Gulfport: Quirky, Quaint and Open to All

    By Saundra Amrhein

    The man on the saxophone is onto full upbeat jazz classics as the foot traffic picks up along Beach Boulevard in Gulfport.

    On bikes, in sandals, while walking dogs or pushing strollers, residents and visitors are out in force by noon at the weekly Tuesday Fresh Market in Gulfport.

    Among the stalls and selections are locally grown and organic produce, freshly caught seafood, gourmet cheeses, healing emu oils, hand-crafted jewelry, and homemade dog biscuits.

    “Are those mama’s meatballs?” a woman asks walking up to the booth of Mangia Gourmet.

    “These are the gluten-free meatballs,” says Maria Johnson, the mother of the restaurant’s co-owner, Jill, who offers at her place across the street vegan and vegetarian salads and wraps, curried chicken salads, assorted hummus, baked goods, smoothies, organic coffee and more.

    “I have to get some. I’m glad you made ‘em,” says the woman, a local resident, dressed in jeans and sandals and wearing her purse bandolier-style over her blouse. “That’s half the reason I came down here.”

    The weekly fresh market is one of many draws to this city of Gulfport, a small, progressive art-friendly village 6 miles southwest of St. Petersburg, with its brick-paved streets, colorful cottages, independently owned shops and plethora of great restaurants – all parked on the glimmering waters of Boca Ciega Bay.

    Other attractions include the Gulfport Art Walk, which runs every First Friday and Third Saturday along Beach and Shore Boulevards, pulling in crowds to enjoy or purchase the works of independent artists and local authors, while entertainers, live musicians and drum circles perform either outdoors or at local venues.

    Among the other festivals throughout the year, Gecko Fest during Labor Day weekend is the biggest, with three stages of live music, more than 200 arts and food vendors, street dances, children’s activities, acrobatic shows and more.

    Gulfport prides itself on its openness to all walks of life, ages, ethnicities, races or sexual orientation, with one website devoted to the community likening bigoted speech to the environmental pollution of garbage in the bay.

    “Gulfport’s been a really good area for us,” Johnson says about Mangia, her daughter’s store. “We’re a quirky little place, and it just fits.”

    Across the street, Brenda Guay has set up an oasis of tranquility during the fresh market at her stall business called the Emotional Gardener, selling a variety of tropical plants, garden art, and herbs like Cuban oregano, basil, spearmint and sage.

    “I believe when you work out in the garden and if you have worries on your mind, they are really lessened when you focus on pulling weeds,” says Guay, clad in a green shirt and red-rimmed glasses as she explains the title of her business. The community is so friendly and open that people regularly bring her cuttings from their own gardens.

    “Sometimes you feel like time has stood still here,” Guay says. “You see the peacefulness of it.”

    In the middle of the fresh market, visitors could stop by the Gulfport Casino located next to the bay and take a ballroom dance lesson on its broad hardwood dance floor flanked by tall windows that allow great views of the water. The Casino is a popular place for weddings and also hosts weekly salsa socials and classes in Argentine tango and swing dancing.

    As the fresh market draws to a close by mid-afternoon, a light rain starts to fall, and some shoppers duck for cover inside one of Gulfport’s unique restaurants.

    Pia’s Trattoria conjures Old Italy with its mustard colored walls and brown-wood framing on the exterior, while stepping inside, diners find a bar full of coffees and beers. Further back are small dining rooms that lead to the main attraction: The lush, bricked courtyard spreads out under a thatched roof and is filled with tropical plants and picnic tables covered with colorful floral-print tablecloths.

    Several parties linger over large plates of pasta, with carafes of wine or imported beer. Appetizers include gently sautéed calamari in a lemon, garlic and butter sauce – far tastier than fried and battered versions popular in many restaurants.

    The bruschetta comes on large, hunks of fresh bread topped with fresh chunks of tomato, red onions, and herbs. The salads come large with a mixture of greens, vegetables, cheeses and dressings, while the lunch-time pasta dishes are served with one of a variety of sauces, including a red sauce that is a delicious blend of sweet, tangy and salty.

    There’s plenty to do to while away the rest of the afternoon, including a must-stop at the open-air O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille on Shore Boulevard. While regulars kick back for a cold beer in view of the bay and some dance to oldies music from the juke box, several residents with fishing poles head out across the street onto the Williams Fishing Pier to cast a line.

    Down the block and up Beach Boulevard, a cozy cottage book store beckons. Up the ramp and inside the door of the Small Adventures Bookshop, co-owner Jan Dutton looks through photo illustrations with their creator, local graphic designer and illustrator Charles Marton.

    “That’s Gulfport, we have lots of local charm here,” says Dutton about the stable of working artists in the community, including Marton, a 20-year resident formerly from upstate New York.

    “I love to be in my shorts and ride my bike and go swimming,” Marton says.

    For her part, Dutton has run the book store with her husband, Bruce, since the early 1990s.  

    The front two rooms are crowded with rows of books, including recent novels, Gulfport history books, origami and paperbacks. There’s a section on Florida critters, dolphins and whales. There are romances and science fiction, bios and thrillers, and books on fitness, spirituality, and cooking. Between the stacks visitors might stumble on Emily Dickinson, the sweet black-and-white resident cat.

    “I love all these people,” Dutton says about the townspeople and supporters who either visit during the art walks and fresh markets or who stumble in to support an independent book store.

    “They love to scrounge around in the back and find something they never expected,” she says.

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