August 2, 2014

The Many Faces of Italy

Lemonia Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples

The name of the dining room at the new Tiburón Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples is Lemonia, which is a corruption of the Italian word limonaia, which means a lemon grove or lemon stand. Ritz-Carlton corporate chiefs reasoned that the real word was too hard for guests to pronounce, so they fabricated a faux version that works just fine and expresses the Mediterranean Tuscan menu and the decor, which is casual-rich-American-renting-Italian-villa-in-the-hill-country.

The name Tiburón is not Italian in any form-it's Spanish and means "shark," which is a reference to Greg Norman, the famous Aussie who designed the golf course and is, of course, known as The Shark on the pro tour. Shark in Italian is squallo, which sounds in English too much like squalid. Not the best name for an up-market vacation resort. Tiburón won without much of a contest.

So much for the name game at this golf resort of 295 rooms, replete with all the legendary Ritz-Carlton service and amenities that luxury hotel devotees demand. The valet parkers are costumed in plus-fours and rakish caps and they all look like young Bobby Jones clones. They are unfailingly polite and could make you forget that the day parking charge is $9. It's double that overnight.

So far, the lovely Lemonia (pronounced lemon- EYE-a) seems to be the particular haunt of the guests who are staying at the hotel. It's not an obvious culinary destination for local residents or for non-golfing tourists. That will change as the restaurant becomes better known. The resort only opened in January. Right now, it's a dining spot that is yours to discover. And unlike The Ritz-Carlton Beach Resort, gentlemen are not required to wear a jackets to dinner at Lemonia.

The dining rooms (including three private ones) seat about 200 inside and another 50 outside on the terrace. The Lemonia overlooks the ninth hole of the golf course, giving diners the option to discuss their triumphs or defeats only hours earlier. In spite of the handsome mosaic-patterned carpet and upholstered chairs, the curving main dining room is noisy. It was only half full on our night to dine ,and the scale of chatter was certainly higher than our comfort level.

The dinner menu is not expansive-maybe nine entrées and a nightly special or two-but it is intelligently balanced to include beef, fowl, pasta and seafood. The preparations are rustic Italian, so you can rightly expect risotto (black truffle and expertly done to the proper creaminess) as well as osso buco, rich and heavy on the wine flavor. The portion invites a hungry-man appetite. The seared duck breast ($33) is prepared with orange sauce and comes with a whole garden of baby vegetables including turnips, none of which are overcooked so you get a nice crunch. The filet of beef ($34) is crowned with a silken slab of foie gras and encircled with oyster mushrooms. Ordered rare, it was nearly fork tender and dense with flavor. But I was surprised to find no starch, neither rice nor potato.

Appetizers are outstanding at Lemonia and are substantial enough to share or enjoy as small-plate meals. One of the best is the kitchen's signature first course, the veal pan-seared sweetbreads and langoustine ravioli. Together on the plate, they are indeed an embarrassment of riches. Appetizers range from $7-$17. Chef Cliff Denny (a Brit who comes to Lemonia from the Ritz in McLean, Va.) runs the kitchen at Lemonia, and Sean Woods is the executive chef for all Tiburón eating destinations (there are four) and banquet services.

Choosing a wine should be no problem. There are about 400 selections on the list, most of them Italian and reasonably priced in the $60 range. If you're ordering Tuscan, you cannot go wrong with a Sangiovese or chianti classico riserva. Butyou'll find the $300-$500 a bottle well represented, too, especially in the French section, and you could spring for a Chateau Margaux 1983 Bordeaux for $1,205. Wines by the glass are plentiful, too.

Desserts (about $7 each) at Lemonia are exceptional, and they are presented as precious little works of art framed and held by biomorphic-shaped frosted glass plates of varying sizes and hues. Cappuccino flavor gives the cliché creme brûlée a fresh lease on the sweet life, and a chocolate soufflé with amaretto sauce is genuine luxury for the tongue. But my favorite is the chestnut and poached pear beignets with chestnut honey gelato. What a splendid way to say "ciao" to a Tuscan meal. I could easily consider these beautiful beignets as breakfast with strong black coffee. And knowing The Ritz-Carlton tradition of hospitality, pastry chef Michael Peponis would probably make them for me. And, for you, too.

Lemonia at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort at Tiburón

2600 Tiburón Drive, Naples

593-2000

Breakfast: 6:30-10:30 a.m.

Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Dinner: 6-9 p.m.

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Mamma Pasta feeds the masses

Mamma Pasta is a large, mid-priced Italian eatery that's well positioned near two busy Fort Myers highways, Edison Community College and several multi-family neighborhoods under construction. People can find this place by car or on foot, and lots of them are. The restaurant is part of a trio of adjacent modern Mediterranean buildings that showcase a restaurant, market and deli, and a retail wine store. Everything is under the ownership of Carlo Rao.

Mamma Pasta is crowded all the time with business types (lots of cell phone conversations), tourists and local families. Eat in booths, at tables, or in the bar, where you have a view of the open kitchen. You sit at bare black tables and your silverware is rolled in a white cloth napkin. Water comes with a lemon wedge. In the background, Italian music plays, and on the walls prints of Italy hang. The dining rooms are open and airy and with not much to absorb sound (the floors are stone tiles) the chatter level is high.

