October 22, 2014

Appetite

As a typical child of the ’80s, I grew up watching the television show Cheers and imagining what it would be like to go someplace "where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came."

Well, last night I got my answer, and I didn’t have to brave a Boston snowstorm, feather my hair or eat stale bar nuts. Instead, I got to eat the best gnocchi of my life and trade facts about Alexander the Great with a sexy Macedonian named Goce "Mr. G" Sipinkoski. The owner and host of Mr. G’s Fine Italian Cuisine Ristorante & Bar, formerly affiliated with Vergina, has created an atmosphere in his north Naples establishment that is, in a word, unparalleled.

When we first arrived, a waiter asked us, "Is this your first visit? Let me get Mr. G!"

Mr. G greeted us like old friends, pumping Tom’s hand and kissing mine, and gave us a quick tour of the elegant, warmly lit dining room and the spacious, mirrored patio, where a singer stood crooning Stand By Me next to a man-made waterfall.

As soon as we sat down, a busboy brought us warm, fresh rolls with a spicy oil and balsamic dipping sauce, and we knew we would not go hungry at Mr. G’s. What we didn’t realize is that the pride in ownership we were witnessing in the dining room was matched or even exceeded by the pride of the chef in the kitchen: Mr. G’s brother, Zlate. As the appetizers began to roll out, we began to murmur about our good fortune.

"Oh my God," I said to Tom after sampling the homemade mozzarella and prosciutto with tomatoes and roasted peppers appetizer ($9.95). "The cheese is phenomenal, and these are real tomatoes! Where on earth did you find real tomatoes?" I asked Mr. G, who stood a discreet distance away and came closer when necessary.

"Immokalee!" he said, with a huge grin. "We bring them here and let them ripen for a few days."
"I’ll bet you roast these peppers yourself, too," Tom said. As Mr. G confirmed this fact, Tom scarfed down the remaining peppers with a happy slurping noise.

The bruschetta Toscana with chopped tomato, red onion, basil and parmesan cheese, while unusually heavy on the onion—attention, all first daters—was equally delicious ($6.95). Best of all the starters was the zuppa di calamari ($9.95). We opted for red sauce over white because we’re red sauce people, and were delighted to find the squid tender and the sauce light and flavorful.

The menu at Mr. G’s is diverse but not overwhelming. We started with the linguini frutti di mare with clams, mussels, calamari and shrimp in a red sauce ($24.95, white sauce also available).

Usually, we see much more pasta than seafood in these dishes, but not at Mr. G’s, where generosity of spirit clearly rules the day.

"Wait!" Mr. G cried when the dish arrived. He returned with a bottle of white truffle oil which he drizzled lightly over the pasta.

"Really?" Tom said. "Hmmm …"

"Yes! Toss the pasta, and then try. You will see." We both tried, and we both saw. The smoky truffle flavor brought something wonderful out in the red sauce and the seafood. We grew more and more ecstatic with every bite and had to remind ourselves not to finish the dish, with so much more food on the way.

Tom began to tuck into the chicken Sorrentino with sliced tomato, eggplant and mozzarella ($19.95), and Mr. G stepped in to coach once more.

"Slice all three things together and then taste," he said. He was right: It was a winning combination of flavors. The generous veal parmigiana ($20.95) portion would easily have served two, and it boasted an unusually light breading and a cheese topping browned to perfection. The special lamb shank in a port wine sauce ($29.95) was so tender, I never needed to use a knife, and the roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes were cooked to perfection. Tom and I traded sips of the Folinari cabernet sauvignon ($8 per glass) and the Chateau Ste. Michelle chardonnay ($10 glass/$39 bottle), and found the cabernet to be the winner. As with sauces, we clearly lean towards all things red.

"I want you to try the gnocchi!" Mr. G said, racing off to the kitchen. Between his ministrations and those of our waiter, Vele, we never had the feeling that we were waiting to have a need met.

Mr. G returned with the most delectable asiago gnocchi in pesto sauce I have ever eaten.

"Alexander the Great was Macedonian, wasn’t he?" I asked Mr. G.

"That’s right," he said, showing us the Alexander coin pendant around his neck.

"Forget his tutor, Aristotle, and the library in Egypt," I said. "I think I just tasted the real secret of his empire!"

