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Monday, Sep 17, 2018
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Naples is a dining destination worth visiting, rich with newcomers and long-standing favorites


Naples Restaurant Week is a semiannual promotion celebrating the region's best dining at an affordable price, with lunch and dinner prix fixe meals available for either $25 or $35, depending on the location. This year it's slated for Nov. 30 to Dec. 13, with 60 restaurants on board. I'm a big fan of restaurant weeks — Sarasota, Orlando, New York, wherever — because it's a tidy organizing principle for a quick trip (assuming your tourism, like mine, revolves around meals), and menus are usually great deals.

It has been a while since I visited the Paradise Coast, so a photographer and I hopped down for the day to check out what is new, noteworthy or just red hot. In the name of journalistic inquiry, we visited seven spots in 12 hours, concluding that Naples has had a remarkable culinary run the past couple of years.

• • •

Naples continues to experience an enormous population boom. It used to be mostly among Midwestern retirees (it's funny, every other person you meet here used to live in Chicago, Milwaukee and so forth), but is skewing a bit younger and more diverse these days. It's still got the look of many monied, sunny American cities like Santa Barbara and Palm Beach: lawns that seem maintained 'round the clock with tweezers and nail scissors, women of a certain age in Lilly Pulitzer pink-and-green cardigans, and everywhere fancy new Mercedes parked haphazardly, their gleaming bumpers shellacked with "I'd rather be golfing" stickers.

With more than 50 golf courses, Naples is said to have the highest ratio of greens to golfers in the United States. Beyond the links, Naples is known for serious antiquing, luxe shopping/dining and one of the country's highest-grossing annual wine auctions. Boosters often describe Naples as the crown jewel of southwest Florida.

The jewel that sparkles brightest may just be the downtown beach, arguably the finest city beach in Florida. Accessed at the gulf end of each avenue — the downtown is a grid, streets run north and south, avenues run east and west — the beach has ample metered parking. (Bring quarters.) There you may find a loggerhead sea turtle nest, a swirl of prehistoric-looking pelicans or any of the other allures that have made Naples a vacation spot among the cognoscenti for the past 150 years.

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I'm not going to lie. We did go to the beach briefly. On company time. Let's call it a palate cleanser between meals.

We began the day with a visit to La Colmar Bakery & Bistro (80 Tamiami Trail N, (239) 315-4303), which debuted in August, the brainchild of Yannick and Ana Brendel and a stunning package with the also-new next-door restaurant Timeless, built and owned by architect Matthew Kragh. Although La Colmar has a slightly faux-Tuscan-villa vibe, the lineup of pastries is pure France. In the open kitchen we watched a huge batch of pate a choux being mixed, maybe for eclairs, maybe for profiteroles, then dove into an almond croissant, a chocolate beignet and a bee hive custard-filled pastry ($4.50 each). Sipping a cafe au lait and a fresh-squeezed O.J., we marveled at the mathematical precision necessary to make perfect flaky-brittle leaves of puff pastry.

Lingering for a moment to check out Timeless' gorgeous patio (it's closed on Mondays, so no dice for us), it was time to move on to lunch. Barbatella (1290 Third St. S, (239) 263-1955) is the middle child in a sense. Fabrizio and Ingrid Aielli opened the first of their restaurants in Washington, D.C., years ago. Goldoni was followed by Osteria Goldoni and Teatro Goldoni. And then, Ingrid says, they needed a change. The Aiellis moved permanently to Naples in 2007 and launched Sea Salt Naples the next year, then Barbatella in 2012 and Sea Salt St. Petersburg in 2015.

