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BITE-SIZED

From the outside, it doesn't seem like much; inside, you'll find just a simple open space with maybe a dozen tables. Don't set your ambience expectations high, as there's not much of a vibe — just go for the food.

Some of the dishes at El Palermo could have used a bit more salt and spice, but overall the value was good for the price and abundance of food we ordered.

Our papa rellena ($2.75) arrived piping hot. We let this oblong-shaped croquette-meets-empanada cool, then eagerly devoured its contents — creamy potatoes, gently fried, surrounding wonderful seasoned ground beef.

Our trifongo mofongo with platano verde ($7.50) was a towering portion of starchy goodness. Traditional mofongo begins with mashed fried green plantains, and trifongo adds fried yucca and fried sweet plantains to the mix. Our version was accompanied by a thin, flavorful garlicky broth with pork cracklings and olive oil.

The pernil asado ($10.95) — or roast pork — is a traditional Latin American dish. Ours was served with a heaping portion of con arroz congandules (yellow rice and pigeon peas) and a small salad.

We liked our cubano sandwich with fries ($7.99). Two pressed halves made up of ham, roast pork and melted cheese were perfect for sharing. The 'wich needed a tad more mustard to balance the tangy pickle slices, and our waitress quickly brought us some upon request. If you want an upgrade, choose fried plantains instead of fries for 50 cents.

(Side note: I found it interesting that among its Latin American staples, the menu features three "Italian classics." No thanks.)

Don't forget an order of custardy, syrupy flan to complete your experience.

When you're in Orange Park and in need of a tasty Puerto Rican fix, check out El Palermo. It's open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.   More

BITE-SIZED

From the red-and-white-striped Fiat out front to the sprawling murals of the Italian countryside on the interior walls, Santioni's is a marvelous strip mall find.

The space is meticulously clean and exudes a sense of calmness; soft music wafts gently through the air. Our waitress was polite and attentive, checking in often.

Yes, the menu is broad, but will surely appease all palates — veal piccata, rack of lamb, linguini with clam sauce, frutti di mare, lasagna, spaghetti carbonara, chicken scaloppini, as well as standbys like fettuccini alfredo and chicken parmesan.

Wanting one of everything, we settled on three items: lobster ravioli ($14.95), cavatelli with Bolognese ($12.95), and a small 12-inch pizza bianca ($9.95). Prices seemed reasonable and portions were hearty. Most dinner entrée items run $12.95 to $18.95.

Pasta is served with soup (minestrone or Italian wedding) or house salad. I upgraded to a Greek side salad ($1.50) and was impressed by the leafy Romaine (no lame iceberg lettuce here), feta cubes, pepperocinis, red onions and homemade vinaigrette dressing. We eagerly devoured the complimentary buttery baked rolls that arrived with our salads.

The piping-hot ravioli, drenched in a pink rosato sauce (think marinara meets cream), were perfect bite-sized pouches of flavorful lobster and cheese. The cavatelli — small, folded-over pasta pieces and meaty Bolognese — were topped with a sprinkle of fresh parsley, which worked splendidly.

Our sauceless bianca pie was generously topped with ricotta, diced tomatoes, garlic, ribbons of basil and mozzarella. Its golden crust was both chewy and crisp, and held up well. We were thrilled to have leftover slices, which I must say were superb the next morning, cold and straight out of the box.

Santioni's recently celebrated its second anniversary in Fleming Island. It's closed on Mondays, and if you're too busy to go inside the rest of the week, there's the option to call …   More

BITE-SIZED

For the past six years, 20something William Jonathan Morgan has yearned to open a business. To get up and running quickly, he created a mobile coffee shop, and last month Vagabond Coffee's caravan hit the streets.

Vagabond got its start in San Marco at Aardwolf Brewery, but Morgan's heart was in Downtown Jacksonville. After securing the Laura Street Trio lot at the corner of Laura and Adams, as of Oct. 1 (coincidentally, also Morgan's birthday), Vagabond has had a place to call home on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The menu features lattes, pour-overs, Chemex (a precision brew method) and drip coffee, and Vagabond's staff does its best to concoct your coffee drink of choice — cappuccino, macchiato, cortado and beyond.

Top sellers? Chemex and the vanilla latte. I've enjoyed both, but my personal Vagabond favorite is affogato ($4), a shot of freshly 
pulled espresso with a creamy scoop of 
vanilla ice cream.

The customer base runs the gamut — you'll stand in line with Downtown locals, investment bankers, artists and performers just passing through town.