In between bites, we got to know our host, a man brimming with positive energy. He told us about his restaurant in New Jersey, where the likes of Paul Anka, Liza Minnelli and Frankie Valli, along with one or two of the major players in The Sopranos, were patrons. He spoke with great affection about Naples and his Mr. G’s regulars, several of whom he pointed out for us. For a place that has only been open since May 2006, Mr. G’s feels much more established, like an upscale, long-adored neighborhood restaurant. It’s the perfect place to celebrate a big birthday, or just a Friday.

When Zlate came out of the kitchen to let us praise him, Mr. G ran off for some complimentary limoncellos for us, "to celebrate!" I felt just like Carmella Soprano as we savored the liqueur along with the company, and then the homemade tiramisu and cannoli ($6.50 each), both of which were delicious. As our mutual toasts became more and more expansive, we were joined by two other couples, Mr. G’s regulars from Maryland and Massachusetts. We heard many variations of "Isn’t the food great?" and were told to come back specifically for the beef carpaccio appetizer ($9.95) and the grouper livornese ($24.95).

"Come back for New Year’s Eve," Mr. G said. "We do a special prix fixe menu, and there is music and dancing!"

There should always be music and dancing when the food is this good and the ambiance this warm. Happy New Year to us!

Mr. G’s Fine Italian Cuisine Ristorante & Bar, 10711 Tamiami Trail N., Naples. (239) 592-7900. Dinner daily from 4 p.m.–2 a.m. Reservations suggested. Valet and self parking available. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Closer to our own neighborhood, we enjoy a restaurant called the French Roast Café. Nestled in a forest of corporate Outbacks and Cantina Laredos near Bell Tower Shops, this small chef-owned eatery stands alone for its broad range of French and Vietnamese cuisine. Since 2000, Hoang Le has presided over a kitchen that has turned out consistently delicious fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Since our arrival in Fort Myers in 2004, we have enjoyed breakfast crepes, salad lunches and a variety of dinner entrées in the Café’s relaxed, pretty environment. Recently, we decided to sample the French Roast’s impressive early bird fare, served from 4:30–5:30 p.m. daily.
"I feel like my father, eating this early," Tom said, wrinkling his nose.

"I know," I said, deliberately ignoring his meaning. "Isn’t it great? We don’t have to wait until some chic hour, when our stomachs would be growling like crazy."

Tom gave me a look. "If this is what you’re like as a newlywed, then how early will you have us eating when we’ve been married for decades? At three in the afternoon?"

Tom changed his tune the moment he saw the French Roast’s impressive early bird menu. The French Roast has a French menu, a Vietnamese menu, a breakfast menu, a lunch menu, a brunch menu, a wine menu and a dessert menu, all of which transcend continents.

In other words, diners need never feel constrained. The early bird helped simplify our lives considerably, but we still had to choose between 16 French and Vietnamese entrées, all but one priced between $9.95 and $11.95 (the exception being the 6 oz. filet mignon at $16.95). Everything comes with a salad and either a potato and vegetable or pasta. Manager Donna Giamette, a 10-year French Roast veteran, came to help guide our choices.

Tom started off the early bird with some tangy, delicious lemongrass beef wraps ($8.95) and chef Le’s mussels served in a rich, spicy sauce ($7.95). I went directly for the chicken pho, a steaming entrée noodle soup accompanied by a dinner plate loaded with Thai basil, bean sprouts, super hot chili sauce and hoisin sauce ($9.95). Our table quickly filled with enormous plates of food. Clearly, there was no skimping on the early bird meals. The Vietnamese seafood fried rice was only advertised to have grilled shrimp, scallops and salmon, but ours came topped with a Florida lobster tail ($11.95). My favorite was the Saigon special, a typical plate of grilled pork, lemon grass beef and spring rolls over rice noodles ($10.95).

Intrigued by the phrase "tableside cooking," we decided to leave Vietnam and topped off our meal with some traditional French dessert crepes. Server Guy Denegre took the matter in hand and made us crepes à la Grand Marnier over vanilla ice cream ($13.50 for two). Guy displayed the sort of panache only a true showman can wield, but it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors: This dessert qualified immediately for my short list of favorites. We also tasted the more modestly priced homemade flan ($4.50), which was lovely, but how can anything compare to a dessert personally flambéed for your pleasure?

Let the quaint French Roast Café set fire to your taste buds.

French Roast Café, 12995 S. Cleveland Ave., Suite 118, Fort Myers. (239) 936-2233. Breakfast Tuesday and Saturday only, 8–11:30 a.m., and Sunday brunch 8 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Lunch Monday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Dinner daily 4:30–9:30 p.m. Reservations suggested. Piano and vocals Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Tableside cooking. Credit cards accepted.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Advertisement