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In Tampa, a Food Scene Grows as the Destination’s Stature Builds

The mozzarella cart at Rocca is one of those whimsical examples of culinary theater that marketers and social media influencers love. At the buzzy Tampa restaurant, the presentation is a showcase of chef Bryce Bonsack’s quality, and not a gimmicky play for eyeballs.

Prepared tableside, the dish starts with curds soaking in water that’s heated to 210 Fahrenheit degrees. The hot water makes the curds malleable and as they cook their elasticity increases. While the cheese forms, beefsteak tomatoes, grown at nearby Plant City, are sliced and sprinkled with sea salt. Returning to the cheese, the server molds the curds like a baker might knead bread, forming it into one pliant ball and then stretching it so the curds become one smooth and even strand of mozzarella. This procedure is done multiple times before the cart departs, leaving behind one pound of delicious cheese sliced into creamy portions and topped with basil and olive oil before being plated with the tomatoes, making as good of a burrata offering as you can find.

Burrata at Rocca is prepared while you watch, which is as fresh as you can get. At top, the Rocca Olive Cake is an authentic Italian dessert choice. (Adrian Brijbassi photos for VacayNetwork.com)

It’s among the highlight experiences that has made Rocca one of Tampa’s three restaurants to earn a coveted Michelin star. When a Michelin guide comes to town — or country — it’s mostly a chance for industry members to navel gaze and weigh themselves against peers. If you’re a chef who earns a star, it may be one of the best days of your life. If you feel snubbed, you can find kinship with the likes of Leo DiCaprio and Greta Gerwig. For travelers, Michelin has provided a way to trip plan. Stars typically are awarded to fine-dining restaurants while Bib Gourmand designation is reserved for restaurants that offer excellent food at moderate prices (Tampa has three of those as of 2023) and Selected Restaurants that could fall into a number of price points and are regarded as places to put on your dining list, even if they fall short of top accolades. It’s all subjective, of course, but it’s also a significant driver of tourism.


The beet and Korean pear salad is indicative of Rocca’s clean, sublime cuisine. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Developed a century ago as a promotional, um, vehicle to get people in their cars — thereby wearing down the threads on their Michelin tires, accelerating the need for a replacement set — the guide was so well executed and so mysteriously put together that it became the leading source for connoisseurs to consult before choosing their restaurants. Until recently, the guide relied on subscriptions, guidebook sales, and advertisements, but has turned to sponsored content for revenue like other media outlets and is teaming with destinations to bring a focus to their respective culinary scenes. In 2022, Michelin launched guides for three Florida cities — Miami, Orlando, and Tampa.

The Sunshine State is known for many things but fine dining hasn’t necessarily been one of the drivers of tourism. People expect stone crab claws, conch fritters, gator bites, Cuban sandwiches, and “catch of the day” selections in rich or spicy sauces. They may not expect a mozzarella cart or Rocca’s distinct taste on Italian cuisine, such as the delicious Beet and Korean Pear Salad with fennel, pistachio, and espresso bean, or the sensational Olive Cake made with zabaione, an Italian custard that includes sweet wine.

Bonsack was schooled in authentic Italian cooking while living abroad with a family in Piedmont (known for its Barolo and truffles) and it shows in his execution. The savory and dessert dishes I tried were flawless, and also inventive enough to appreciate the skill involved in their preparation. While Bonsack has taken Rocca to the top of the dining scene in Tampa, the city has embraced the Michelin ranking as an opportunity to promote the breadth of its restaurants. Recently, Visit Tampa launched two editions of “Tampa’s Table: A Culinary Evolution”, attractive cookbooks that bring the city’s culinary talents into focus. For a destination steadily growing in stature such initiatives help to define its culinary culture, and inspire chefs and suppliers to work together to continue elevating Tampa’s reputation.

Other notable places to wine and dine in Tampa:


The snapper crudo at Market, the lobby-level restaurant at the ritzy EDITION hotel, is a winner. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Market at The EDITION: Market didn’t earn a mention in Tampa’s 2023 Michelin guide, perhaps because it opened too late to be considered. It’s certainly deserving of distinction. Located in the five-star, ultra-glam EDITION, the ground-floor restaurant has a Miami vibe with white walls and an airy dining space filled with flora. The EDITION launched with a gala grand opening in October 2022 and has become the cornerstone of the rejuvenated Water Street District plan. Market, meanwhile, delivers on the expectations of high-quality cuisine. Crowd-pleasing pizzas and pastas dominate the menu, though diners should be sure to try the snapper crudo, served with apple, radish, and jalapeño.

Beacon: The rooftop bar at the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street is a blissful spot for cocktails and views of the waters surrounding the city.

tampa panorama view from beacon

The view of Hillsborough Bay from atop the JW Marriott Hotel Water Street is among the best you will find in Tampa. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

With a Latin twist on many libations, guests will get a hint of the influences of Cuba and Central America in the city’s culinary scene. Try a margarita or one of the fun concoctions like the Dastardly Devil, made with Rosaluna mezcal, Thai chili Aperol, lime, falernum, and two kinds of bitters.

Chill Bros. Ice Cream: For a sweet treat, stop in at a location of this Tampa fave that features all-natural ice cream, with locally sourced ingredients, in flavors that are both recognizable and creative.


rocca tampa mozzarella cart

A server at Rocca stretches mozzarella during a tableside preparation of the restaurant’s renowned burrata. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Getting There: From the city’s international airport, downtown Tampa is a 20-minute drive southeast along Interstate (I) Highway 275. From the theme parks in the Orlando area, Tampa is reachable with an approximately 90-minute drive along the I-4 highway (a toll road). Miami is a four-hour drive away. Notably, a planned expansion of the high-speed Brightline train service to Tampa is likely to be fast-tracked, which will connect the city to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami by rail, making it far more accessible to travellers. [Read more coverage about the Brightline experience.]

Where to Stay: The JW Marriott Tampa Water Street is ideal for a number of reasons. It’s located next to Amalie Arena and two blocks to the heart of the Water Street experience, and has five eateries of its own, including Beacon and a lobby-level coffee bar and Driftlight steakhouse. Room Rates: A one-night weekend stay in March starts at approximately $409 USD, according to a recent search of the hotel’s booking engine. The EDITION is similarly priced.

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Adrian is the founder of VacayNetwork.com and Vacay.ca, and the co-founder of the travel-trivia app, Trippzy. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction. He has worked with leading destination marketing organizations, developing digital and social media strategies, and providing them with content marketing solutions. He has visited more than 40 countries and spearheaded the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada annual list that debuted in 2012.