Tom has a great many adoring students—a lot of them female, 18, and unaccustomed to wearing more than 20 square inches of clothing on their perfect frames. Thus it was with genuine suspicion that I took the news that we were going to a small restaurant in Fort Myers on the recommendation of (what I imagined to be) one such nymphet.
"I oppose this outing on principle," I informed him. "Why do you even speak to other females? Is that strictly necessary?" I looked away, arms crossed in a way that I hoped was more charming than insecure.
"Don’t be ridiculous," Tom said, giving me a kiss on the tip of my upturned nose. "Rhyen is a sweet girl, and she perked up when I told the class about our adventures as restaurant critics. Apparently, her boss serves some of the best food she’s ever eaten."
"Fine, but how long has this girl even been eating solid foods? Can we trust the culinary judgment of one so young?"
"It’s just one dinner, honey. Besides, it’s a small, chef-owned bistro, and they’re supposed to make one hell of a paella."
Since chef-owned restaurants and paella are two of my favorite things, I grabbed my sweater and headed to the car, my defenses obliterated. When we saw La Trattoria Café Napoli sitting in one of Southwest Florida’s less-attractive strip malls, I experienced another frisson of dread. Yet all unpleasant feelings evaporated the moment we crossed the threshold. I breathed deeply of a veritable Mediterranean garden of herbs and spices.
Gloria Cabral-Jordan is the Cuban-born chef of Spanish descent who has ruled this 10-table, simple but warmly decorated haven for the past two years.
"It smells so good in here," Tom murmured after Gloria herself seated us with an enormous, genuine smile. Tom’s student had the night off.
If you find your head spinning at all of the choices you’ll discover in the encyclopedias masquerading as menus in so many restaurants these days, you’ll be delighted by the simplicity of the menu at La Trattoria. For example, the wine list features full-paragraph descriptions of 18 bottled wines, ranging in price from $8–$75, and then diners may choose from eight house wines served by the glass. We sampled glasses of the house cabernet sauvignon and the pinot noir ($6.50 and $7), of which we preferred the cab but found both entirely respectable.
The main menu begins with 10 "tapas" or appetizers ($4.50–8.95), and three salads in the same price range. Gloria had chef Alfredo Huidobro prepare us a sampler of tapas, including queso de cabra al horno, warm goat cheese with Spanish roasted red pepper sauce and pita points ($8.95), my personal favorite. If I had been home alone, I would have dispensed with all pretense of civility and licked the plate clean. Tom favored the calamari croccanti e duo salsa ($7.95), served with both lemon pesto and a spicy pomodoro sauce, and we were both pleased with the entremes vegetariano, roasted vegetables ($7.50), and Spanish tapas plate, with chorizo, Manchego cheese and marinated olives ($8.50).
The menu at La Trattoria is divided into "pastas," meat dishes called "secondi," and seafood dishes appropriately titled "del mar." We had a difficult time choosing entrées because so many tempted us, but we eventually settled on pesto gnocchi ($14.95), pollo a la champagne (Tuscan style), with roasted grapes, fresh herbs, Mediterranean potatoes and roasted vegetables ($17.95), gambas al ajillo con paprika, sautéed shrimp with garlic, paprika, white wine, olive oil, lemon and fresh herbs with a roasted garbanzo bean puree ($18.95), and the piece de resistance: the paella Valenciana a la Cabral, with Valencia rice cooked in a wine-fish-chicken-saffron broth with mussels, chorizo, chicken, shrimp, fresh peas, red peppers and parsley ($20).
While we give real kudos to the chicken and shrimp entrées, you should not leave this restaurant without tasting the paella.
"Best paella ever!" Tom exclaimed on his first bite. I am inclined to agree. Gloria is exceedingly proud of the family recipe behind this remarkable dish, as well she should be. The flavors are extraordinary, and you will know by the third bite that you have found a neighborhood bistro worthy of your enduring patronage.
Gloria boasts a successful career as a pastry chef, and makes a point of baking all of the desserts at La Trattoria herself.
"Ladies come during lunch hour and eat nothing but dessert!" she told us.
"I understand that," I said. "If you only have a few calories to spend, why not make the most of them?" We savored homemade flan and an extraordinary "gypsy roll" with guava sauce and a hint of coconut, ($5.25 each).
A couple at a nearby table rose to leave. "Good night, Gloria! Everything was excellent," the young woman called over her shoulder.
"You know, the name La Trattoria came with the restaurant," Gloria said as she watched them leave, "but I don’t much care for it. Most people just say they’re going to Gloria’s Place!"
