Hot Dish: Bravo, Bar Tulia!
The new gastropub opens with fanfare.
Even if the food had been a letdown (thankfully, it wasn’t—and more on the many tasty delights later), a dinner to introduce members of the local media to the new Bar Tulia would have been a success for one small matter, and one matter alone: a chance to hear its vivacious chef/partner speak.
It’s hard to not immediately like Vincenzo Betulia and appreciate what he's trying to do. I mean this in the most flattering way: At heart, the young, hip father of three is a coke-bottle-bespectacled food nerd (he'd be a cliche if he had a tattoo sleeve). He’s building one of Naples’ growing restaurant brands, and every ounce of his being exudes an enchantingly quirky, all-consuming passion for bringing the Italian food he grew up with to Naples, Florida.
Bar Tulia, technically a gastropub with a spacious 13-seat Carrera marble wraparound bar and a few larger tables, is so small you could almost miss it. Adjacent to Osteria Tulia (Betulia’s flagship and one of this magazine’s best new restaurants last year), both carry the same homespun feel, which, those of us in attendance that night learned, was crafted to resemble a breed of Italian eatery (an osteria) so casual and off the beaten path that you’re pretty much dining in someone’s kitchen or back patio.
While the weathered brick walls, wooden tables and presentation of food are essentially Tulia-lite, the kitchen, menu and concept are different. Betulia explained it best: “People thought I was crazy to build another restaurant, another kitchen right next door. But I’m a chef. I know what it’s like to be grinded daily, so I didn’t want any more stress on the team at Tulia. … I wanted a convivial setting. Young people, loud, bustling—I wanted it to have a soul. I wanted it to be like bars in Venice, or Spain. The kinds of places where you can hold a drink while standing and eating at the bar. My wife is going to kill me for saying this, but we'll be serving food past midnight."
And, lucky for us, that food is exciting, expertly done and surprisingly affordable, given the current state of culinary affairs on the Paradise Coast where a $35 entree has become the norm. The drinks are inspired, too, a mix of proprietary recipes from in-house bartenders and subtle twists on classic cocktails—plus craft beers, Italian wines by the bottle and glass, and imported liqueurs. You'll have to wait to see more on the libations in our February issue (stay tuned—just a few days until it hits newsstands!). But for now, we'll focus on the tapas-style menu.
The half-dozen or so dishes we sampled represented a nice cross section: crudo, pizza, piattini (Italian for "shared plates") as well as heftier offerings, like pastas and meats. One of the biggest hits was a cauliflower salad—take heed and definitely don’t skip the dishes in fine print at the bottom of the menu, an intriguing mix of starters and snacks, including one of fried pig ears with chili-fennel salt and lime.
The cauliflower salad, oh, that cauliflower salad. I certainly never before have had cauliflower cravings, but that changed after experiencing Bar Tulia’s delicate treatment: The florets were served whole, with a lovely crunch, and dressed with dried currants, crushed Marcona almonds, slivers of scallion and shaved Pecorino. It sounds simple, but it was anything but. The combination was novel, and the taste was memorable.
A ceviche of local hogfish incorporating pieces of shrimp was equally refreshing. Fried pizza dough provided a nice contrast to the smooth bits of avocado, and the light citrus flavor was further enhanced by pieces of red onion.
Now these are something you don’t see everyday (I guess, unless you’re a regular at Bar Tulia)—in fact, I don’t think I’d ever before eaten fried rabbit “wings.” Chef Vincenzo’s elevated take on normal pub grub swaps out hot sauce for tiny disks of sweetly pickled radish (for kick of a different kind). Add in a pungent Gorgonzola cream, and score!
Brussels sprouts have been, well, sprouting up everywhere lately, and my dining companions and I could barely contain our excitement seeing them atop the creamy Modena pizza. House-made ricotta cheese, flecks of pancetta and not an ounce of tomato sauce—if this is pizza for the future, sign me up.
The only misstep was the charred and otherwise flavorless shishito peppers. They were supposed to be accented with shaved foie gras, but as this connoisseur of French duck liver and my compatriots could attest, there was barely a hint. Not to dwell on the negative, a rigatoni Bolognese was so scrumptious I couldn’t help but practically shovel it in my mouth. I ate it so fast that I forgot to take a picture to share here.
By the meal’s end, I’d left no room for dessert, although I’ve since been told the zeppole (fried dough balls) are sinfully delicious. In his new restaurant, Chef Vincenzo’s attention to detail and the high-quality ingredients we’ve come to count on at Osteria Tulia have carried over in spades. Will I be back? Absolutely—it’s just a matter of how soon.
462 Fifth Ave. S., Naples