Just like the ocean, Tampa’s seafood community is complex, diverse and always unpredictable. On any given night the same species of fish can be cooked a dozen different ways, a reflection of the city’s growing taste buds and tastemakers. To discover some of the city’s best seafood we asked five of Tampa’s top chefs what they order when they’re not on the job – and not in their restaurant.

Written By Derek Herscovici | Photography By Gabriel Burgos

Chef Adam Polisei, Executive Chef
Ocean Prime
2205 N. Westshore Blvd.
(813) 490-5228

Where are you from?
I’m from the suburbs a little bit north of Detroit. The first time I came to Tampa was nine years ago; I was here for seven years, then I went back to Michigan, then back to Tampa again a little over two years ago. I’ve been with Ocean Prime for about six years. Prior to that I was with Mitchell’s Fish Market when it was part of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants.

How long have you been a chef?
As a sous chef or executive chef rank, I think it’s been almost 10 years now. Cooking? Man, since I was 15, so about 20 years.

How long have you worked with seafood?
Oddly enough, I’ve worked for a seafood restaurant—whether it was Ocean Prime or other restaurants—for the last 11 years of my life. I guess it was really almost by accident, but I love seafood, so it works out.

How would you describe the menu at Ocean Prime?
I would say we’re definitely a fine-dining fish house or seafood house first, then we also like to combine the best of the surf and the turf, so we carry eight prime steak cuts as well as some other non-seafood items. We try to appease the best of both worlds.

My favorite seafood dish that’s not in my restaurant is…
The only dish that I consistently get anywhere, because most people change their seafood options up quite often, but the one dish that I get consistently is the potato-crusted oysters at Edison Food + Drink Lab.

Edison Food + Drink Lab
912 W. Kennedy Blvd.
(813) 254-7111

What makes it stand out?
I kind of look at it almost like it’s the perfect dish. It’s got sweetness, it’s got saltiness, it’s got crunch, it’s got nice delicate oyster, then there’s this great mustard aioli that’s on top of it and a sweeter dill pickle nectar. It’s almost like eating a salt-and-vinegar potato chip but with this big juicy oyster.
How did you hear about it?
My wife and I just went in there for dinner one evening, and I saw it on the menu and I just thought, “Well, that sounds amazing.” Sure enough, it was amazing. Now every time that we go there we get it, and anytime we send anyone there I tell them that they absolutely have to have it.”


Chef Joshua Hernandez, Executive Chef
718 S. Howard Ave.
(813) 512-3030

Where are you from?
I grew up in Sarasota. Coming back [to Tampa Bay from Los Angeles] for Ava was sort of a homecoming for me.

How long have you been a chef?
Ava is actually my first head chef gig, so we’ve been open for about two-and-a-half years. I was on the project for about a year before we opened. Prior to that, I was cooking in Los Angeles for five years. I was really lucky and got to cook for some really great chefs and concepts. Early on out there I got hooked up with the Sprout group, which at the time Bill Chait was in charge of, and he’s been described as the Danny Meyer [Ed. note: New York City restaurateur whose businesses include Shake Shack] of the West Coast. I actually got to open a bunch of restaurants in L.A. under that umbrella.

How would you describe the menu at AVA?
The easiest way to say it is it’s multi-regional rustic Italian — there’s influences from the north and influences from the south, then we have some Italian-American favorites on the menu that have gone over very well.

If you come here you should try…
The octopus potatoes – it’s octopus and fingerling potatoes with aged balsamic and dill. Octopus and potatoes is a very traditional Mediterranean way to eat octopus. [Also try] the charcuterie. I cure all the charcuterie myself. I have a custom walk-in meat-curing chamber that lets me do difficult cures like salami and things like that. I’m always kind of snacking on that. I call it “product development.”
My favorite seafood dish that’s not in my restaurant is…
Well I’ve been going to Long John Silver’s a lot lately… [laughs] No, I would probably have to pick the crispy cobia collar over at Rooster & The Till.

Rooster & The Till
6500 N. Florida Ave.
(813) 374-8940

What makes it stand out?
It’s cool to see a collar on the menu. That is a part of the fish that [usually] either gets thrown away or used for stock. That goes along with that philosophy that most chefs have – you try to use as much of the animal as possible. I like that [Chef Ferrell Alvarez is] not just using the collar to flavor something; he’s actually serving it. You don’t see it a lot here. The dish itself, texturally it’s very satisfying because the collar meat is super tender and sweet, then he drenches it in flour and drops it straight into the deep fryer so it gets really crispy. There’s nice textural contrast. The flavor is like Thai chili, so you get the savory saltiness of the fish along with this tanginess of the sauce and the chili. I think it works really well. It’s a fun dish to eat.


Chef Joanie Corneil, Owner and Chef
Bella’s Italian Café and Square 1 Burgers
Bella’s Italian Café
1413 S. Howard Ave. #100
(813) 254-3355

Where are you from?
I was raised on a wheat and cattle farm in Oklahoma, so I was exposed to lots of good flavors there and learned a lot from my grandmothers, aunts and mom. I lived in Italy for a few years and that’s when I really got into Italian cuisine.

