Sarasota benefitted from a couple restaurant imports this summer. Cali Tacos To-Go, previously featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, shut down its original Tampa location in favor of trekking down to Bee Ridge, and the not so chain-y Tin Fish franchise landed in the old Findaddys spot on Beneva. In a town like ours that’s now jumped off with a quality food scene, every successful addition brings with it the building blocks of a larger identity, and these bricks are worth exploring if only to see how the house is shaping up. Sprinkle in grass-root upstarts like Cheesecake Me and the growing options make the horizon look all the brighter.  


Photography by Evan Sigmund and Shane Donglasan.


IN FISH HEAD CHEF and licensor Joseph Melluso began working in New York’s renowned Fulton Fish Market at 11 years old and, from there, learned the business from the old salts whilst touring through a number of markets, filet houses and a stint as a lobsterman before commencing formal training. In 1998, he established the first of the chain of restaurants in San Diego and since has toured the country assisting in establishing the brand in such a way that captures his original recipes but in a manner impactful to the area. Each location has its own décor and vibe, and the aesthetic is constructed anew.

“I never wanted to be a branded corporation that was a cookie-cutter, stamp model, robotic reproduction chasing dollars,” he says. “We want to go to a community where we are invited to be and enhance change. That’s part of the values of our mission.”Melluso found his way to town through Sarasota native and manager Chris Gemmill, and when I visit, the duo is working their way through the latter part of a six-week stretch that aims to polish the food, processes and final sourcing touches for the grand opening.

Tin Fish is all about sourcing. It’s key. Melluso brings a lifetime of contacts he utilizes to ensure the restaurant puts the best product on the table possible, but that’s not enough to fill out the menu in a way consistent with the restaurant’s aim. In terms of fish houses, the place is reasonably priced. There’s hardly anything more expensive than $16. Most everything falls in the $9 to $14 range, and when you’re talking mahi, ahi, clams, shrimp and oysters, that’s impressive. Quality local sourcing is imperative, and sifting through each region’s local options is one of Melluso’s chief pursuits.

He employs his stable providers for signature dishes like his “famous” fish sandwich that he makes with wild Alaskan pollock procured from Trident Seafoods, which he’s worked with since 1974. He likes the fish because it’s clean, processed on board and translates to the dish.

The sandwich costs $6, has two pieces of fried pollock and comes on a locally baked, toasted bun. Melluso has used the same breaded egg wash (he doesn’t call it batter) for the fish since a young woman came into the market where the then–15-year-old was working in 1969. She told him, “If you’re going to cook for black folks, you have to know how to cook our style. If you’ll allow me, I’ll come in and teach you the recipe. If you make it like that in this neighborhood, you’ll make a lot of people happy.”

Melluso emanates pride when he uses the term “deep fried,” certainly a rarity outside of fried chicken spots. He immediately falls into the story of how every year businessmen approach him about saving money and extending the life of his oil by selling him filtering powder, but he argues his business is about changing his oil and not trying to stretch it. The staff often changes it twice a day, which led one of Melluso’s old employees to tag the term “oil integrity.” I don’t want to give the impression Tin Fish is exclusively about fried sandwiches and fish options. It does offer grouper, red snapper and wild Alaskan halibut (in season) cooked simply with olive oil and lemon, and its menu has some intriguing alternatives like the Kaboom Shrimp, a take on Bonefish’s original Bang Bang Shrimp before they changed the sauce. Melluso trademarked his own mayo and Sriracha-based sauce for the dish and serves the tossed shrimp with toasted black and white sesames and scallions. Oyster-lovers will also be pleased with the restaurant’s cleanly sourced products out of James River in Virginia, Chesapeake Bay, Long Island as well as Florida.

Over the course of two decades, Lisa Glenn baked for five different restaurants in the Northeast before committing to growing Cheesecake Me late last year. Things have moved fast for her since: the upstart Central Sarasota Farmer’s Market needed a baker (Glenn’s husband makes homemade bread as well) and called her, and her chocolate salted caramel bars won first place out of 25 contestants at the Suncoast BBQ and Bluegrass Bash in Venice. With a weekly locale set and armed with a bevy of homemade New York-style cheesecakes, goodies and gluten-free alternatives, Glenn is poised to make a name with her gourmet treats.

Glenn closely follows trends in the baking world and leading up to last year salted caramel was all the buzz. She was searching for something to do with it that would make an impact for her customers and fell back on her trusty shortbread recipe given to her 30 years ago by a baker in Cambridge, Mass. She liked the idea of a butter shortbread cookie crust and salted caramel, but it required a great deal of trial and error, a mix of exact chemical science as well as ole-fashion look and feel to nail the recipe down.

She makes her caramel from scratch in big sheets with the perfected, process-proven amount of salt, and the chocolate must be a high quality brand, usually either Callebaut or Ghirardelli, that has a high cocoa butter content, which lends the desired flavor profile. Glenn utilizes a 9 x 13 pan that allows the shortbread to set without collapsing in on itself and layers it: shortbread crust, liquid caramel, chocolate and shortbread top. Her idea is to provide a balanced melding of flavor and textural elements that dissolve together and compliment themselves. She calls the bars “the best thing she’s made in 20 years,” and it’s not hard to see why it’s on its way to a legitimate cult following.  The crux of Cheesecake Me is still, well, the cheesecake, and though the foundation is the versatile basics of cream cheese, eggs, sugar, vanilla and sour cream, Glenn has perfected both the recipe and art of enticement through classics like Oreo or Mounds, seasonal favorites like pumpkin or egg nog and other creations such as her Irish Car Bomb.

Glenn starts with her basic graham cracker crust that she mixes with cocoa powder and uses half the butter, which she replaces with Guiness to give it a hint of bitterness (this does affect the baking time). Next, she adds Bailey’s Irish Cream to the cheesecake batter and begins to pour it over. Halfway through the pour, she stops and swirls in chocolate ganache melted with heavy cream and Jameson Irish Whiskey before finishing the pour out and spider-webbing ganache across the top. It’s a decadent option exotic enough to raise eyebrows but still accessible year-round.

Before Charles Morrell moved the baja-infused Cali Tacos To-Go to Sarasota, he’d hired Anthony Luciano, who was sold the moment he tried his first fish taco ever from the shop, as assistant manager/protégé and began working to build a foot-hold that might lead to further locations in the future. The spot is all about the West Coast, laid-back dynamic and seeks to capture the Baja Mexican influence pervasive through San Diego’s taco stands.

One of the spot’s notable draws is the fish tacos. Luciano makes the dish from fresh grouper quick-fried in tempura batter made from flour, corn starch, baking powder, salt, eggs and beer. When done, the protein is placed atop a grilled corn tortilla and layered with an in-house white sauce made from yogurt, mayo, capers, dill, oregano, chili de arbol and lime. Luciano tops the taco with the Baja signatures of shredded cabbage for crunch and pico for flavor, and he offers a green medium or mild sauce made from tomatillo peppers and jalapeno or a red hot and extra-hot made from more chili de arbols.

One of his personal favorites, Luciano feels the chili relleno is an exceptional dish that captures that area’s food culture. He begins by hand-prepping 10 pounds of poblano peppers by deseeding and roasting them before stuffing with queso blanco, mozzarella and cheddar. He then egg-washes and fries them before smothering in his own secret enchilada sauce, guacamole, sour cream and more cheese. The shop offers the peppers as a meal, side or served within a burrito.