When asked what three words would describe the new St. Petersburg restaurant Nueva Cantina, owner Louie Spetrini says his new restaurant is fun, authentic and welcoming. Spetrini and partners, Erin and Rocco Rinaldi, bought the space formerly known as El Gallo Grande on October 3, and have been operating as Nueva Cantina since November 1.

Guests grab mini carnitas tacos to try a taste of Nueva Cantina's new menu. 

tacos, fish, vegetable
Angelina Bruno

El Gallo Grande has had mixed reviews, and a weak following since its opening in 2014 but Spetrini is confident he will turn the space around and give it new life. Spetrini has more than 25 years experience in restaurant management and moved to the Tampa Bay area two years ago to open Sea Salt in 2014. After, he opened up Cocina Aqui in Redington Shores in July of 2015 with chef Paul Daubert. Now he’s back in St. Pete, and he’s got big plans for Nueva Cantina.

Thanks to help from Chef Paul Daubert, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the menu at Nueva Cantina is entirely new. Nueva boasts an expansive menu with over 50 items, and for good reason too. “I want something for everyone,” said Spetrini. In addition to a large menu that can please a crowd, the menu has a price point that could please a bargain Betty or a big spender. Guests can choose from a list of “Speedy Gonzalez” lunch choices for $6.95 or indulge with a Carne Asada at dinner for around $18.

As far as Spetrini’s favorites go, he loves the Mariscos Quesadillas, a quesadilla with shrimp, scallops and smoked Gouda, and the Ybor City Chimichanga stuffed with pulled pork, brown mustard, ham and black bean hummus.

The kitchen has a hidden secret that Spetrini says adds to the authenticity of the menu. When Spetrini owned Cocina-Aqui he met a husband and wife duo who worked in his kitchen. The pair is from Mexico and are now responsible for making all of the sauces and moles, rojas and verdes that contribute heavily to Nueva Cantina’s Mexican and Latin and Central American flavor profile.

Kuba Medowski shakes up tasty cocktails behind the patio bar. 

beer, wine
Angelina Bruno

Drinks are in no shortage at the Cantina either. Frozen mango and traditional lime margaritas stay churning behind the bar, and the house margarita keeps it simple with only three ingredients: agave, lime and tequila. Nueva Cantina has made friends with Milagro tequila and Tabanero hot sauce, companies Spetrini calls his “partners in crime.”

In addition to the food, Spetrini has upped the ante on entertainment and the guest experience. Outside an additional bar has been added to the patio, and outdoor table seating. A Murphy bed style table will be added this week, so it can seat 6 guests during a dinner rush, and be folded up later to make room for dancing and live music. Spetrini plans on having live music Friday and Saturday night but he’s still looking for the right band to fill the gig.

As far as the interior goes, the space kept the original artwork done by the Vitale Brothers and Spetrini had the company come in and put a fresh coat of paint on everything before the opening.

Some guests celebrated the opening with skull face paint and colorful flower crowns. 

Angelina Bruno

A private dining room will be created this week. Spetrini is installing a large door to close off an area in the restaurant, so up to 50 guests can dine privately for special occasions. There won’t be a rental fee, just a food and beverage minimum and Spetrini said Chef Paul already has catering menus created and ready to go.

Guest experience is important to Spetrini and he wants his patrons to remember three things after they leave Nueva. “I want them to remember they had great service, authentic food and a killer environment.”

Unlike most downtown area eateries, Nueva Cantina has 50 parking spots right behind the joint, so there’s no searching for parking - at least not yet. The restaurant brought in 103 guests for lunch Thursday according to Spetrini and he only expects business to grow from there. So far, reviews have been good, and it seems patrons have been pleased by the changes. 

For taco lovers who just can't wait for a Mexican fix, Spoon users have written up tons of recipes. Cook up a Mexican meal of healthy tacos, and balance it out with a margarita - or three.  

Owner Louie Spetrini, center, poses with some of his bartenders

cake, sushi, pizza
Angelina Bruno