December 19, 2014

Appetite

ridgway-(1).jpgTom and I grew up exploring the Revolutionary War-era sites of the Northeast, so we are often amused by what passes for old in Florida. When we drive past a sign that says “Serving Southwest Florida since 1999,” I’ll holler, “Honey, look! An ancient relic from the last century!” As Tom swerves, only to catch a glimpse of a historic Walgreen’s, he rolls his eyes at me. 

Although we often feel great reverence in a stand of old cypress trees, there is only one antique, man-made place in Southwest Florida that thoroughly charms us: historic Naples. We were transported back in time over dinner at Ridgway Bar & Grill, situated on Third Street South in the heart of old Naples and run by Chef-owner Tony Ridgway (a Neapolitan with almost 40 years of local restaurant experience) with co-owner and Wine Director Sukie Honeycutt. If you knew the old Truffles and Chef’s Garden, have shopped at Tony’s Off Third or eaten recently at Bayside Seafood Grill & Bar on Venetian Bay, then you have already sampled the high-quality fare furnished by this duo. 

Open since 2001, Ridgway boasts three seating areas: an attractive patio on Third, cozy indoor tables and a garden patio overlooking beautiful flowers and plants. We saw many attractive, multi-generation families dining in all three locales in colorful plumage—the men in madras pants and blue blazers, the women in Lilly Pulitzer and museum-quality jewelry. We opted for “cozy” and dived right into the menu. Before we took our first bite, we understood why people sometimes refer to Tony Ridgway as “the godfather of Naples cuisine.” 

“This isn’t fair,” I whined. “How am I supposed to choose between pan-seared scallops with sweet-corn-and-crab chowder and pea-sprout garnish, and the goat-cheese tart with ratatouille (each $16.50)?” And those were only two of the 14 appetizer options, one of which was the daily artisanal cheese plate with sliced apples, nuts and fig jam ($14.50). 

“Check it out,” said Tom. “There are seven other categories on the menu.” There were so many alluring selections in each one: salads with Rabbit Run greens; casual classics like the country meatloaf ($19); simple seafood made to order with remoulade, mango salsa or lemon caper beurre blanc sauce; simple meats including a not-so-simple-sounding grand western sterling silver center cut 8-ounce filet ($35); chef’s creations like the fennel pollen seared grouper ($35); sides including Ridgway’s secret sweet potato mash; and desserts featuring the best of Pastry Chef Emily Duncan’s creations, including the apple galette with fresh Fuji apples, butter short pastry and caramel ice cream ($11). 

It’s not often that we find ourselves overwhelmed with desire when consulting a normal-sized menu, but Ridgway displays the chef’s creative mind at work, along with his dedication to excellent ingredients and the foundations of cooking well. (To learn them for yourself, take one of six courses he’s offering for a pittance this summer, including one on “Pastas and Risottos” and another on “Fruit Pies and Fruit Brioche Pizza.”) 

Ridgway Bar & Grill offers 600 world-class wines by the bottle and 15 by the glass. We savored the Row Eleven pinot noir ($12) and the Girard cabernet ($14) and made some brutal menu decisions—brutal because we couldn’t order every single item. 

As you might imagine from this tremendous buildup, we enjoyed every sip and bite, from the New England clam chowder ($7.95 cup/$10.95 bowl), to the skillet-roasted mussels (appetizer $15.50/entrée $25.50), to the tiny delectable tower that formed the lump crab and avocado ($16.95), to the spice-rubbed rack of lamb with Israeli couscous, diced peppers, shallots, grilled Japanese eggplant and tzatziki ($39). Two outstanding features: the chowder had a light, brothy texture, and the lamb, with its smoky, international mélange of flavors, was truly world-class. 

The entire meal was epitomized by the so-called mini-cupcake dessert ($2.95). I took “mini” at face value and ordered one of each: carrot cake, chocolate caramel and strawberry. When I caught a glimpse of the generous, artfully decorated creations—with equal parts cake and icing—I had two of the three wrapped for later. Every morsel at Ridgway deserves its own moment in the sun to be savored. 

Although its prices are not for the faint of heart, Ridgway delivers the sort of luxury dining experience that makes it all worthwhile. Get thee to Ridgway and savor away. 

Ridgway Bar & Grill, 1300 Third St. S., Naples; (239) 262-5500, www.ridgwaybarandgrill.com. Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Early dining from 4:30–6 p.m. daily. Dinner from 5–9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5–10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Live music in the evenings Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Reservations recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.


Perfect for Date Night 

When I was a wee lass just nine years of age, my parents took us to the Middle East for a family vacation. Our first stop was Egypt, where we rode camels, explored pyramids and, along a dusty road somewhere between Memphis and Sakkara, ate the best rotisserie chicken I’ve ever tasted. It might have been the first moment I became aware that all chickens are not created equal and that dining can border on a religious experience. Thus, I was not surprised to discover that the chef responsible for the delicious Italian food we sampled at Ristorante Farfalla in Estero, Michael Fattah, hails from Alexandria, Egypt. 

The first thing you become aware of at Ristorante Farfalla is the butterflies. Butterfly art adorns every wall, which makes sense when you learn that farfalla means “butterfly” in Italian. We were escorted to our table and apprised of the day’s specials, one of which stole my heart: crab ravioli ($25). Tom was equally smitten with a menu staple, the linguini ai frutti di mare (linguini and seafood, $24). For good measure, we decided to try a third entrée, the petto di pollo all’ortolana (sautéed chicken breast with mushrooms, artichoke hearts and white wine sauce, $20). We began with a plate of crisp, light calamari fritti (fried squid, $10) and the insalata tre colori (three-color salad, $8) with balsamic vinaigrette. 

As a new mother with almost no time for walks on the beach and candlelit dinners, I have begun to regard our review outings as a kind of Gulfshore Life-sponsored “date night.” In that spirit, I was just getting ready to take Tom’s hand and nibble on it when he turned to the couple at the next table and said, “How’s the salmon?” What ensued was a lovely, half-hour-long conversation with George and Susan from Worcester, Mass. 

“We always come here for our first Florida meal of the season,” George said. “We just drop off our luggage and drive right over. In six years, we’ve never had a bad meal.” Another great tip from George and Susan? He calls her “Swambo,” an acronym for She Who Must Be Obeyed. 

We quickly saw that we couldn’t go wrong with Farfalla’s cuisine. My crab ravioli were fresh and homemade, phenomenal; Tom’s linguini came adorned with a delicious lobster tail; and our shared chicken had been pounded to an extraordinarily thin, tender cutlet. 

We topped off the meal with a tasty crème brûlée ($7) and delicious coconut sorbetto ($8). We had some difficulty procuring the check and leaving—the service was knowledgeable and pleasant, albeit not the most attentive—but we made our way into the night well satisfied. We even held hands. Hooray for date night! 

Ristorante Farfalla, 21301 Tamiami Trail S., Estero; (239) 495-9912, www.ristorantefarfalla.com. Dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5–10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5–10:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.