Porthole Grille, parked outside hotel, becomes Village’s first food truck
By Hannah Wallace
For all our varied and wonderful Village eateries, food trucks have been a long time coming. But the Porthole Grille, currently parked alongside the Big Tiki Lounge at the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites, might just have been worth the wait.
Since opening in May, the mobile kitchen has been gaining fans with extravagant beach fare like Wagyu beef smash burgers, “Lobster Trap Mac,” wasabi broccoli slaw and flame-grilled octopus.
“We’re fast, we’re casual, we’re doing octopus, we’ve got a footlong Wagyu hot dog,” said Porthole proprietor Maurice Dentici with his trademark enthusiasm. “I don’t want to just serve a frozen beef patty. I want to serve the best foot-long Frankfurter. I want to do lobster quesadilla.”
Dentici knows what local diners like. A Sarasotan since age 13, Dentici graduated Sarasota High and went into the family restaurant business, embracing a long line of culinary influences from Sicily to New Jersey to the Gulf of Mexico. He currently operates four local Rico’s pizzerias and opened Siesta’s own Spearfish Grille in 2018.
A food truck was a logical extension of Dentici’s established catering operations. The problem was where to put it. Barred by a variety of state and local ordinances for decades, food trucks had never been allowed to set up shop in Siesta Village. But mobile vendors have finally gained a sliver of permission in recent years as laws changed and regulations loosened.
On Siesta, a licensed food truck can now operate on a private business property with permission from the owner, provided the property still allows an adequate number of parking spaces. But out on the Key, there often aren’t parking spaces to spare.
Just as this small window of regulatory opportunity opened, as Dentici tells it, he just happened to meet the owners of the Siesta Key Beach Resort, whose popular Big Tiki Lounge serves plenty of tropical cocktails but no food. The property also happened to have a porch area large enough for a food truck to operate without taking up any parking spaces.
“It fit the parameters [for a food truck],” said Dentici. “It’s one of the few spots you can do it.”
The property owners and management were equally enthusiastic about what an on-site food vendor could offer — not just to the tiki bar customers, but to people staying at the resort, too.
“Many of our guests have children, are short on time and simply don’t want to travel far for a decent, quick meal,” said resort manager Dani Hohn, adding that restaurant wait times during season can exacerbate the time crunch. “The food trailer seems to solve some of those problems.”
When it came time to build the truck itself, Dentici followed his impulses. “You’d start with one concept and you end up with another,” he said. “What I want to serve will change at any given moment. I’m very fluid that way.”
Ultimately what you’ll find inside the Porthole Grille food truck is a monument to Dentici’s enthusiasm and adaptability.
“It’s a full kitchen in there,” he said. “It has everything — it’s got a cheese melter, steam table fryers, fry choppers, everything. There’s restaurants in town that would be envious of that kitchen.”
Those comprehensive furnishings explain why the food truck can cover such a far-reaching menu. Proteins served up by the Porthole Grille include Wagyu ground beef as well as frankfurters, fish, fried shrimp, lobster, pulled pork, chicken, tuna, and flame-grilled octopus. (Both Dentici and Hohn say the lobster roll has been the standout seller so far this summer.)
Veggie appetizers include wasabi broccoli slaw and Thai Brussels sprouts.
And when Dentici offers “loaded fries,” he means it.
“You could put octopus on the fries, tuna on the fries, pulled pork. Whatever you want to put on the fries, I’m going to load it up. Nothing’s too crazy,” he said. “If you’re willing to pay for it, I’m willing to do it.”
Despite Dentici’s lifetime of restaurant experience, the food truck has given him a few new challenges. Most noticeably, he discovered that even the most well-equipped of mobile kitchens has very little storage. Everything is fresh because it has to be.
“Space is an issue,” explained Dentici. “It’s just something you have to learn. You’re not storing product for two weeks; you’re making daily runs to Detweiler’s and getting every-other-day deliveries from your food purveyors. There’s only so much space on the truck. There’s no room for old.”
And if they run out of an item? They run out. “That’s fine. Next time get there earlier,” he said.
Where “there” is might change in the future, but for now, the Big Tiki location is working out well for everyone involved. And if business slows? Well, that’s the beauty of a food truck: They can just go somewhere else for an afternoon or a weekend. Dentici is already eying other potential locations, in addition to offering up the Porthole Grille for weddings and other private events.
Most of all, the Siesta food truck has been yet another venue for Dentici to get to know his customers. And he really does listen. In a bid to stand out from other local food trucks, Dentici had sworn off tacos at first. But after several requests, he happily added them to the Porthole menu.
“I’m always open for suggestions. I’ll listen to anyone once. I might be like, ‘I never thought about that before.’ Or I might tell you you’re crazy,” he said. “I’m at a point in my life where I can experiment and do different things. I found a pretty cool spot to slide into.”