September 15, 2014

Filling a Need

This part of Southwest Florida has plenty of restaurants and hotels where you can fill up on a big-house American breakfast of sausage and eggs, pancakes, bacon and biscuits. But what if you want a small, refined European coffeehouse morning meal-strong fresh roasted coffee accompanied by a flaky croissant or a fruit-filled French pastry? Then you must go to Bayfront on the Gordon River (across the bridge from Tin City in Naples), the new condo-retail-restaurant development, and search out Café Kaffee. There you can sit in comfortable wicker and rattan chairs or sink into the couch and listen to Spanish, Greek, French and Italian music while you read the newspaper and sip fresh-ground Melitta coffee from a big white cup. If you want to dunk your biscotti or croissant, no one is going to raise an eyebrow. The roomy café seats about 30 inside and a few more outside under a covered arcade.

The owners, two women with a great sense of style, have outfitted the entire café in coffee colors from the pale café latte walls and cappuccino stone floor to the dark French roast-colored rattan bistro chairs. On every round table, a small votive candle is sunk into a mound of coffee beans in a glass vessel. A few of the beans have been spray-painted gold. This is a great at-home centerpiece for a breakfast or brunch buffet table. When you light the candle, the room fills with the smell of fresh coffee. The ladies also sell coffee and tea candles in decorator sizes; they are lovely and would make a fine hostess gift. Other gifts include Melitta coffeepots, mugs, cups and saucer sets and candy.

The owners grind and brew the beans themselves. They get their breakfast French pastries, lunchtime sandwiches and quiches from a local French bakery. They wisely aren't divulging their source. At breakfast, there's a nice array of granola (if you want cereal) and pastries both fancy and plain. At lunch, you can have either a baguette or hot pressed sandwich made with ham or turkey, brie cheese or tuna. A quiche of the day is available by the slice. Or order a whole pie to take home for dinner that night. Sandwiches are $4.25. A whole quiche would be $24 or $4.50 by the slice.

Besides plain and specialty coffees, the Café Kaffee menu includes hot and cold espresso drinks, bottled fruit juices and water, Chai tea, white or traditional hot chocolate and frozen coffee drinks in addition to Italian creme soda.

The atmosphere is so relaxing and pleasant in Café Kaffee that I can see it attracting a big following among the condominium residents of Bayfront. But it could also become a destination for shoppers and working people in the Naples downtown area who want to start off their day the European coffeehouse way.

Café Kaffee, A European Café and Beanery

423 Bayfront Place, Naples. 261-3683. Hours: Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Closing hours extended during season.

Surprises await at this nautical eatery.

Big Hickory Grille is anchored by fish-camp food. And that's just as it should be for a casual eatery located on the water at a marina that draws boaters, fishermen and tourists who want to soak up local ambience on one of the string of tiny islands between Fort Myers Beach and Naples. At lunchtime the Grille excels in generous fried seafood platters ($15), peel and eat shrimp, fried grouper fingers and even an ahi tuna burger along with the traditional hamburger ($6.75).

Soup lovers may choose among a spicy (five different peppers) conch chowder, a somewhat milder seafood gumbo and some kind of cheese soup of the day,all about $3.50 a bowl. The first two soups are accompanied by a bottle of Taylor dry sherry. If the chowder is too spicy-hot for your palette, douse the fire with a shot of sherry to mellow the flavors. I took the wimp-wine route to a milder chowder, but two others in our party of four slurped it straight. The cheese soup is an odd item on a fish camp menu until you learn that the restaurant's owner, Mike Bode, is a German who loves cheese soup-any kind- and it is the boss's special request to have a cheese soup featured daily. Our day was Wisconsin cheddar.

Lunch selections also include seafood salads, fritters and a nuevo seafood taco trio that is well worth trying at $9.50. The dish consists of three colorful tortillas (smoked-chili red, blue corn and yellow corn) that hold seafood, mostly fish, inside. The trio is served on shredded lettuce and rice with chipolte sour cream.

A little blue and white paint reinforces the nautical theme, which includes mounted trophy fish on the rough-hewn walls along with a few portholes at the bar and big windows for a proper vista of the water. The place seats about 80 inside with more room on the covered porch. It's not fancy, just comfortable. The table pedestal bases are wrapped with white rope for a Martha Stewart touch that works and will probably inspire customers to try it at home with their patio furniture.

With lunch you can get beer, spiked lemonade, a glass (or carafe) of house wine and beverages served in huge plastic 14-ounce glasses. The theory is that your first glass is so big, refills become unnecessary. Many of the entrées come to the table on big, fish-shaped clear glass plates, which makes for a cute presentation. And soups are served up in black plastic shells. That's lunch.

At dinner, the ambience doesn't change, but the cuisine landscape alters dramatically thanks to 25-year-old thrill-seeking chef, Charles Hartung. He cooks more conservatively at lunch than dinner. He'll tell you he has a passion for Floribbean food and that Grille owner Bode is encouraging him to fearlessly spread his wings and to soar and dive like some great pelican after a seafood prize.

Last June, Hartung decided he wanted to get back into the kitchen and cook for a crowd. On a fishing trip to Florida, he happened to be on the same boat as Bode who was in the market for a chef for Big Hickory Grille. The two realized their philosophy about Florida cuisine is the same-use fresh local fish and shellfish and prepare seafood so that its natural flavors are enhanced, not hidden, by sauces and accent flavors.