Lattes are $4 (add 50 cents for soy milk). Syrups include vanilla, agave and mocha and, occasionally, a special offering. Cold brew coffee is $4, and a cup from the Chemex is $3.50. Don't need a pick-me-up? Vagabond's got decaf, too.

For espresso drinks, the crew at Vagabond uses only single-origin espresso that can be paired with organic or soy milk. Most selections are made with locally produced beans from Bold Bean Coffee Roasters.

"We focus on quality, care and craftsmanship," Morgan says. "Bold Bean undoubtedly puts these in each roast, so there was no question about using them as our main supplier. We love supporting local businesses."

Morgan's fiancée, Samantha Friedman, bakes the scrumptious treats available onboard. I love the slabs of moist, hazelnutty Nutella banana bread ($3) and chewy molasses cookies. Currently, the duo is working on expanding the menu to …   More

BITE-SIZED

Equal parts quirky and casual, Carmines Pie House fits perfectly into its hip Riverside
 location. Oh, and the weekday happy hour, from 2-6 p.m., is pretty sweet, too — $1.50 slices and half-priced local brews from Bold City and Intuition.

It's an inexpensive option for lunch or a laid-back dinner choice. And whoever came up with the menu descriptions and names is my hero. Reading items like "Devil Dog Frickles," "Jersey Shore Fried Calzone," "The Jerk," "The Bad Ass BLT" and "It's a Train Wreck Baby," you can't help but smile.

Speaking of train wrecks, order that one. There's more ham, beef, bacon, pepperoni, garlic (oh my!), spinach, tomato, onions, green peppers and pineapple than you could ever dream of atop this mozzarella-covered pie.

For apps, I like the shoestring zucchini fries ($7.27) with a creamy rémoulade for dipping, and the sour pot ($9.27), a tasty, though pricey, plate of sweet potato fries loaded with melted blue cheese crumbles, bacon pieces and a bourbon barbecue sauce. And don't forget those hand-breaded mozzarella planks ($7.27) — flat, rectangular slabs of cheesy goodness, served with marinara.

If you're craving an über-cheesy Chicago-style pizza ($11.57), Carmines nails it. Allow extra time, as this stuffed pie is thick and takes a while to cook, but it's so worth it.

Carmines touts 16 (!) varieties of wing sauces — take advantage and order the jumbo rooster wings ($9.37 for 11). For you herbivores, the Dy-no-myte tofu ($8.27) offers an interesting vegetarian alternative — seasoned cubes of fried tofu tossed in the sauce of your choice.

"Burning Down the House" hot lasagna ($15.57) is a towering stack of five thick, alternating layers of pasta, each topped with different deliciousness. If lasagna's your thing, this one's for you.

No matter what you choose, the portions are huge. But who am I to judge if you still have room for fried cheesecake bites ($6.77)?   More

BITE-SIZED

For more than 50 years, the Salem family has been serving breakfast and lunch at Whiteway Delicatessen, a Jacksonville institution since 1927. Sam Salem, his wife and his sister are always behind the counter, wearing both warm smiles and jovial demeanors.

Whiteway is popular among local businesspeople and politicians. You may be dining next to a congressperson or rubbing shoulders with the next City Council president.

Walk in, grab a cup and pour your drink of choice from the soda fountain, peruse several sheets of printer paper — the menu — each typed with a different offering, order, then take a seat. When it's ready, they'll bring your breakfast or lunch out to you. (You pay as you're leaving.) After my first lunch visit, I was hooked. I still have a crazy love affair with the Late Bloomer ($7.25): turkey, provolone, housemade tabouli, crisp bacon, tangy banana peppers, creamy avocado spread, all stuffed into a pita, grilled and warmed, then cut into two messy halves. I drizzle mine with the goodness from a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce, and it's perfection! Pair it with a side of kale salad or pasta salad and you're set.

Another tried-and-true option is the Tom Bishop ($7.95): ham, turkey, salami, tabouli, feta, banana peppers, avocado spread and hot sauce in a pressed pita. Similar to the Late Bloomer, it's just different enough to join your lunch rotation. Both the Falafel ($7.45), with tomato, cucumber and tahini sauce, and the 
oh-so-messy George's Special with tabouli, feta and marinated tomatoes are excellent vegetarian options.

Pita not your thing? Instead choose wheat, white or rye bread or a sub roll. There are also more traditional sandwiches, like the club, egg salad, bologna and a Reuben, if you're not feeling up to tabouli or an avocado spread.

