September 1, 2014

Bright Stars

The menu at Naples' new Vergina is Italian, but the inspiration, says the menu, is Macedonian. In fact, "Vergina" (pronounced with a hard "g") refers to a 16-point star that's the symbol of Macedonian heritage. In 168 B.C. Rome conquered Macedonia. But like all conquerors, they surrendered to the local cuisine. Thus did Macedonia influence Italian cookery down to today.

At Vergina, you can enjoy an excellent lunch, dinner or after-dinner drink in an upscale environment with Mediterranean flair. The 6,000-square-foot space is comfortable and lovely, with long windows that fold back, opening to Fifth Avenue South. Between two cultural landmarks-the Sugden Theatre and Fifth Avenue South-Vergina's dining rooms or outdoor café are the logical place to stop and relax before or after seeing a play or an art installation.

You enter through the sidewalk café into the main dining room, which is dominated by two large Vergina star chandeliers and massive coppery faux-finish columns. A mural depicts Romans in a vineyard setting; and a handsome coffered ceiling, wall sconces and golden-crackle wall covering complete the elegant treatment. Expect white table linens, fresh flowers and plenty of attention from the wait staff, most of whom are Italian and love to chat. The room is a combination of tables and roomy banquettes, with Italian music playing in the background. Not Puccini or Verdi-it's more Jerry Vale and Dean Martin.

In the smoking section, a long and glamorous mahogany bar and intimate booths snuggle up to a glass and wood partition that offers a view into the bustling open kitchen. The chef is Zlate Sipinkoski, who attended Italian culinary school but also knows the recipes of his Macedonian great-grandmother. His brother, Goce, is the front-of-the-house expert who greets guests at the door.

Given its expensive-looking interior design, the moderately priced menu, which focuses on Northern Italian specialties, is a surprise. Most entrées hover around $20. Portions are generous, and the quality of ingredients is excellent. I couldn't finish my sumptuous serving of veal saltimbocca (veal on a bed of spinach, prosciutto and mozzarella). Not a problem-the menu declares that the Macedonians invented the doggie bag. They call it "the happy basket." Another in our party tried rigatoni with sausage, and a third had lobster tails. He was richly satisfied and didn't need a happy basket. The lobster, not surprisingly, was our most expensive order, market-priced at $29.

Entrées are served with potatoes and vegetables. Seafood entrées come with rice and vegetables. The menu includes about a dozen pasta dishes with seafood and meats. In addition there are two risotto preparations, six chicken dishes and six veal ones. Four seafood dishes complete the printed dinner menu, but expect nightly specials in this area. Good news for vegetarians-the kitchen prepares four pasta dishes with different veggie selections. Soups, salads and both hot and cold appetizers are available, too. I can vouch for the carpaccio of beef, thinly sliced raw filet mignon topped with olive oil, Parmesan and capers ($9.95). We also shared the Vergina bruschetta, which combines eggplant, tomato and peppers on toasted ovals of bread.

The wine list offers 16 wines by the glass for between $7.50 and $11. Or you may wish to spring for a $400 bottle of 1967 Bertani Amarone or an Opus I selection for $200. In between is a respectable collection of Italian, French and California wines that have been chosen to pair with the menu or to serve as pleasant sipping wines. We settled on a 1998 Rosso di Montalcino at $42 and were pleased with the price and the soft, juicy flavor.

Desserts include the usual tiramisu, zabaglione, assorted sorbets and ice creams, a nice multi-berry tart and nightly specials. Afterward, drift into the lounge and listen to live entertainment and have an after-dinner drink. Or you could do what Europeans do. Link arms and take a long, leisurely stroll around the city.

Vergina

700 Fifth Ave. S., Naples. 659-7008. Reservations suggested. Lunch: Monday- Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Seven days a week, 5:30-10 p.m. Major credit cards. Street parking or limousine service to and from selected area hotels.

Wine bars date back to the conquering Romans, who established them in lands they vanquished and then civilized to their own standards. And the Romans had standards when it came to wine. They knew how to cultivate grapes, and they extolled wine consumption for health and sociability.

