night. A pistachio semifreddo was presented for dessert.

While eating, I heard members chatting about yoga studios, TV shows, traveling, Jones’ art collection and the pronunciation of “Oregon” (what was up with that, y’all?).

“We want a family vibe to be prevalent in all of our dinners,” Breen said.

St. Petersburg’s beer scene, our favorite foodie spots and how the region’s culinary realm is coming into its own were among the food topics my neighboring eaters and I discussed.

In these moments, the Illumineati founders’ goal was highlighted. The club’s clandestine nature is cool, yes, but it’s about uniting gastronauts for an organic dining experience.

Nothing felt forced.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post said Marsicano "crafted" the One For Tucker cocktails. He made the drinks during the dinner, and Ciani created the recipe to commemorate a friend who passed away. The fourth paragraph was edited for clarity.

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