Like many middle children, Barbatella has a certain sunny equanimity, just down the block from its more upscale sibling. Part of the restaurant's charm emanates from general manager Mario Mellusi and assistant manager Mauro Bissocchi — they have the insouciant warmth that the best Italian restaurants have, chef Jason Goddard's food following suit. A recent addition, the restaurant's mozzarella bar, is a visual centerpiece, snowy orbs of moz and burrata flanked by trays of grilled eggplant and cippolini and speck and sopressata. The Barbatella platter ($29 serves two people, $55 serves four) is a bounteous chef's choice array of cheese and charcuterie, paired with house-made focaccia. Show some restraint, because that may be followed by a trio of pastas, maybe a lush saffron cavatelli studded with langostinos, a tight swirl of papardelle bolognese and a third of little ears paired with pork sausage and just-bitter lengths of broccoli rabe. And then, of course, the gelati, a ball of pistachio and another of hazelnut, both the handiwork of a local treasure, chocolatier Norman Love.

We toured Sea Salt, a more intimate space than the St. Petersburg location, with an open kitchen, secluded private dining room and three glass-fronted wine walls corralling red, white and sparkling. From there, a walking tour of downtown was in order. Fifth Avenue has the greatest embarrassment of riches, assembled between Ninth and Third streets. The restaurant gamut is impressive, from trendy to fancy Italian (it is overrepresented in homage to its namesake city in Italy), covering a range of prices and ethnicities. Third Street S was once the central business district of Old Naples, and these days it's fairly overrun with galleries and high-end boutiques and antique shops. The restaurant choices aren't as dense as on Fifth, but a few of Naples' best restaurants line up along Third.

Our timing wasn't quite right to hit one of the other newcomers, called the Bevy (360 12th Ave. S, (239) 228-4220), a wine-and-craft-cocktail bar launched in August that opens at 3 p.m., so instead we ambled into the Continental (1205 Third St. S, (239) 659-0007), a newish project from D'Amico and Partners, which also owns Campiello and Café and Bar Lurcat. (See sidebar.) The bar was packed, the woman next to us tucking into a jar of caviar with scrambled egg, a glass of fancy bubbly at her elbow. Our focus was upward: The centerpiece of the long outdoor bar is a series of suspended orbs each containing a liquid of a different color, the bases for pre-Prohibition-era cocktails. The serious bar program is paired elegantly with a menu that runs from deviled eggs to an array of raw oysters to a guilty-pleasure wagyu hot dog Cuban sandwich.

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Few chefs have done as much as Vincenzo Betulia to change Naples' culinary landscape. Originally from Milwaukee, with years under his belt at Paul and Joe Bartolotta's restaurants in Milwaukee and Chicago, he fell under Naples' spell one vacation. He worked for nine years as the chef at Campiello before opening his first place, Osteria Tulia, in 2013. In December 2015, Betulia and crew annexed the next door space and transformed it into Bar Tulia, an Italian-style gastropub. And then in January he did something quite different: He debuted his third restaurant, the French, a classic brasserie.

We visited all three.

The French (365 Fifth Ave. S, (239) 315-4019) has the look of a classic French brasserie — embossed tin ceilings, oversized antiqued mirrors, red leather banquettes, black-and-white patterned mosaic floors — with a bustle and liveliness that makes it family-friendly. The kids may not be grooving on the classic steak tartare ($17) and roasted beet-French feta salad ($15), both excellent, but I defy anyone to turn their nose up at the textbook roast chicken, its golden splendor served in a cast iron skillet atop buttery mashed potatoes and dotted with smoky bacon lardons and English peas ($25), easily a shared meal for several.

From there we walked down the block, slowly at this point, to stop in for what amounted to a second dinner at Osteria Tulia (466 Fifth Ave. S, (239) 213-2073), a vivacious sprawling space with warm brick, heavy ceiling beams and lavish use of barn wood from North Florida. It's "not tweezer food," Betulia says; instead, expect cucina rustica. For us, this meant starting with thin, crunchy slivers of fried pig ear dusted with a fennel-chili salt and given a squeeze of lime ($9). Irresistible, and segueing nicely to the evening's special of seared sea scallops on a bed of celery risotto (a great flavor juxtaposition I never would have thought of; $40) and one of the signature dishes: tortelloni stuffed with braised short rib served with melted butter and a marsala glaze and foie gras emulsion ($22).

