GULFPORT — The distinct aroma of arugula, basil and balsamic vinaigrette fill the room as a diva is greeted at the front door with pale pink calla lilies and balloons.
But, wait, a diva? Well, for the day at least.
The Diva For A Day Foundation selects a woman every few weeks, who is or has battled some form of cancer, to enjoy “a day to rest, relax and restore,” according to the foundation’s website. Euphoria Salon and Day Spa in St. Petersburg has elected to provide the venue for the diva to experience a full day of pampering that consists of a new hair style, manicure, pedicure, massage and a catered lunch. Euphoria also provides the services and, like all other events they have put together in recent years, they secure the services of restaurant and caterer Mangia Gourmet in Gulfport.
Euphoria’s salon director, Cindy Moore, 45, of St. Petersburg is in charge of putting together the events.
“We love Mangia Gourmet because it’s fresh and healthy, and perfect for our clients who are usually very health and image conscious,” Moore said.
Euphoria has used Mangia’s catering services over 10 times for various events at the salon and spa, but feel the food is especially important during the days that they cater to a diva.
Euphoria’s owner Tonya Goodrich, 50, of Seminole, heard about Mangia from a friend and says she knew immediately the food would be perfect for events at her salon and spa.
Goodrich said, “Now I tell everyone, ‘it’s the yummiest healthy food you’ll ever eat’!”
Mangia Gourmet sits in a small, shady cove on Beach Boulevard South in Gulfport. The persimmon colored building with oversized eating utensils bolted to the façade previously housed the short-lived Paco’s Tacos, and a few other unmemorable establishments, leading some Gulfport residents to deem the property “cursed.” When the news spread that popular Gulfport Tuesday Fresh Market vendor Mangia Gourmet Catering would fill the space as a restaurant many people raised a hopeful eyebrow.
One Gulfport resident said last year on the Gulfport Patch Facebook page, “I hope they are the ones that break the curse on that building. I don’t recall a retailer being successful in there, so good luck to them.”
While others rejoiced that the business was back from the proverbial dead.
“Hooray Mangia is back!” said another Facebook fan.
The Mangia Gourmet that became a cult favorite of Gulfport fresh market goers was not always the concept that owner Jill Johnson, 36, and extended family had in mind. The family owned Mangia Gourmet International Tapas and New Cuisine on Corey Avenue in St. Pete Beach from 2002-2006. There the menu then was broader, covering many varieties of food across American and Italian palates.
This time it’s Jill and her mother Maria Johnson, 62, who concocts, cooks and bakes the quinoa salads, flavored hummus wraps, baked goods, and other fresh, healthy, gluten free or vegan/vegetarian foods and beverages.
Mangia, which means ‘eat’ in Italian, began again after Johnson grew tired of managing Panera after the first Mangia had closed, and started Mangia Gourmet Catering. To grow the company’s customer base she also secured a vendor spot at the Gulfport market.
The healthy and fresh motto of the new Mangia Gourmet quickly found a strong niche within those of the fresh market crowd who had adopted a healthier lifestyle.
“We didn’t start off doing gluten free, it was more customers coming to me saying that they can’t have gluten,” Johnson said of how the restaurant has evolved from her past venture.
“We realized a lot of our food was already gluten free because we prepare it from scratch,” she said.
Mangia Gourmet finally secured their permanent residence on the palm tree-lined, historic Beach Boulevard, and after months of renovations, the restaurant opened in August of 2013 with a soft-opening party.
The shady courtyard and limited indoor seating within walking distance from the historic waterfront define the take-and-go attitude that Johnson envisioned for the new Gulfport Mangia. Organic coffee, tea, beer, wine, art and other products from local artists fill the cozy space.
Gulfport residents, Lauren and Daniel Fernandez, say they favor the vegan bean burgers.
“There are no other vegan restaurants in Gulfport,” said Lauren, 25. “We’re not even vegans, but all their food is delicious anyway and when my friends who are vegan or vegetarian come to town, I know where to take them.”
Her husband, Daniel, 36, has recently implemented a gluten-free diet and said, “Try the gluten free chocolate cake, so good and you’ll forget that it’s gluten free.”
That attitude and word of mouth referrals from satisfied customers has echoed through the Tuesday fresh market since Johnson re-ignited her passion for great food and dining that began nearly 15 years ago while she was working at the Don Cesar on St. Pete Beach.
Her other passion for supporting local businesses, along with the customer requests, led her to use only fresh, locally grown or organic produce and other ingredients in her food, and become a vendor for the market.
However, Johnson is quick to point out that Mangia is not solely a vegan and vegetarian restaurant.
“Even though we have a lot of vegan stuff we still do things like jerk chicken, chicken salad, meatballs and filet mignon, so we’re not saying it’s unhealthy to have that, but try to have a plant based diet as much as possible.”
That ‘come one, come all’ attitude has helped that Mangia cult following grow strong through the Gulfport and St. Petersburg communities. Cultivating the support of other local businesses and professionals like Euphoria and LocalShops1.com, a popular local discount card, have also helped Mangia this time around.
“I love catering events like Diva for a Day at Euphoria because it not only puts our name out there, but almost specifically to a market that already favors our kind of foods,” said Johnson.
Businessman and self-described “jack of all trades” of Mangia Gourmet Scott Linde, 56 of Gulfport, has been another change to the new Mangia Gourmet.
After trying Mangia at the market and then utilizing their catering services for an event, Linde’s mind immediately turned to Johnson when Paco’s Tacos vacated their building. He asked Johnson if she wanted a partner in Mangia and Johnson accepted.
“It was fate,” Johnson said, “because I had already tried to get the building and was denied.”
With Linde’s help, Johnson’s dream came true. Now while still seeing success from the fresh market that cultivated their loyal following, Mangia Gourmet also sees steady business during their many themed events.
The warm glow of tall, spherical heating lamps and lighted trees sets the mood in the courtyard for weekly Reggae Sundays, Open Mic Tuesdays, and Wednesday Night Jazz Jams.
Grilled Jamaican jerk chicken is served over rice for Mangia’s meat eaters during Reggae Sunday while local singers and musicians light Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and bands like the popular Urban Gypsies light of the cozy stage on various Saturday nights. Locals and visitors often join in with the singers and musicians to form a giant sing-a-long in the dimly lit courtyard.
A diva finishes her last bite of quinoa salad while her shiny pink toenails dry on the tall pedicure throne. The tastes of arugula and basil are washed down by a fresh coconut kale smoothie from Mangia Gourmet and the diva smiles has she licks her lips and is happily whisked off to the room of massages. She may only be considered a diva for a day, but with memories of fresh food and healthy drinks with her pampering, maybe the feeling will live on.