A homemade-style side, bag of chips and drink are available for an additional charge. And brownies topped with cheesecake? A yummy double-decker dessert that's worth the …   More

BITE-SIZED

The historic tree-lined streets of Fernandina Beach have a magical charm, and Ciao effortlessly blends in. With a large open-air patio in the front, and a full dining room, its location adds to the enjoyable, laid-back dining experience.

Kick it off with arancini ($10), a traditional Sicilian staple. These oversized orbs are stuffed with rice, mozzarella, prosciutto and olives, rolled in breadcrumbs, then deep-fried, and served with a side of marinara for dipping. Bet you can't eat just one!

Craving a salad? I enjoyed the insalata de barbabietole ($10) — a colorful mix of roasted beets, Gorgonzola cheese, peppery arugula and a red onion jam.

Perhaps my favorite item of the evening was the thin (but perfectly crispy) crust margherita pizza ($14): 14 inches of doughy goodness stretched and entrenched in a fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, pesto and a shredded basil blanket. Magnifico!

Get ready to twirl those forks, as pasta dishes abound. You can't go wrong with spaghetti alle vongole ($18) — pasta topped with clams sautéed in olive oil, garlic and white wine. Also note: If you're ordering pasta, you can opt for gluten-free or whole wheat as an alternative, for an additional $2.

Meat lovers, rejoice: Ciao's veal chop parmesan ($32) — a hefty 20-ounce veal chop that's first crusted with breadcrumbs, then topped with marinara, mozzarella and parmesan, and accompanied by a side of pasta — will fill the bill.

Into sides? Italian sausage, meatballs, couscous, broccoli and spinach are all 
available ($4).

Wine (everything from sparkling prosecco to chianti and pinot noir) and beer are offered by the glass. There's a small bar area with some seating, which is nice for appetizers and a beverage at happy hour.

Ciao serves Italian favorites for dinner nightly starting at 5 p.m. and for lunch on Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.   More

BITE-SIZED

Sometimes people recommend a place to eat and encourage you to check it out — 
 but if it's inside a gas station, you might be a little reticent.

Carmelo's, in downtown St. Augustine, connected to a bustling Shell, quickly dispelled the skepticism and made me a fan. It's really more a marketplace that happens to have gas pumps outside. There's a large grab-and-go slice station and a full-service (pardon the pun) eatery.

"Pizzeria" is in the name, so I started with two slices: the stuffed meat supreme ($5.49) with ham, pepperoni, Italian sausage and meatballs, and a slice of cheese and artichoke ($2.75 plus 40¢). The hand-tossed dough was topped with homemade sauce, imported cheeses and my choice of topping, then carefully hoisted into the 500-degree brick-oven pizza. Our waitress politely warned us that we had just ordered enough to feed a large family — slices are gargantuan. When they arrived (she was right, by the way: they're huge) and we cut into the stuffed slice, we were thrilled to find lots of toppings and cheese. The top of the dough was light and golden brown, with a nice, crisp texture, and the supportive undercrust was chewy and flavorful.

In need of something green, I ordered the classic Caesar salad ($7.99), with sun-dried tomatoes, crunchy croutons and fresh Parmesan. I don't think the dressing was homemade, but it was still good.

Next up was the signature Giuseppe Italian sub ($8.29), a large number loaded with layers of Genoa salami, ham, pepperoni slices, pesto, onions, provolone, lettuce, tomato, sweet peppers, oil and vinegar. The sub's two halves were mighty, and I thoroughly enjoyed the pesto addition.

We also liked our plump non-breaded datil pepper jumbo chicken wings ($9.99 for 10), served with a side of ranch.

The interior is airy and spotless, the waitstaff friendly, and the bar ready to serve with bottles of beer and wine, and a few more beers on draft. If you're in need of carbs and don't want too …   More

BITE-SIZED

Spacious and modern, Pulp — which recently opened a second location in the historic Shoppes of Avondale — is ideal for a quick sip on the go, a post-gym beverage or a light lunch. If you're in need of java, there's also hot or iced Bold Bean coffee (available in a variety of preparations — French press, hand drip, Turkish or moka pot) for $2.50 and an assortment of tea, organic beers and wines.

This locally owned shop specializes in smoothies, juices and acai bowls. And you won't find refined sugar or any artificial sweeteners here — just organic cane sugar, raw sugar, stevia, agave and local wildflower honey.

The good news is that while these healthy concoctions may not be calorie-free, they are delicious and loaded with vitamins and antioxidants.

Each sip is like doing a sit-up, right?

Juices are concocted in front of your eyes with massive juicers, smoothies whipped up in record time via high-powered VitaMix blenders, and the do-it-yourself frozen yogurt bar ($0.49 an ounce; no fro-yo in Avondale, sadly) with a plethora of toppings is self-serve, making for a fun experience.

