Believe it or not, I actually lost weight when I got back from Europe recently. Nights filled with Mediterranean medleys of seafood and pasta perfection made me objectionable to food here in the U.S. I kept wondering why does everything taste so bad, so plastic?  Last week I read the Tampa Bay Times' Farm to Fable series by Food Critic Laura Reiley and was bummed to learn about restaurants lying about what we are served. No wonder our food tastes so weird, I thought. I was convinced I'd be doomed to a lifetime of sub-par cuisine unless I traveled abroad.  Not to say Tampa doesn't have it's share of amazing restaurants. The Bakers' The Refinery and Fodder & Shine come to mind as does Jamie Pierola's Edison: Food Drink Lab. However, there is definitely a special quality about food in the Mediterranean, and I missed it. So when I heard about the new restaurant opening in North Tampa by Candy Debartolo, Sacred Pepper, I was intrigued and wondered Does the All New Sacred Pepper Live Up to the Hype? 

It was nice not having to make the trek to South Tampa for a date night. While I grew up in South Tampa, I was really looking forward to something other than a chain restaurant experience near my home. According to the restaurant's fact sheet, that was precisely why Mrs. Debartolo set out to create a dining destination where everything around the table is sacred. With that mission in mind, she named the restaurant Sacred Pepper, known in the culinary world for its ability to transform a dish. Similarly, she was looking to transform the North Tampa culinary scene.

I've had the pleasure of working with the Debartolo Family Foundation through charitable giving and on Foundation events; experience told me this family's restaurant would be superior quality - just as in everything they do.  They spare no attention to detail, and that's exactly what you want in a food and restaurant experience. 

I called for a reservation one week prior, when I arrived Friday night I was greeted by a polite yet apologetic hostess who announced we had an hour or more wait before she could seat us. Hesitant I decided to stay, heading to the bar we settled in for the wait. The bar was packed as you can see!  I worried about how long it would take to get drinks but it wasn't bad. The room is massive and sumptuously appointed; the bar at Sacred Pepper blows away every other bar in Tampa! JMHO


The contemporary design of the space, created by Enrique Crespo of Crespo Design Group, combines old Florida charm with a modern and inventive edge giving the space a fresh, otherworldly mood and energy. I loved it!

We were seated after waiting only 30 minutes - I'm so glad I went on a date night and not with a big group. 

I've opened five restaurants during my career in PR and completely understand the challenges of opening week. Everyone is getting their bearings, walk-ins mixed with big party reservations make for a special problem and staff can become easily overwhelmed. The wait for the food was long. It was 8:40 pm when our server Walker let us know our order of Crab and Lobster Rotolo had sold out. It happens, Sacred Pepper was absolutely slammed. 

Luckily, the team headed by General Manager Chad Bash kept their composure and poise. They remained kind and attentive in spite of opening week challenges. I admired Candy Debartolo's marinara sauce recipe displayed as artwork on the wall and checked out the sophisticated crowd (most likely from nearby luxe housing enclaves like Cheval and Avila), as I sipped my Sicilian Sunburst cocktails.  Before long I forgot we were in the midst of one of Tampa's most anticipated restaurant openings as our food arrived. My hunch about the Debartolo's attention to detail was confirmed with every single bite. We began with the Sacred Meatballs and the Honey Goat Cheese Baklava.

Yes, it tastes just as good as it looks. The baklava was surprisingly light and bursting with flavor, a combination that earned Executive Chef James Maita a fan for life. The meatballs were simply out of this world.

While the original order of Crab and Rotolo was sold out, my husband ordered the filet with scalloped potatoes and didn't talk the entire time he was eating it. I think he mumbled something about it being the most tender steak he's ever had, meanwhile I inhaled the Knucklehead Lobster Salad and loved every piece of it.

After such a delicious meal, I had no room for dessert. However, I did decide to come back to regain my lost weight! I was also pleasantly surprised at our bill, it was incredibly affordable and provided more incentive to go back. There's nothing worse than an overrated, overpriced restaurant with mediocre service. I was so glad Sacred Pepper wasn't any of those things.

The leadership team nailed it on all counts and are bound to face additional challenges as they deal with an overwhelmingly positive response from the community. It's a  great problem to have and easy to solve; I have no doubt they'll succeed on every level living up to the hype.

The talented team at Sacred Pepper learned a lot opening week and will create a balance between reservations and walk-ins to ensure reservations are on time and wait times are kept to a minimum, I was reassured by staff it won't be an issue going forward.  Knowing the level of commitment seen and experienced at this fine restaurant, I can't wait to return! They definitely lived up to the hype as they celebrated food, flavor, people and style at this fine new restaurant in North Tampa!

Make your reservation, today at the Sacred Pepper