Originally, wine bars were just that-a place to drink wine. Over time, snack foods and then full meals were added, and the wine bar evolved into the brasserie-an informal café that's like, but larger than, a bistro. Bacchus & Co., in Fort Myers at the Bell Tower Shops, is a wine bar and brasserie that takes its name from the Roman god of wine. It's been so successful that two more have opened, one in Naples on Fifth Avenue South and another in downtown Fort Myers. Southwest Floridians and visiting Europeans think like old Romans when it comes to wine bars. We like them.

At the Bell Tower Shops' Bacchus & Co., if you choose the outdoor courtyard, you dine in green plastic chairs under a market umbrella surrounded by weathered Kendall Jackson wine barrels, vines and huge terra cotta pots of shrubs. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful, and the music from inside won't hinder conversation. The glow of a tabletop oil lamp means you can read the menu even after the sun goes down.

Inside, there's room for about 45 diners, and the buzz is young, hip and noisy. The bar is called the chef's table because it has a view of the open kitchen, a view so close-up as to be practically interactive. Notice the bar, an impressive construction of stainless steel, copper and nail heads. It's sumptuously modern and harmonizes with the open black ceiling with a visible duct and hanging pendant lights.

Heavy metal chairs pull up to square, bare, wood bistro tables. Your silverware is rolled in a black napkin. Black is continued in accent accessories and in the staff's uniforms. Of course, the major decoration is all the racked bottles of wine that line the walls and occupy a separate walk-in, temperature-controlled unit.

Bacchus & Co. Fort Myers recently received the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. The accolade recognizes restaurants with superior cellars and a focus on successful food and wine pairings. The wine experience at Bacchus is interesting. There are about 25 wines by the glass ranging from $5 to $15. The selections pair with the menu selections, and that's as far as some people go.

But if you want to choose a bottle or two, you are invited to peruse the surrounding racks. A card at the beginning of each row names the bottle and gives the price. You purchase your bottle and then pay a $5 corking fee for the waiter to open it and pour tableside. If you need help finding a particular bottle or a certain grape (and I suspect most folks do), the wait staff will guide the process. Because the wine room is crowded with people eating and tables set close to the racks, browsing isn't that easy. Wine adventurers are also invited to tastings every Monday and Thursday evening.

The Bacchus menu is bistro-perfect, with plenty of tapas (nibbles) ranging in price from $8 to $20, including a cheese board that is great for sharing. Included are several spreads and dips; one of the best is a balsamic reduction that's sweeter and thicker than the vinegar. The olive tapanade is also excellent. Or share some littleneck clams, scallops, even grilled quail. There are about eight salads (ordinary fare such as Caesar, field greens and the newly ubiquitous beet) and 15 nicely balanced entrées. Some fish, plenty of grilled meats and a vegetarian platter, too. Two of us surrendered to the duck-four thick, juicy medallions arranged at the base of a mound of sweet potato, accented with thin green beans and a few chunks of squash and rimmed with a rich reduction sauce. Lovely.

Our fish expert, who has been disappointed with tuna at area restaurants lately, was delighted with the ahi, which he pronounced firm, flavorful and cooked not a second too long. The ahi arrived atop a hill of white beans with a little sauce and a heavy sprinkling of black pepper. Entrées to evaluate on subsequent visits might be the rack of lamb au poivre, seafood paella, Atlantic salmon or the traditional bistro stand-by, steak. Entrées range from $18-$26, with steak at the high end.

Desserts include chocolate volcano cake, cheesecake, bananas Foster, two crème brûlées and a chocolate soufflé, all of which present different options for dessert wines and coffee. The range is $6 to $10. An alternative to the sweets would be the imported cheese and fruit board for $20.

Enjoying the panoply of food and wine, we saw big families putting tables together in the courtyard; retired couples out with friends; and the young crowd, either prowling in small clumps or enjoying an intimate romantic dinner as a couple. Everybody seemed relaxed and in no hurry to leave. It's the way of the wine bar, you know.

Bacchus & Co. Fort Myers

Bell Tower Shops, 13499 S. Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers. 415-9463. Open daily. Lunch: 11 a.m-3 p.m. Afternoon: 3-5 p.m. (limited menu). Dinner: 5-11 p.m. Late night: 11 p.m.-1 a.m. (limited menu). Major credit cards. Easy parking in mall. Outdoor and indoor service.

