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Il Tesoro

The Art of Sicilian Meatballs ... and More

When i grow up, i want a life like my friend Peter’s. He stores book manuscripts in his oven and has no idea how to use any of his kitchen appliances. Out of necessity, Peter has found all the great food to be had in Southwest Florida. So it was that he introduced us to the pleasures of Il Tesoro on Sanibel.  

Open since Valentine’s Day last year, Il Tesoro is a tiny treasure of a restaurant—hence its name—conceived by Chef/owner A. J. Black and his wife, Joelene. The Sicilian chef has owned restaurants here and abroad. Currently, it’s Il Tesoro and her sister restaurant in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard.

“This is the perfect spot for a tryst,” I said, as we settled into a back corner of the small dining room and took in the low ceiling strung with tiny white lights, the small collection of tables, the soft music and the walls covered in van Gogh replicas. 

“Don’t tell my wife,” Tom replied. 

Veteran servers Stephen Donato and Ian Kostrzewski both announced their intention to care for us. Soon we were dipping fresh bread into plates of spices, EVOO and balsamic vinegar. I have a love/hate relationship with dinner rolls. Usually, one must gnaw through a Fort Knox-like crust to get to the soft, warm dough inside. Not so at Il Tesoro, which serves fresh, crusty rolls that somehow manage to be tender through and through.

For a first course, Il Tesoro offers salads, cold appetizers such as the frutti di mare marinated in light lemon olive oil and fresh herbs ($15), and hot appetizers such as polpetta Siciliana, Sicilian-style meatballs in a spicy eggplant tomato sauce ($12). 

“What differentiates a Sicilian meatball from any other meatball?” Tom asked our hostess, co-owner Joelene Black, as we savored our (very spicy) plate of polpetta.

“Because it’s close to the Mediterranean, everything Sicilian is more earthy and spicy,” she explained. “It’s unusually savory, like the word everyone is using nowadays, umami.” For the uninitiated, umami foods are flavorful, protein-rich foods with a high glutamate content. Identified and named by the Japanese as a fifth basic food taste (after sweet, sour, salty and bitter), umami crosses all culinary borders.

I dove into a plate of polenta gorgonzola funghi ($13) and decided I could happily eat a plate of its truffle-infused goodness every day.

Il Tesoro offers entrées of risotto, pasta and pollo/carni, along with the specials of the evening. The specials cost considerably more than the other entrées—i.e., zuppi di pesce for $55—which has led to some Internet griping. All I can say is that the one special I tried, the Chilean sea bass Toscana sautéed with artichokes, sun dried tomatoes and mushrooms, was worth every penny of its $45 price tag.  

“Please tell Chef A.J. that he’s working wonders back in that kitchen,” I told Joelene.  

“My husband is actually cooking on Martha’s Vineyard tonight, possibly for a very important guest,” she said. We marveled at the prospect of having parallel meals with President Obama. “Chef Robert Clesos is preparing your food.” 

“Are all of the recipes your husband’s?” Tom asked.

“Absolutely. There is no flair,” Joelene assured us. “Everything
is exact.”

The surprise delight of the evening came in the form of two exquisite desserts: the torta della Nonna and the crème brulée e frutti di bosco ($10 each). The torta was perfect, with pine nuts, lemon filling and a dusting of powdered sugar, while the tiny, chilled fruit on the brulée sent shivers of pleasure through us. 

“Peter would be proud we let the good people at Il Tesoro cook for us tonight,” I said to Tom as we crossed the Causeway and made our way home. We blew him kisses across the starry night and thanked heavens for magical treasures.

Il Tesoro, 751 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel; (239) 395-4022, www.iltesoro.net. Open daily for dinner from 5–10 p.m. Lunch in season. Reservations highly recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.


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