Before long, Hartung was living in a two-bedroom house on the water in Bonita Springs with a lift for his boat. Now he indulges all three of his passions: Floribbean food, fishing and golf. He says he is here to stay.

Floribbean preparations are a fusion of fresh local catch and spices, chutneys and herb accents from the islands giving the seafood a bit of a kick as well as making a colorful, bright presentation. One of chef's favorites is a Florida lobster stew braced with a bit of garlic and red peppers and served with a wild-rice waffle with an orange marmalade sauce ($20.50). He's also quite proud of his sautéed crab cakes, which are 95 percent crab with just enough stuffing to hold them together. They are lightly cooked in butter and served with island rice for $19.75. Chef turns out an admirable grilled ahi tuna steak with a saffron dill buerre blanc topped with a tropical melon relish, and he is always experimenting with yellow tail snapper because he appreciates the versatility of the fish. Hartung buys local grouper and snapper and also picks from catches in the Keys and from Pine Island. When he buys from regional and statewide suppliers, he's discriminating, and that's evident in flavor.

The dinner menu changes every Wednesday and restaurant staffers say the phone starts ringing that afternoon. Regulars want to know what Hartung has dreamed up for the week and they usually tell him they'll be right over.

Big Hickory Fishing Nook Seafood Grille

26107 Hickory Boulevard, Bonita Springs. 992-0991. Monday-Saturday from 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday 9a.m.-4p.m. Major credit cards. Parking lot.

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Tuscan comfort food to suit your mood.

Campiello Ristorante & Bar in Naples on Third Street has its cuisine roots in Minneapolis, Minn., a town where Richard D'Amico has operated his D'Amico Cucina and the casual D'Amico & Sons catering-takeout-inside dining since the 1980s. The restaurants were such a success in that Northern city that the D'Amico family decided to try the concept in Naples and Fort Myers, where the climate and the architectural style conjure up visions of Italy and name of the town and some gated communities reinforce the illusion. The cuisine is simple, rustic Italian Tuscan food served with great bread and good supporting wines in a comfortable atmosphere.

The timing was right in 1998 when D'Amico & Sons opened in a Naples and a Fort Myers mall and Campiello premiered in downtown Naples. Americans were traveling in droves to Italy, drinking Italian wines at home, and buying cookbooks by Marcella Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli. Hearty, flavorful Italian hill country food reigned supreme in the U.S. It still does, and the D'Amico establishments are doing just fine stretching a food trend into a culinary tradition in Southwest Florida.

Campiello actually offers three different venues for enjoying lunch and starlight dinners. There's the raised front terrace that is streetside to Third. Drop in when you want a break from shopping and sit under a market umbrella or at the bar. Order a pizza and you actually will be transported to Italy. The thin-crust pizza is dedicated to the less-is-more theory. Each ingredient is identifiable and distinct. The pizza is baked for only three minutes in a 600-degree wood-burning oven and it comes to the table as a large oval that's been cut into squares. It is the essence of what a successful Italian pizza should be-light, flavorful with all fresh ingredients. At lunch the streetside terrace is relaxing and chatty. At night it swings into party mode, especially when there is live entertainment.

You can also dine in the intimate back courtyard, where you can settle in for a leisurely dinner of comfort foods such as Italian meat loaf with potato puree ($13.95), grilled salmon or veal chop, braised lamb shanks or maybe balsamic glazed short ribs, which are $21.95 and a specialty of the house.

If you prefer to eat inside in one of the two sophisticated dining rooms, make a reservation and expect to be dazzled by Venetian glass, hanging pendant lights and chairs slip-covered in buttery-soft Italian leather. The rooms are modern, airy and metropolitan, with wood-top tables accented with silver-painted curved legs and faux-finish walls and murals executed by Minneapolis artists.

Everything is arranged around the expansive open kitchen so you can watch 38-year-old executive chef Andrew Wicklander direct sous chefs and line cooks in a fast choreography of meal preparation starring a wood-burning grill and slow, twirling spit that turns out amazing chicken. Dinner entrées average about $24 and evening selections include seven different pasta dishes. A children's menu offers four entrées at $6. Desserts are the usual ice cream, crème brûlée, cannoli-something sweet to have with coffee or a dessert wine.

The wine list balances the old and new worlds, with Italian and Californian selections picked to pair with the comfort foods. They range from about $24 a bottle up to $205. Additionally, the bar serves up 24 different martinis including orange truffle, pear and key lime versions. The most popular is the cosmopolitan at $7.

Campiello is that rare restaurant that can appeal to nearly any age and taste. I think that's because the philosophy is to serve food that might have been personally prepared by an Italian grandmother. When it comes to good food, everyone wants to claim such a relative. Now you can.

Campiello Ristorante & Bar

1177 Third Street, Naples. 435-1166. Lunch: Daily from 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Daily from 5-10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on weekends. Bar: Open all day and evening for snacks and pizza. Bar seats 45 inside and out. Live entertainment: Wednesday-Saturday from 7:30-11 p.m. Major credit cards. Parking on the street or in nearby public lots. Reservations suggested for the two indoor dining rooms. Walk-ins welcome for terrace and courtyard.

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