Liquid Assets

A quick course in playing the wine futures game.

Talk about delayed grati-fication! Imagine buying a wine in the spring of 2000, getting it two years later and then waiting another five to 10 years to pull the cork. That's exactly what tens of thousands of people do every year when they buy Bordeaux futures. That's right-high-stake futures, as in pork bellies or soy beans.

Bordeaux's place in the wine world is unequaled, and wine aficionados always want the reds of this region. And they are really thirsting after the 2000 French vintage. The buzz is that there won't be another label like it for, well ... you know. Robert Parker, the most respected writer on this subject, has asserted that it is the best vintage he's met in 23 years of barrel-tasting Bordeaux wines.

From the premier tranche (first release) in the spring of 2001, Bordeaux prices have been escalating rapidly. We are already up to the quatrième tranche, and prices have doubled. Prices rose so quickly that a consumer could have purchased futures of this vintage for less than a wine merchant would have to pay to buy them now. Ted Farrell of Haskell's wine shop in Naples noted that the pace was so hectic that faxes with price changes arrived sometimes two or three times a day in their shop.

That's made wine futures look very attractive to a whole new crop of investors. It makes economic sense to buy now and drink later if you scored your store of wine for prices well below what you would have to pay by the time the wine appeared on the shelf. Enthusiasts also point out that the dollar has weakened compared with the franc or the euro since the Bordeaux was made, which could boost prices even farther. Moreover, access to some of these vaunted wines may be limited. Purchasing a few cases now may be your best (perhaps your only) opportunity to acquire these Bordeaux wines without having to resort to an auction.

Before you begin playing with wine futures, you need to understand that prices are not always what they seem. You might read, for example, that the premier tranche of Chateau Unamit is $100 a bottle. Is that the price at which you can buy that wine? The answer is a resounding "no." The price you would be offered at retail, even as a future, would be approximately double that. The reason becomes apparent when you consider the time-honored system. The chateau (winery) provides samples that a courtier (broker) takes to a negociant (wine merchant), who contacts major importers and private buyers. Then the importer calls his clients (wholesalers and retailers), who then call their customers. Prices rise at every stage of the process, and the enthusiasm of wine critics, negociants and wine importers who have tasted barrel samples can also increase the offering price.

Recognized as one of the finest wine shops in the United States, Haskell's is in Naples mainly because its president, John Farrell, owns a home here. While others moved here to take advantage of golf and tennis, he relocated here to enjoy the retail wine business. Isn't it great when your passion is also your livelihood? For a lot of wine people, that seems to be the case.

In addition to helping oenophiles play Bordeaux futures, Haskell's offers hard-to-find classic wines of the last 60 years on its Web site. The Naples enterprise also includes a 2,500-square-foot, climate-controlled storage facility for those without their own cellars. After all, if you are going to invest $500 or so in a 2000 Cheval Blanc to drink in 2025, you might want to do everything you can to assure that it actually will be drinkable at that time.

There are a few caveats to consider when playing the futures game. Predicting wine quality is an art, not a science. What tastes sublime in the barrel could evolve into a less-than spectacular wine in the bottle. A disappointed review from a critic like Parker could send the price of the 2000 Bordeaux plunging and cause investors to lose money. It does happen. For example, those who bought '97 futures are still about 30 percent in the red (we're not talking wine here). Most experts don't expect this to happen with the 2000 Bordeaux. But wine is fragile, and life is fraught with risk. Ted Far- rell points out that another risk might be even more glowing reviews for the 2001s. If Parker and Tanzer agree that the 2001s are the real wines of the century, the 2000s might lose their luster.

If you are still eager to enter the world of wine futures, the best approach is to ask a reputable wine merchant to help educate you about the market and the wines. You should also do some homework. Go online and check out the critical reviews of the wines in question. Then decide if you would like to part with your money in exchange for some deferred gratification of a world-class beverage type. If you succeed, you'll be doing what those with first-class wine cellars have been doing for years, buying some of the world's best wines in advance at some of the best prices in the world.

-Robert Paul

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