If you think the Florida restaurant scene is all early bird specials and buffets that cater to the denture set, meet Naples. Not too long ago, menus were dominated by bland dishes that catered to the simple taste buds of Midwestern snowbirds. Middle Americans still flocks to Naples, but their palates have grown more sophisticated. Thankfully, local chefs have exceeded the blossoming epicurean demand and the heavyweight culinary scene is now a highlight of any visit to the area. This is no small feat in a region that goes by the name Paradise Coast. Dining establishments face stiff competition from miles of sun-drenched Gulf beaches that feature powdery white sand and gentle surf.
A dynamic generation of youthful chefs is drawn to Naples’ abundance of fresh seafood and fertile farmland within a few miles of the city limits. They praise the collaborative spirit that exists in the professional food community. Strong demand from well-heeled customers translates into packed tables each night and plenty of room for individual restaurant owners to carve out their own niche. Here are four of Naples’ most delectable dining options.
Naples is a ritzy town, but not all of the dining establishments are swanky or expensive. The Local served the best meal I’d eaten in months. The restaurant’s exterior is a lesson that looks can be deceiving. It’s located in a generic strip mall, sandwiched between a mattress store and a Subway sandwich chain. Step inside and you’re immediately transported to locavore heaven. It bills itself as Naples’ first farm-to-table, sea-to-table restaurant and everything is made with local or hyper-local ingredients. Order a frosty agua fresca to start your meal and it’s made with freshly squeezed tangerines from owner/chef Jeff Mitchell’s backyard tangerine tree. The menu changes daily based on what’s freshest, so embrace the unpredictability of seasonality. Whatever the daily menu offers, you can expect fresh Gulf fish such as Pine Island clams, healthy salads, flatbread pizzas with colorful toppings and creative soups, including numerous vegan and vegetarian options. Prices are reasonable and portions generous. Mitchell passionately supports a range of nearby farms and creameries. The only thing not local is his thoroughbred wine list, but Florida craft breweries are well represented.
You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into an Italian trattoria when you enter Osteria Tulia, and that’s entirely the point. Chef Vincenzo Betulia was born in Palermo and raised in Milwaukee. His culinary training started at his grandmother’s apron strings. Her authentic Sicilian recipes were Batulia’s springboard, and nonna encouraged him to start working in restaurant kitchens at the tender age of fifteen. He counts chefs Paul Bartolotta and Michael White as seminal influences. With their guidance, Betulia discovered the variety of regional cuisines that exist within Italy.
Located on pedestrian-friendly 5th Avenue, Osteria Tulia’s decor is described as Tuscan farmhouse, a ubiquitous term nowadays, but this is the real deal. Casual furnishings, warm service and peasant-style dishes ooze rustic Italian authenticity.
My favorite appetizers all featured meat. Bacon lovers shouldn’t miss the Crispy Fried Pigs Ears, which are just what they sound like. The Tuscan chicken liver pate and Sicilian meatballs were carnivore delights.
Don’t leave the premises without trying at least one of the hand-rolled pasta dishes. Sometimes the best way to appraise a chef is to order the simplest dish on the menu, with no complicated sauces or seasonings to hide behind. The Bucatini cacio e pepe was my litmus test. The long strands of pasta are flavored with only sheep’s milk cheese and cracked black pepper. The Garganelli pasta is served in a rich sauce of tender lamb neck, with a robust sprinkling of pecorino cheese holding it all together. Pizza, fish, poultry, osso buco and steak round out the menu. The wine list is notable and features numerous bottles at a fair price.
One bite and you can’t help but notice that Sea Salt chef/owner Fabrizio Aielli is Venetian. His elegant eatery showcases sustainable seafood prepared in a manner that would make his hometown swell with pride. Venetian’s are legendary throughout Italy for their delicate touch with Adriatic fish and Chef Aielli seamlessly translates old-world coastal traditions to 21st century Florida. With seafood this fresh, his light hand is perfection. The setting radiates glamor, so it’s not surprising that Naples most fashionable foodies congregate here to be fussed over by the pampering staff.
True to the restaurant’s name, Chef uses over 130 types of salt from around the globe. Start with a selection of impossible-to-resist breads served with trio of salt and extra-virgin olive oil. The oyster bar and raw bar offer impeccable selections of top-drawer sea creatures from ultra-briny to super-sweet. Stone crab is a coveted delicacy and it’s a must if you’re in here in season, which runs mid-October until mid-May. All fish is lovingly displayed like jewels at Tiffany’s, so you can see what you are going to eat before ordering. The wine cellar is revered for its selection from small producers from the world’s major viticulture regions. Don’t skip dessert because the chic Norman Love truffles are the stuff of sweet dreams. Book a seat at the Chef’s Table and you’ll enjoy a knockout gastronomic experience rich in texture, temperature and flavor.
Mereday’s Fine Dining
Mereday’s Fine Dining is a waterfront restaurant serving contemporary cuisine based on fresh and seasonal ingredients. The restaurant’s setting exploits its proximity to the Gulf, with dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows that face the yacht-filled harbor. Dashing Chef Charles Mereday’s cooking draws on his knowledge of America’s culinary history and culture. His experience as a chef in Europe and the Caribbean make for an impressive resume, but his food needs no introduction. Diners choose a 2, 3 or 4-course dinner with a complimentary dessert. Each orchestrated course provides a sense of balance and harmony that adds up to an exhilarating meal. Vegan and vegetarian options abound, thanks to Mereday’s passion and commitment to animal-free fine dining. The sometimes dowdy beet is transformed into a swan when Mereday adds goat cheese, mint and Thai basil oil. My 4-course dinner was mouth-watering from start to finish, but the local black grouper and seared scallops were luscious standouts. The gifted pastry chef makes heavenly desserts, but the artisan cheese selection is the crowning savory finish to a fabulous feast. Service is excellent and the staff appears genuinely happy to be a part of Mereday’s vision.
For information on planning a gourmet getaway to Naples, go to www.Paradisecoast.com.