Ok, Jacksonville, it’s been a month. I can handle your blazing hot summer temps because of the coastal breeze, and I love being able to go sit on the beach pretty much whenever I want. However, the sprawl here is headache-inducing and gas-guzzling (it’s the largest city by landmass in the U.S.), which makes it tougher to find locally-owned restaurants, especially in my area–near a large mall. But happily, I’m 4 for 4 on identifying pretty good ones. This ain’t Atlanta fine dining, but I’m optimistic about the [smaller] food scene here. P.S. Expect me to compare Jax to ATL for the next 6-8 months. Sorry.
The first restaurant I visited while Mario was still in town helping me move in was Picasso’s Pizzeria in Southside. I’ve spoken before about my aversion to strip mall eateries, but it seems I’ll have to get over it in my new residence, as many restaurants seem to be located in them. I feel like Picasso’s name is a bit of a misnomer–while about half of the menu is occupied by pizza options, the other half contains a wide variety of dishes: from shrimp & grits to shepard’s pie to oysters Rockerfeller. Often such a menu inspires wariness (“Never order a burger from a taco stand!”), but we have been pleasantly surprised by everything we’ve tasted. Oh, and there’s a burger. One that rivals the best in Atlanta. But I’ll get to that later. On our first visit, I decided to try the shrimp & grits (Mayport shrimp sautéed with applewood-smoked bacon cubes, fresh tomato, shallots, and garlic), while Mario went with their signature steak (“Da” Steak: seared premium aged Black Angus rib-eye with fries and Mama Sauce).
My first reaction to the shrimp and grits was one of shock and awe, due solely to the price point. How much does a plate of shrimp & grits run you in Atlanta? $12+? This generous portion was $8. Eight. Dollars. Including a side. Which is really entirely reasonable. Grits cost pennies. Sure, shrimp might be cheaper in a coastal city, but that ATL markup is a little outrageous. Anyway, not only did the price wow me, but the dish was done right. Creamy grits, flavorful broth, and large succulent shrimp. Yum! Mario’s steak came out tender, perfectly seasoned, and at the temperature he requested. Excuse his photo’s inability to actually show the meat :-/
Our second visit’s order included “da” cheeseburger (house ground select steak meat seared with special seasonings, layered with cheese and served with grilled onions, applewood-smoked bacon and soon-to-be famous Pablo Sauce. Pickle, lettuce, and tomato on the side) for Mario and a Philly steak pizza (Shredded Philly steak, mushrooms, onions, peppers, and provel cheese) for me. Mario, ever the purist, had the burger with meat, cheese, and bacon only. We have no photos from this visit (too excited to eat!) but that burger…. let me tell you, the ONE bite Mario was able to part with for me to taste was fan.tastic. I mean, comparable to a Bocado or H&F burger. Heaven! It’s a wonder they don’t do more promotion on that burger alone. My pizza kind of paled in comparison to the burger–the toppings were fresh and plentiful but it basically reminded me of take-out. However, Picasso’s offers several different customizable “styles” of pizza (St. Louis, NY, and Mediterranean) so I’m not ready to fully judge after only one.
Picasso’s friendly staff and delicious food have already cemented it as one of our favorites. Although not an example of local specialty foods, I can already see that it will be a go-to for treating out-of-towners.