How long have you been a chef?
I’ve been a chef for 35 years. I’ve been in the industry off and on since I was 20, but I don’t have formal training as a chef. I’m self-taught. In Italy I took a few cooking classes, but as far as working, in the last 35 years I’ve never worked for anyone but myself. Before we moved to Florida we had some restaurants in Oklahoma City, then of course when we moved to Tampa we opened Bella’s in 1986. I was the driving force behind that, and that’s why I wrote the cookbook “Bella’s.”

How long have you worked with seafood?
I’ve worked with it, but it hasn’t been the driving force. We do different shrimp-scallop things. Over the years we’ve done a lot with red snapper [and] grouper because we’re in Florida. We have a salmon that we roast in a wood-burning oven that’s been on the menu for almost 20 years and sells better than ever. It just depends on what’s really good and in season and what I think the customer will go for.

How has the menu at Bella’s Italian Café changed since 1986?
The basics are the same, but the specialty pastas and entrees have kind of evolved over the years. We still have some of the same salads, and our lobster bisque has been on the menu since day one, so I would say probably half the menu is the same.

My favorite seafood dish that’s not in my restaurant is…
I love stone crab. I like those at Eddie V’s Prime Seafood, but the seafood I like the most at Eddie V’s is the broiled lobster. They do it just right for my taste.

Eddie V’s Prime Seafood
4400 W. Boy Scout Blvd.
(813) 877-7290
What makes it stand out?
It is so fresh, then it’s broiled to my liking. I don’t like lobster thrown into a lobster pot and boiled. I like it popped out of the shell a bit and put under the broiler.



Chef Jason McFarland, Executive Chef
O Cocina
4110 Henderson Blvd.
(813) 289-0649

Where are you from?
I’m originally from Alpharetta, Georgia. [There’s] not a lot of seafood, but it’s real close to Atlanta so there’s plenty to eat there.

How long have you been a chef?
I’ve been a chef for about 16 years, but I’ve been in a kitchen for about 24 years – since high school.

How would you describe the menu at O Cocina?
We’re a modern Mexican restaurant. We take the classic flavors and infuse them with different things and bring in different flavor profiles, just kind of stepping up all the classic, regional recipes from Mexico.

If you come to my restaurant try…
We did a menu change April 18th, so, as far as seafood goes, I’m currently doing a Yucatan-style mahi mahi. It’s going to be marinated and wrapped in banana leaves and grilled.

My favorite seafood dish that’s not in my restaurant is…
Honestly its gotta be the spicy tuna roll from SoHo Sushi. I’ll go in and eat, like, three every time I’m in there.

SoHo Sushi
3218 W. Kennedy Blvd.
(813) 873-7646
What makes it stand out?
It tends to be not as shredded as others – it’s minced. The spice really comes through. A lot of the time you have a spicy tuna roll and it’s kind of flat, it never has a kick to it.
How did you hear about it?
I’ll be honest – I don’t get out a whole lot. I have a 15-year-old son, so we don’t go out a lot, but as far as seafood goes, I’m a big fan of sushi, so I go to SoHo Sushi. I like pretty much all maki, but I’m also a sashimi fan, so anytime I can find toro [Ed note: tuna belly, the most desired part of the fish], I think that menu is
pretty amazing.

Chef Nick Cruz, Owner, Founder and Head Chef
Big Ray’s Fish Camp
6116 Interbay Blvd.
(813) 605-3615

Where are you from?
I’m a fifth-generation Tampanian – born and raised here.

How long have you been a chef?
Personally, I’ve been cooking my whole life.  The last eight years I’ve been running a catering business called Blue Catering, then I went into the brick-and-mortar restaurant business. I went around and got all the scrap wood in the neighborhood and built my tables out and poured all the concrete. I did all the work pretty much by myself to get it ready. It took me a year cleaning pools and doing catering just to get the building ready, and we’ve been open for almost two years now.

How long have you worked with seafood?
My great-grandfather was a mullet fisherman, and he fished off the Alafia, and I remember as a kid my first time understanding that I belonged in the kitchen. I might have been six, seven, eight years old, and I was at my great-grandfather’s house on this dock. He had these handmade mullet boats he would make himself, and he would go out and catch mullet, bring it back and smoke it in a refrigerator that he converted into a smoker. I remember thinking, “Man, this really is what it’s about.”

How do you describe the menu at Big Ray’s Fish Camp?
We try to do as fresh as possible. [At the fish camp it feels like] the 1950s or the 1970s just stopped, and you’re warped back to Old Florida and what it’s supposed to be like. I wanted you to get that feeling and that same grouper sandwich [that Florida natives remember.]

My favorite seafood dish that’s not in my restaurant is…
The smoked fish from Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish. Everything they do at Ted Peters is really, really good and some of the best seafood I’ve eaten in town.

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Ave. S.
(727) 381-7931

What makes it stand out?
[When] I walked into Ted Peter’s with my mom as a kid, after my great-grandfather passed away, it just took me right back to that place when I was growing up watching him [and] helping him catch mullet. It just took me right back there.