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And Don’t Forget the Gulyás

I recently arranged a blind date for my hairdresser, Jackie. Before my bachelor friend would agree to meet her for drinks, he asked about her looks.

“She’s tall and slender, with a great smile,” I said. “Very pretty. Warm. Loves to cook. She’s from Romania!”

He made the date.

Since dining at Daniela’s Restaurant, I’ve met three Romanian women in Southwest Florida. Based on this (admittedly small) sample, I’m starting to think that the words “pretty,” “warm” and “loves to cook” are all synonyms for “Romanian.” If I didn’t have Tom, I’d be downright worried about this Romanian invasion. 

We arrive on a Tuesday eager to taste “authentic northern Italian, Romanian and Hungarian cuisine.” We assume we are being seated by the Daniela in question, but Chef Daniela Crucion is actually in the back cooking for the restaurant’s 30 or so contented diners. Her sister Cori Crucion manages the front of the house. This is their first restaurant.

Despite covering the cuisine of three nations, Daniela’s offers a small and manageable menu divided into the following categories: appetizers, soups, salads, homemade pastas, homemade stuffed pasta, house specialties, desserts and homemade goodies to go.

“If we’re still hungry when we leave, we can order a whole roasted chicken [$9.59] to go,” Tom notes.

“How could we still be hungry?” I ask. We’re notorious for ordering half the menu whether or not we’re reviewing.

We ask Cori for two glasses of the quite good house Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2008 Murfatlar from Romania ($5 glass).

Cori brings out warm bread with a fresh cucumber yogurt dip reminiscent of tzatziki, to which we add the salata de vinete, aptly billed as “Mom’s Delicious Eggplant Spread” ($6.50), the traditional Romanian meatballs ($6.95), and a cup of hot broth with vegetables and meatballs ($2.95). If you’re limiting your weekly meat intake, save Daniela’s for a carnivorous orgy: The meatballs are succulent, as are the mititei, Romanian-style, hand-rolled sausages served with roasted potatoes and vegetables ($15).

“Do you think Transylvania sausages are blood sausages?” I whisper to Tom. Turns out they contain a blend of pork, garlic and paprika. Romanian sausages, by contrast, feature beef, pork, and lamb, while the meatballs have just beef and pork.

Tom enjoys the cheese ravioli topped with meat sauce ($14), while I swoon over the polenta with meat sauce ($13).

“I’ve never had polenta paired with meat sauce before,” I say. “Genius.”

When we out ourselves as reviewers, Daniela and Cori clap their foreheads.

“You should have tried the gulyás!” Cori says. We consider the Hungarian goulash ($5.50 cup/$7.95), but get distracted by the meatballs.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “We’ll come back soon and eat our way down the menu.”

“Where did you train?” Tom asks.

“Nowhere formal, just at home in Oradea,” Daniela says. (Oradea is in Transylvania, which is in Romania.) “We had nine sisters and brothers, and I helped my mother in the kitchen.” The late Mrs. Crucion made the gorgeous folk dresses that adorn the restaurant’s walls.

“What’s the story behind your piano?” Tom asks.

“It’s almost 100 years old,” Cori explains. “It’s been signed by all the musicians who’ve played it.”

A hundred years may be brief moment in Romanian history, but it’s quite a long time for Florida. We hope Daniela and Cori stay at least that long. Where else can we get wined and dined on a banquet of fabulous food for just $86.76? I go home and call my bachelor friend.

“You’re crazy if you don’t marry my hairdresser,” I say. Viva Romania!

Daniela’s Restaurant, 13500 Tamiami Trail N., Naples; (239) 514-4414, www.danielas-restaurant.com. Monday through Friday, lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5–9 p.m. Saturday dinner 5–9 p.m. Sunday closed. Live music Mondays and Thursdays 6:30–8:30 p.m. Specialty food nights. Reservations recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

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