And then, even slower still, we took the couple of steps next door to Bar Tulia (462 Fifth Ave. S, (239) 228-7606) for a nightcap: craft cocktails crowded with Amari (fernet branca, cynar and such), pistachio tinctures and grappas, bartenders lighting orange peels and furiously muddling, the bar crowded with year-rounders and the season's first snowbirds. We leaned in: Where are you folks from? Chicago and Milwaukee.

The food scene in Naples may be sizzling with all-new energy, but some things don't change.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

Long-standing faves

Fifth Avenue South

Pazzo Italian Café (853 Fifth Ave. S, (239) 434-8494) presents diners with an instant conundrum: Sit in the lovely modern dining room with its open bar and kitchen, or settle into one of the sidewalk tables through open French doors and watch the world stroll by.

Practically right next door and part of the same restaurant group, Chops City Grill (837 Fifth Ave. S, (239) 262-4677) offers a strangely effective mix of steaks and Asian-inspired dishes. Singles: Dine at the long food bar and you won't be alone long. Everyone's friendly, the dining room has palpable buzz and the decor is hip.

A block down is a third restaurant in the same family, Yabba Island Grill (711 Fifth Ave. S, (239) 262-5787). It's an island-themed menu with a little sushi and lobsters right from the tank.

From here, take it down a frenzy notch and step into the elegant, breezy world of Vergina (700 Fifth Ave. S, (239) 659-7008). There's wonderful outdoor seating in a sheltered plaza and a soaring indoor space with a long, inviting bar. The food is all familiar Italian, with a punchy Caesar salad and robust seafood pastas.

Café and Bar Lurcat (494 Fifth Ave. S, (239) 213-3357) have been knocking people's socks off with their New American cuisine and uber-stylish atmosphere. It's owned and managed by D'Amico & Partners, which also owns Campiello, listed below. The first floor is the bar, with live music and a small-plate approach, and upstairs is the more formal dining room.

Third Street

Campiello Ristorante (1177 Third St. S, (239) 435-1166) has a spare, understated elegance achievable only at the best Cal-Ital bistros. Lunch here is an experience that harkens back to the boom-boom '80s power-lunching phenomenon. At lunch and dinner, presentations are simple and flavors are clean and steady, with a gutsy reliance on great produce and slow-roasted meats.

A totally different vibe, but equally popular, is Tommy Bahama's Tropical Cafe (1300 Third St. S, (239) 643-6889). It's the same company as the clothing line or, as they like to say, "purveyor of island lifestyles," and as one might expect, this means an upscale interpretation of island cuisine, with excellent froufrou cocktails.

A longtime Naples institution, Ridgway Bar & Grill (1300 Third St. S, (239) 262-5500) is owned by Tony Ridgway, something of a legend in Naples, bringing one of the first gourmet aesthetics (and wine knowledge) to the city more than 30 years ago when most Americans were woefully in the pre-Julia Child dark ages.

Tin City

Tin City Waterfront Marketplace is a fairly well done waterside indoor shopping center with about 40 mostly nautical-themed boutiques and a couple of good restaurants. The complex is located on Highway 41 at Goodlette-Frank Road. The salient restaurants here are Pinchers and Riverwalk, the latter a bit more upscale. Right across from Tin City is a casual joint called Kelly's (1302 Fifth Ave. S, (239) 774-0494), the oldest restaurant in Naples and where you'll find the city's best stone crabs. Nothing fancy.

.If you go

Naples Restaurant Week

Naples Restaurant Week is a semiannual promotion, the next one slated for Nov. 30 to Dec. 13. Visit naplesrestaurantweek.com for a list of participating restaurants. Menus for the program will be unveiled and available for tasting at the First Bite Menu Release Party hosted and sponsored by Mercedes-Benz of Bonita Springs on Nov. 15.

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