We suggest that you head for "Gloria’s Place" as soon as your schedule—and the reservation book—will allow.
La Trattoria Café Napoli, 12377 S. Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers; (239) 931-0050. Lunch Monday–Friday, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday–Saturday, 5–10 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. Free parking in lot. Credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible.
Loyal readers, who may recall our skepticism about restaurants affiliated with large chain hotels, will not be surprised to learn that we were concerned about the Best Western connection to Chardonnay Nouveau. How foolish we were to second-guess the discerning palates of those savvy Neapolitans who showed the first Chardonnay great loyalty from 1989 through the spring of 2005. Chardonnay Nouveau got a new owner, a new chef and a major renovation before reopening its doors on Sept. 17, 2007.
As we entered this lovely French restaurant, we walked past women seated in St. John knits and men in Kelly green and salmon sports coats, and Tom began to regret his informality.
"Should I be wearing a jacket?" he asked general manager Christopher Sliter, a 40-year restaurant veteran.
"Not at all," Christopher replied. "You should be comfortable while dining out. I’m the only one who is allowed to be stuffy and pretentious!" We shared a laugh, instantly disarmed, and relaxed into our plush chairs.
Soon, our server, Kyle Lenahan, had us sipping two excellent glasses of wine, a Grenache Cotes du Rhone Ch. St. Cosme "Little James Basket Press" ’05 ($7 glass) and an unusual Bordeaux titled Vieux Ch. St. Andre St. Emilion ’04 ($12 glass).
"Have you ever noticed how close the names of wines can be to the official names of show dogs?" I asked Tom. "Best in Show at the AKC 2005, a bloodhound called Ch. Saint Cosme Little James Basket, or ‘Biff’ to his friends …"
"Are you drunk?" Tom asked. "Off three sips of wine?"
"Boy," I said, with a giggle. "Wouldn’t that be something? First, you enter without a sports coat, and then the missus gets tipsy off three sips of vino …"
Thankfully, Kyle redirected our attention to the menu, a sumptuous and well-organized affair neatly divided into two camps: Classique and Nouveau. My palate leaned towards the Classique offerings, so Kyle strongly recommended that we sample the Diver Sea Scallop Provençal appetizer, with "U-10" jumbo scallops sautéed with garden fresh tomato, torn basil and garlic ($13), and the fricassee d’escargots a la senteur d’ail, snails in a creamy garlic sauce ($12). The Provençal sauce on the scallops could make me forget every other tomato sauce on the planet. I rejoiced to hear my beloved, who usually retreats at the sign of snails, make the following statement:
"They have forever changed my mind about eating land mollusks."
Tom and I were so delighted by these dishes that we could happily have stopped there. Yet as soon as the lobster ravioli ($20) arrived, I was glad that we had suppressed the impulse to make love to the appetizers all night long. Snubbing this entrée would have been a genuine mistake.
"The sauces here are remarkable," I murmured to the waiter.
"That’s our executive chef’s specialty," Kyle informed us. "His name is Claude Chauvin, and he is a saucier."
"Sorcerer, more like," I whispered to Tom.
"You’re right," Tom said. "These sauces are magic."
By 7:30, every table in our corner of the restaurant was filled, and teams of waiters and managers were racing about, ensuring everyone’s satisfaction. We sampled the Dover sole a la Meunière, with steamed rice and vegetables ($35), which dazzled Tom, and the special 10-ounce prime rib with horseradish sauce ($26). While these dishes were very good, I remained loyal to the lobster ravioli.
Kyle brought us a harlequin soufflé—a blend of the chocolate, raspberry and Grand Marnier soufflés ($12 each)—for dessert. Although it was light as the breath for which it was named, I found that I couldn’t finish my portion.
"Would you like to finish mine?" I asked Tom. Before the question had escaped my lips, Tom had consumed the last of my soufflé.
I had gotten so cozy at Chardonnay Nouveau that I hadn’t even bothered to look at the dessert menu for myself, and just let Kyle decide for us. It wasn’t until I began to write this review that I realized I had somehow managed to miss a confection called the hot apple tart brushed with lavender honey and paired with cinnamon-infused vanilla ice cream ($12).
I will make Tom bring me back some chilly evening in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps we will try something off the light bar menu, and venture out of the Classique and into the Nouveau. The good people of Chardonnay Nouveau will see that Tom looks especially dashing in a sports coat.
Chardonnay Nouveau, 2331 Ninth St. N., Naples; (239) 261-3111 or www.chardonnaynouveau.com. Dinner Monday–Saturday, 5–10 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. Valet and self parking available. Credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible.