Here & Now: On the Bus to Euphoria
Elaine and Roger Osbond are serious foodies. With a legacy of family-owned food markets in the U.K, the former owners of Brambles Tea Room in Naples just love hanging out in food emporiums of all kinds in their travels. They especially adore taking guided food tours all over the world. After 18 years of watching Naples get foodier and foodier, they decided that our time, too, has come.
So it was that last January, Elaine started making phone calls. Based on the reaction, she acquired a minibus, and Naples Food Tours was born.
“The concept is all about discovery and tasting,” she says. No two tours are alike. “It’s not a progressive dinner. We do peek into the newest restaurants and iconic favorites, but we also surprise our guests with lesser-known gourmet boutiques, bakeries and ethnic groceries.” Each three-hour tour ($59 per person) covers six destinations.
Naples Food Tours’ minibus accommodates 14 passengers, which, it turns out, is the absolute max you’d want on a food tour that often tucks into tiny kitchens and gourmet shops.
Today, Elaine is hosting a familiarization tour for Chamber of Commerce volunteers, and I get to tag along. Roger is driving and Elaine, riding shotgun, dispenses bottled water, itineraries and commentary.
First Stop: Old World Market
Looking for a loaf of homemade tsoureki bread, a slab of Irish bacon, baklava or a nice bottle of pastis? How about Bulgarian sausage, a bottle of My Big Fat Greek Wine, an authentic Cornish pasty or a feta-infused filo pastry spiral pie? Then the Old World Market is your place. Who knew this postage stamp of a shop could be crammed with so many fragrant and yummy things? We barely get to taste a few of owners Moe and Zoe Dimitrov’s favorite Mediterranean cheeses and wines, talk sausage and pick up some irresistible gourmet treats before it’s time to move on. Welcome to the food tour concept. Thankfully, Elaine’s on-board cooler holds perishable purchases.
Next: Osetra Champagne and Caviar Bar
Paris has its pulsating, blue neon Le Bar du Plaza Athénée with all the A-list celebs. In Midtown New York, of course, it’s the Flute Bar. And now there’s Osetra. Address: 469 Fifth Ave. S., Naples.
The flute is no fluke: Champagne is back, and two not-yet-30-something Naples entrepreneurs are—so to speak—kicking bubbles. Besides being young and fearless, Osetra partners Anthony Chinaglia and Milos Simovic exude charm and gorgeousness. And despite the caché that comes with a menu that includes $300-per-ounce caviar, these multi-lingual, world-traveling restaurateurs clearly didn’t get the memo that they’re supposed to be snooty.
At the long marble bar, Anthony fills our glasses with Prosecco, a dry sparkling wine from his native Italy to go with the plate of two artisanal caviar-topped objets d’art separated by a single orchid blossom. The Petrossian smoked salmon crostini is topped with crème fraîche, capers and caviar. The caviar bite: crème fraîche and black caviar on grilled crostini.
Chocolate on the horizon
Luckily, the next stop involves chocolates. Lots of chocolates. Michael Hartz, owner and chef of SweetHartz Chocolatier, is waiting with trays of melt-in-the-mouth truffles, turtles and peppermint chocolate bark. My personal showstopper is the cayenne pepper Swiss dark chocolate truffle. Michael, a renegade from the homebuilding business, is clearly a happy man. We all honor our commitment to No Chocolate Left Behind.
Swan River Seafood
So, what could possibly follow wine, sausage, cheese, salmon, caviar, champagne and chocolate? Why, of course: garlic-infused calamari. This half-seafood market, half-restaurant is true to its no-frills Cape Cod origins. The casual restaurant side is dominated by a raw bar that appears to be the hull of a fishing boat crashing through from the kitchen. Our hosts—partners Joe McLaughlin, the manager, and Matt Ferreira, the executive chef—set out generous appetizers of buttery fried calamari and appropriately paired wine. Don’t ask me what wine. By now I’ve abandoned reason to live totally in this moment.
No doubt you’ve met Jacquie, the Caribbean island conjurer of marmalades, sweet salsas and jams that she sells at local farmer’s markets. Today we’re invited to Jacquie’s kitchen, in the Yahl Street warehouse district. Jacquie is showing us weird and wonderful tropical fruits, but I’m distracted by the gorgeous rounds of Brie and other cheeses flanked by open jars and little spoons. Especially the one with the lumpy, emerald green contents. I call it Jacquie’s Omigod, Somebody Stop Me Bring On the Goat Cheese Jalapeño Sugar Coma Decadence. Jacquie just calls it jalapeño pepper jelly. It’s rude not to sample it with every different cracker and cheese, right?
Olive Oil Finale
Technically we haven’t consumed that much food in the last two and a half hours. Jelly and chocolate don’t count as food, do they? Still, there’s a lot less chatter on the bus as we approach the last stop: Naples Olive Oil Company. Owner-olivologist Marie Heilland has tasty pairings of her private label extra virgin olive oils with 18-year-old balsamic vinegars and spice blends. Endless stacks of tiny plastic cups beside rows of seductive bottles cry out, Taste me! Taste me! I give it my best shot. Oils named wild mushroom and sage … blood orange … herbs de Provence. Vinegars named Sicilian lemon, cinnamon pear, pomegranate and chocolate. Chocolate, really? Marie suggests pairing it with Persian lime oil and drizzled over strawberries.
So, what have we learned today, foodies? Jalapeño makes a sensational jelly. Sometimes it’s OK to have your chocolate between your crostini and your calamari. For Champagne pairings, strawberries are out and caviar is in. Strawberries are better drizzled with Persian lime oil and chocolate balsamic, anyway. If you’re fresh out Kefalograviera cheese, you can pick some up in a strip center on Davis Boulevard. Who knew?
Naples Food Tasting Tour