The menu includes soups, salads, plenty of pasta preparations, meat and fish entrées and pizzas. The latter is a thin-crust version that lacks crispiness except at the edges. But this Mamma pizza ($6.50-$7.95) is plenty flavorful and the chef isn't stingy with the additions of sausage, mushroom, or whatever you order to build a personal pie.

The classic tomato bruschetta ($4.75) was unsatisfactory on our visit. Cold toasted bread rounds were completely smothered and made soggy with a mound of tomato chunks that were insufficiently seasoned. We sent it back and fared much better with the mozzarella con funghi, a salad composed of buffalo mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms, olive oil, garlic and fresh basil ($5.75). There are no greens in this salad and it doesn't need any. Delicious.

There are 13 pasta dishes on the lunch menu and even more at dinner. We tried the Mamma Pasta fettucine, a preparation that leaves the noodles pretty much swimming in a brown sauce that has bits of mushroom, basil, garlic and pancetta in it. It was not a felicitous choice. Too much of a dull sauce, and it doesn't look appetizing on the plate. Better was the spaghetti puttanesca ($6.75 at lunch) with anchovies, crushed pepper and capers.

The four of us who sampled the luncheon fare at Mamma Pasta all agreed that the soups are the stars at this restaurant. Enjoyed by the cup at $2.50 or the bowl at $3.50, all the soups are hearty, expertly prepared and fully satisfying. The fagioli is the classic white bean with tiny macaroni. A bowl with the fresh warm bread that comes to the table when you sit down is a wonderful comfort-food lunch or a fine start to a full dinner. Equally as successful is the stuffed pasta in chicken broth or the traditional minestrone.

The service at Mamma Pasta is fast and friendly, and the menu is vast and varied enough to please just about any palate of any age looking for mostly agreeable Italian food prepared with American consumers in mind.

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A Touch of Italy

Isn't this a good thing-a full-service Italian market with a deli, takeout, frozen and fresh entrées, a sandwich board, party platters, imported products (such as chestnut flour), and catering services. Shop here and you can eat Italian every night for several months and never repeat a meal. Or have to cook one. You might imagine this is a popular place, and you'd be right.

Tourists come in and compose a take-out meal to spread out back at their resort kitchen counter. Busy working people and students drop in and peruse the deli counter or the refrigerator cases for take-home meals for one. Eggplant and veal or maybe stuffed shells? Single retired people who don't want to cook but love to eat well make this market a regular stop on their rounds. And A Touch of Italy also serves a useful resource for the gourmet home cook trying to find esoteric ingredients necessary to complete an authentic regional Italian dish. I counted seven kinds of olives in the deli cas,e and there are just as many varieties in jars and cans over on the shelves.

Sausages and preserved meats are from Boar's Head; and the pasta line of imported products includes Pasta Vietri, Pola Delverde and D'Apuzzo. This is the place to buy vacuum-packed instant polenta, imported cheeses, almond syrupor canned sliced scungulli (conch) in the 29-ounce can for $8.69. Of course, there are dozens of kinds of olive oil, balsamic vinegars and tomato sauces, in addition to fresh vegetables and condiments from hot mustard to mango marmalade. Oh, yes, a well-stocked ethnic market is a wonderful addition to any community. I say, make friends with the folks behind the counters at A Touch of Italy.

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Your Wine Merchant

There are 6,000 bottles of wine in Your Wine Merchant and 500 different labels, which ought to take care of the needs of most people who wander in before or after filling a basket in A Touch of Italy. The two emporiums are joined. (Mamma Pasta has a separate entrance). So after you've selected your bread, cheese, olives and such at the market, it makes good sense to saunter over to the wine racks and complete your rustic menu.

The inventory is about 35 percent Italian wines, some for sipping and some meant to complement Tuscan food. But the store's wine buyers, such as Edward Canada, also stock a healthy supply of French reds and whites, and many representative vintages from Australia, New Zealand, California, Washington and Oregon.

The wines are organized attractively, the staff is knowledgeable and accommodating, and the inventory is varied enough so that you might come intending to spend 10 minutes and still be chatting and making your selections an hour later. We asked Edward Canada to choose five wines for our basket, wines he personally buys himself. Here's what we took home as per his recommendation.

Stonestreet Cabernet Sauvignon, 1997. A medium to full-bodied wine great with roasted or grilled meats. $38.98.

Lumen, Montepulciano, 1997 Cabernet. A nice drinking wine for relaxation at the end of a day. Great with Italian food, but also fine all by itself. $67.95.

Terrarossa, 1999, which is the equivalent of an Italian red Zinfandel. Throw a porterhouse on the grill and uncork this bold beauty. $18.95.

Soletta Dolce, Dolce Valle, 1997, a dessert wine with a slightly orange and caramel taste. But the sweetness is restrained. $31.95.

Primitivo Dolce, 1994, a dessert/port wine that offers flavors of almond paste and roasted chestnuts. Great with dry pastry. The unusual, dark opaque bottle is shaped like the vine upon which the grapes grow in the Puglia region of Italy. $32.95.

Mama Pasta, A Touch of Italy and Your Wine Merchant

7890 Summerlin Lakes Drive, Fort Myers

Mama Pasta: 936-3660

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Daily, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.

Credit cards

Plentiful parking

Half or full orders available

All items available as take out

Catering available

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