My go-to juice is the brightly hued Green Energy ($6.50). I enjoy the sweetness of the apples and carrots, spiciness from the fresh ginger, tanginess from the lemon and earthy boost from the spinach, parsley, kale and celery.

As for smoothies, the Nuts about Nutella (4.95 for the 16-ounce) is your best bet: It's a silky mix of soymilk, banana, creamy Nutella, peanut butter and organic vanilla frozen yogurt.

At breakfast I've been to known to order the Pulp Acai Bowl ($7.25), packed with antioxidant-rich frozen acai berries blended with your choice of milk then topped with crunchy granola pieces and freshly cut strawberries, bananas and blueberries. Honey drizzle optional. Yes, please.

NIBBLES

• San Marco’s V PIZZA is planning a second area location by the end of the year at 521 N. First St. in Jacksonville …   More

BITE-SIZED

Ever wished your pizza was topped with mashed potatoes? Yeah, me either — until I sat down and indulged in a few slices of the mashed potato pie ($10-18, depending on size) at Mama Q's. Hooked.

With only four tables, Mama Q's is best suited for takeout or delivery, but it certainly delivers (pun intended) big flavor regardless what pie you pick. On the four I shared, I found the crust to be perfect — neither too dense nor soggy, despite the multitude of unique topping offerings, and still crisp on the edges.

No skimping on the toppings either, as they are weighed to achieve a consistent pie every time. And the bacon, which comes on many of the specialty pies, is also perfectly crispy and not too fatty — kudos to Mama!

If you're craving a pre-meal snack, go for the pepperoni-stuffed bread ($7), three-cheese bread ($7), garlic knots ($5) or wings ($9). Lunch or dinner will be out shortly, as pizzas only take about six minutes to cook, at 476 degrees, after being created.

Create your own or pick a specialty pie like the Backyard BBQ (large for $16), which won me over. Loaded with grilled chicken breast, bacon, chopped red onion, cheddar cheese and a heavy-handed drizzle of smoky-yet-sweet BBQ sauce, it was surprisingly tasty for a pizza that I typically wouldn't gravitate toward.

Now, back to that mashed potato pie. The golden crust is layered with an olive oil and garlic sauce that's then topped with a layer of mashed potatoes and abundantly sprinkled with shredded cheddar, crispy bacon pieces and thinly sliced chives. (For good measure I got a side of ranch — a la potato skins — and felt like a kid on Christmas morning.)

Each month an off-menu specialty pizza is available, so get the 411 on this creative offering before you order. And at lunch there are specials like two slices and a drink for $5, which really can't be beat.

Oh, and if you've got a sweet tooth, kids and adults alike will enjoy the homemade …   More

BITE-SIZED

Don’t let the rundown strip-mall façade or the neighboring Karaoke bar fool you: World Food Mart’s hidden food corner is a treasure trove for adventure.

As you walk in, you’re surrounded by seemingly endless aisles of Asian products — canned, bagged, frozen, loose — so hang a left and walk straight back to find a cash-only lunch counter serving made-to-order Korean and Japanese specialties. You won’t be disappointed.

Peruse a straightforward menu board, wait for one of the two adorable serving ladies to greet you, then order and pay. When your tray is ready, add any sauces you’d like, and grab a seat at one of the several tables, most of which were occupied the day we went there.

We ordered the lunch special bulgogi ($6.95): strips of Korean BBQ beef mixed with white onion and a light sauce. It arrived in a bento box with a heap of steamed white rice, a simple chopped cabbage salad, crunchy pickled daikon radish and two plump fried stuffed dumplings.

Our bimimbap ($6.99), an oversized bowl full of an assortment of mixed vegetables, rice, and a sweet-and-spicy sauce, was topped with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds and a sunny-side-up egg. Break the yolk and mix everything together — yum.

Several soups are available. I selected the udon, which was full of tangled, thick, wheat-based, long udon noodles, a fish cake, tofu pieces and some sort of seafood, but it needed a little something, so I added a few shakes of soy sauce to the light and mild broth. When I go to World Food Mart again, I want to try the jjam bbong, a red-hued spicy seafood noodle soup with mussels, shrimp, ginger, bamboo shoots, vegetables and noodles. It’s about as authentic a Korean dish as you can get — the folks dining near us had ordered it, and I was quite envious.

The Korean kimbap ($3.99) resembled Japanese sushi with its seaweed-wrapped white rice, vegetables, egg and krab, but used sesame oil …   More

 
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