ST. PETERSBURG — John Mays and T.J. Thielbar get the same jolt of excitement from building their new Noble Crust restaurant on Fourth Street as they felt while they were helping build the first Bonefish Grill restaurant on the same road 14 years ago.
In 2000, both were joint venture partners and operations managers for Bonefish, which eventually grew into a chain sold to Bloomin’ Brands, parent company to Outback Steakhouse.
For their latest venture, Mays and Thielbar joined with new business partner Jeff Strouse to create a restaurant that melds the rustic cuisine of Italy with that of America’s South.
As with Bonefish, Mays and Thielbar are helping assemble Noble Crust, including digging the footer, laying rebar for concrete pours and assembling tables.
“Back then, we went to Home Depot every single day,” Mays said. “We go to Home Depot every single day now.”
The restaurant scene has changed dramatically on Fourth Street since 2000. Back then, downtown St. Pete was only starting to awaken with new restaurants. Fourth Street had a few notable food spots, including the Red Mesa Mexican restaurant. There was no Edge or Grand Central district. Craft breweries were a decade away from being established.
The roadway, which has become surrounded by neighborhoods sought after in recent years by young professionals, now is a destination for food lovers seeking locally owned businesses, bars and specialty stores.
Mays, Thielbar and Strouse see an opportunity to attract commuters and food lovers coming from South Tampa, as well as those who live in downtown St. Pete and the Feather Sound area looking for unique cuisines.
Hence the Southern-style Italian cuisine at Noble Crust, which will occupy the location of the former Haymarket Pub and The Hideaway at 83rd Avenue North.
“There are more foodies out there than there has ever been,” Thielbar said Tuesday.
“Guests want more diversity,” he said. “They want to taste different things. They want more for their money than what the big-box chain restaurants can offer, especially in this area. They want to go to cool, hip places. The chain restaurants don’t offer that.”
To reach those customers, as well as the neighborhood families who want affordable, casual dining, the group hired chef Rob Reinsmith, who cooked at New York City Italian restaurants Parm and Torrisi. Reinsmith once was a line cook for Thielbar at the Bonefish Grill in Palm Harbor and attended Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Orlando.
He built a menu for Noble Crust that merges traditional Italian cooking techniques and recipes with locally grown Southern ingredients.
Southern and Italian foods have much in common, Reinsmith said. What Italians know as polenta, Southerners call grits. Prosciutto is just another word for country ham.
“Both have lots of corn, lots of pork and tomatoes,” he said. “Barbecue sauce is the tomato sauce of Southern cuisine.”
Every Thursday since January, Reinsmith has held menu tastings for the ownership group. A giant wood-burning oven, installed outdoors in the carport of a makeshift home office adjacent to the construction site, has produced such experiments as roasted oysters with scampi sauce and pizza topped with peaches, blistered cherry tomatoes, ricotta and smoked Vidalia onions.
Other tastings featured ricotta gnocchi with a roasted corn ragu, Caesar salad served with a Scotch egg, and a bowl of crispy chicken breast with braised broccoli raab, sun-dried tomatoes and white beans with a fried egg on top.
“It’s not your typical Italian,” Reinsmith said.
“The South has great comfort food, so we wanted to put a different spin on it with a little Italian flair,” Thielbar said.
When the test oven was fired up for the first time, several neighbors thought the house, which sits one block away from Noble Crust’s construction site, was on fire, Mays said.
“They chatted with us and we shared some pizza with them,” he said.
The 3,300-square-foot restaurant will feature an 800-square-foot outdoor patio and a 28-foot-long bar at which craft beers, craft cocktails and kegged wine will be served. To keep the restaurant in the same configuration as the building first constructed in 1928, they propped up the roof and demolished the shell to build new walls.
The original foundation was made of hexagonal concrete blocks over sand, so a new footer will be poured on top.
The location at North 83rd Avenue was chosen by design, Mays said. When the first Bonefish opened about 25 blocks south, the clientele was half St. Petersburg residents and half South Tampa residents.
“This is where we wanted to be,” he said. “We really studied the demographic area. We didn’t even look in South Tampa or downtown St. Pete. We wanted to come back to Fourth Street.”