Ybor Aficionado Days 2011: Tasting Ybor's Tapas Trail and crowning the Tapas Challenge winner

Then the food started coming out. First came the albodingas with roasted garlic aioli. The ground chorizo in the dish gave the meatballs some extra flavor, but the meatballs needed something to bring them to life, and the garlic mayo couldn’t wake up the dish.


We also tasted De Tejido Pimienta (or The Unstuffed Pepper), a thick-sliced bruscetta with a split pepper holding a creamy sauce. Once again, there were no herbs or spices to wake up the dish. The cold Palm Heart Octopus salad was daring for a cooking competition, but the octopus was a little chewy and the flavors were muted and didn’t balance well.

Seeing Thai Shrimp Cigars with Deconstructed Chili Mango Apricot Salsa certainly got my attention. Sure, it is a wordy dish, but would it deliver? It was much more attractive prepared on the plate than it was on written the menu. The “cigars” were shrimp wrapped in puff pastry with a creamy coconut and shiitake mushroom filling spiked with Thai chilies. The “deconstructed salsa” consisted of diced mango with red bell pepper and green onion over a pool of apricot jam and Sri Racha hot sauce. The sweet spiciness played off the “cigars” wonderfully, especially with a nibble of the fresh mint garnish.


When they brought out the contestants, I tried to identify the one behind the excellent shrimp dish that my fellow judges had also picked it as the undisputed winner. Young, fresh-faced Lindsey Busciglio was named as the champion, a student at Sickles High School’s hospitality program in Tampa. Chef Rick Ceglio, an instructor in the program, taught her well. They worked for three weeks to perfect the dish. I appreciated the strong chili heat in the dish, balanced with the sweet salsa and creamy filling. Lindsey has already been admitted to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Last year, another one of Ceglio’s star pupils won a merit scholarship for the CIA. Not only is Lindsey on her way to New York, but she won $500 in pocket change from the Tapas Challenge.

I’m happy to have tasted Miss Busciglio’s cooking while I can, as she will graduate from the CIA and probably find a career in posh, expensive restaurants I couldn’t possibly afford. And I’m proud to know that a high school student’s dish was the crowning tapas of the weekend. I finally got my tapas fix, followed by the Columbia Restaurant’s lavish brunch.

I finally got my tapas.

I was excited to attend Ybor Aficionado Days this year and explore the Tapas Trail set up for the event. The Ybor City Chamber of Commerce created a fun concept perfectly suited for Ybor City during the Ybor Aficionado Days this year: A fleet of Chevys were available to whisk guests from end to end of the trail, with all participating restaurants offering a free tapa for the price of a single ticket.

Most of the Tapas Trail’s venues were fun and interesting. The Ybor Chamber should be praised for such a fun idea to promote the area, and the event was a lot of fun. The culinary contributions and service of the participating businesses, however, were highly uneven.

The offerings ranged from horrific (what would one expect from the Dog’s Bollocks Pub?) to lazy (Hamburger Mary’s, JJ’s Café & Bar) to tasty (Green Iguana, New World Brewery) to refined (Bernini, Columbia). Other venues dropped off the trail before it started (Shrimp & Co.) or in mid-event, serving food only grudgingly (New World Brewery). Some ran out of food altogether (Sunday’s Fine Dining, who had the best tapa of the night, I’m told). The after party at the Italian Club was festive with free cigars and desserts, and the thick cigar smoke in the cantina took me back to Ybor’s glory days. I left the event hungry for more tapas, especially ones made with care.

I had my chance the next morning at the Aficionado days brunch at the Columbia Restaurant, where I was presented with four tapas prepared by amateur cooks. As a lucky judge for the Tapas Cooking Challenge, I was expected to choose a winner. My fellow judges, Roy Dejesus (Bay News 9) and Fester (host of “On the Grill” at WFLA-AM), are both serious foodies, and worked up our appetites by talking about cooking and restaurants.

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