December 18, 2014

A Grand Entrance

Translated, Sale e Pepe becomes "salt and pepper," an unassuming name for a sophisticated Mediterranean establishment. The first thing we admired about this new restaurant at the Marco Beach Island Resort was the service, which is five-star and flawless. There's a jacket requirement for men in the dining room so the air conditioning is set low. After we were seated, our server perceived that I was chilly. Without saying a word, she brought out an ivory silk stole and draped it across my shoulders. Later I learned that the management keeps shawls in several colors and keys the shade to whatever a guest is wearing. How's that for personal pampering?

We were attended by three young professionals who brought and removed dishes (Villeroy & Boch china), replenished silverware (an attractive hammered metal), poured beverages and kept the meal progressing at the right rhythm, anticipating needs and filling them without being asked. Like all restaurants in Italy, Sale e Pepe includes the gratuity in the check (18 percent-not enough considering the exemplary level of attention).

The restaurant seats about 200 inside the formal dining room and out on the terrace, which is the place to enjoy Marco Island's gorgeous Gulf views. Although the inside room is big, it seems intimate because of the clever configuration of the space, which allows for alcoves and niches, half walls, and lots of art and artifice. Dining is both private and luxurious once you're nestled in.

Southwest Florida homeowners will recognize the restaurant's ambience-.hill-country Italian, the most popular style of interior and exterior design in this region. Expect massive amounts of stone, delicately faded frescoes, carved marble and oversized Deruta portrait plates on the walls. Tapestry upholstery on the comfortable armchairs recalls Italian Renaissance palazzos as well as local Robb & Stucky showrooms. A handsome mosaic medallion separates the bar area from the dining room. The jewel-like stone chips were imported from Italy, and craftsmen spent months putting the puzzle together on site. Heavy drapes, dark woods and low lighting make the adjoining Toulouse cocktail lounge the perfect place for trysting.

Executive chef Alberto Varetto heads the Sale e Pepe kitchen, overseeing daily pasta making, deciding the menu and whipping up outstanding meals such as the lobster ravioli. Tender pockets of light pasta are stuffed with lobster pieces (not purée) sweet and rich and bathed (not drowned) is a tangerine-colored Bolognese sauce.

The menu is an easy read, with a judicious number of items conveniently categorized. Entrées average about $23. Standouts among the appetizers are the grilled homemade sausage paired with chopped porcini mushrooms in a light sauce ($10) and the scallops, big as golf balls but tender and delicately flavored.

Risotto lovers should warm to a dish that marries creamy arborio rice to a wild mushroom ragout topped with crispy leaks. The fresh fish stew contains mussels in the shell and is made with a spiced tomato broth and served with a garlic bruschetta. And for something as simple and pure as an Italian mother's noontime table, try the fried Milanese style veal chop (pounded and lightly breaded) that comes to the table atop a mound of arugula and cherry tomatoes. The veal is barely seasoned, so if you want something mild yet flavorful, this is it.

The menu also includes a cheese course for $8, which is well worth investigating. If you're adventurous, indulge in the degustation or tasting menu. This is a five-course fixed-price meal that the chef composes and sends out with the appropriate wines. It's a useful way to sample the range of the kitchen. All the portions are small so that you can get through the entire panoply. The tasting menu is $45 per person with an additional $35 if you want the wines. I suggest that everyone or no one at a table do the tasting menu. Otherwise, the timing of the meal is thrown off.

The restaurant wine cellar numbers about 1,500 bottles and shows a good representation of labels. But there's every reason to select an Italian wine, and the servers are savvy about which ones to pair with your entrée. We liked the Altegino Dosso di Altesino Toscana Vedemmia, 1998, which we found to be just robust enough for seafood and veal. At $33, it was a good value.

Chef's desserts all have the wow factor. High and beautiful, they're vessels for chocolate, custards, fruits, gelato and tangy sorbets with flourishes of spun sugar or candy spikes. Quite gorgeous, they deliver in taste what they promise in eye appeal.

The bill at Sale e Pepe is more moderate than you'd expect, given the quality of meals, service and ambience. What an agreeable shock: a topnotch resort restaurant that doesn't charge as much as it could! This place will make and keep friends among year-round residents as well as hotel guests.

Sale e Pepe

Marco Beach Ocean Resort

480 S. Collier Boulevard, Marco Island.393-1400.Dinner: Nightly from 6-10 p.m. Toulouse cocktail lounge, nightly from 5-11 p.m. Reservations suggested. Credit cards. Valet parking. 

You'd think all of Naples has been hungering for good Chinese food to see the crowds standing in the parking lot at P.F. Chang's with beeper in one hand and fancy drink in the other. But if we've been starved for a tasty Chinese meal served in pleasant modern Asian surroundings, we've got a place now; and it appears that word traveled fast.

P.F. Chang's (which calls itself a Chinese bistro) is a chain restaurant out of Scottsdale, Arizona. Started by Paul Fleming in 1993 with the collaboration of Chinese cuisine expert Phillip Chang (the Asian recipes are supposedly his mother's), the eateries now number nearly 40, including five in Florida. Until Naples, all P.F. Chang's restaurants could be identified by a pair of huge and handsome Tang Dynasty horses flanking the entrance. But according to the restaurant management, the Collier County powers decided that the horses were not aesthetically pleasing and denied Fleming permission to include. With all the ugliness currently assaulting drivers on the Tamiami Trail, it's ridiculous to think two reproductions of ancient Chinese artifacts would have done any visual harm. The horses might actually have helped.

Inside the 260-seat restaurant, the ambience is a mixture of Asian modern and Old China - sleek bow-shaped bar and big disk light fixtures, red glass pendants suspended over the banquettes, life-size warrior sculptures and a mural above the bar. Because of the wood floors, the room is noisy and there is a constant bustle.

The food is flavorful and fresh, and the choices seem endless with noodles, meins and rice dishes as well as vegetarian platters, meats and seafood preparations, soups, salads and appetizers. Certain dishes are highlighted to signify that they are spicy or vegetarian. The chicken or vegetarian lettuce wraps are the best thing to happen to iceberg lettuce since chopped salad. Malaysian chicken is a curry made with coconut milk, while the eggplant entrée features fiery spices and ground chicken. There are Szechwan, Mongolian, Cantonese and Hunan regional specialties to discover, and all of them are worth the adventure. No MSG in anything.

Entrées average a reasonable $10 and are generous enough to share. All entrées come to the table with steamed brown or white rice and an array of dipping sauces, some mild and sweet and others with genuine hot zing.

P. F. Chang's has an unusually varied bar with traditional fruit and rum umbrella drinks as well as martinis ($8.50), wines, Asian beers, sake and even dessert wines such as plum. The food is so reasonable because the bar is what makes the real money for the establishment. And some of the bar specialties are pretty enticing. Buddha's Dream consists of three rums, banana, pineapple, Grenadine and vanilla ice cream all whipped up and served with a flourish for $5.25. You may not attain enlightenment through this giddy dream drink of the Buddha but after downing it you won't care, and it will make waiting for a table suddenly bearable. 

P.F. Chang's China Bistro

10840 Tamiami Trail, Naples.596-2174.Open daily from 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. and until midnight on Friday and Saturday.No reservations. Expect a 45-minute wait during peak dinner hours.Credit cards. Easy parking. Take out available.