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Dining Out with Drama

The name Opera Ristorante explains what this Promenade eatery is all about-food and song. The food is Italian and the song is opera, although opera is defined broadly as our supper entertainment included "Ave Maria" and "O Sole Mia" as well as selections frommBizet's Carmen. A piano nestles in a corner near the double door entrance and from this staging area a singer and violinist perform with a pianist. Later the soprano and the violinist waft through the dining room to serenade the tables. Opera Ristorante also makes histrionic use of Baroque décor to create a sumptuous atmosphere with lots of rich gold tones on the walls, heavy drapery, formal columns, Medusa-like twisted metal grape vine sconces, comfortable palace chairs and red textural banquettes. I like the single red rose in a bud vase on the snowy tables. Modern Italian red pendant lights cast a warm glow over the patrons and (unfortunately) on the meals, too. Some, like a veal and polenta dish, took on a grayish aspect that was not appealing. Still, red in a dining room is supposed to stimulate the appetite. And it does.

The menu is arranged like one in Italy. Several courses compose a long and leisurely meal from hot and cold appetizers, salad, soup, pasta and then entrée. And if you're doing it strictly European, order your salad last, just before the dessert cart comes with about a half-dozen chocolate, cream, fruit and rum concoctions.

The entrées favor veal (five selections) but you can also sample stuffed rabbit, rack of lamb with rosemary, or a mild chicken breast sautéed with black olives, capers, onions, tomatoes and red wine. Entrées, called primi piatti on the menu, average $26. Many are served with polenta instead of potato or rice.

Opera Ristorante does an admirable job with polenta, basically cornmeal mush that takes on the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. The veal Tartufo Nero floats on a thin cloud of polenta mingled with white truffle oil, pinot grigio wine, shaved black truffles and a splash of cream.

The rise in popularity of risotto has encouraged Italian chefs to present polenta and gnocchi with the hope of the same warm reception. Polenta is versatile because after it is slowly stirred and cooked atop the stove, the mush can be refrigerated in a mold and then cut into squares or rectangles and fried to make a whole different dish, depending on sauces and garnishes. I can certainly praise the hot appetizer our table shared that was made with polenta topped with Gorgonzola and sautéed wild mushrooms.

Vegetarians must look to the pasta part of the menu (10 choices) for items such as clam linguini or pasta pomodoro. Beef enthusiasts should go for tagliatelle Rossini (named for the opera composer) that consists of fresh noodles sautéed with artichokes, mushrooms, tomato cream sauce and garnished with sliced filet for $24. That's something to sing about. Pasta dishes average about $22. But boo to the bread and olive oil that comes to the table with your menu. Mediocre at best. Why not put out focaccia and properly set the palate for the good things to come?

The wine list favors, but is not limited to, Italian labels, and you'll find the usual California reds as well as a 1997 Chateau Mouton Rothschild for $320. But most selections are in the $40 to$60 range. Our waiter put our Santa Margherita pinot grigio in a silver bucket for an elegant Old World touch. That wine, by the way, is the favorite of Julia Roberts, in case you're collecting culinary star trivia. Service at Opera Ristorante is expert and our party of three felt well treated and well fed. We left humming our way out into a starry Florida night.

Opera Ristorante

26841 South Bay Drive, Bonita Springs


Lunch: Monday through Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Dinner: nightly 5-10 p.m.

Reservations suggested

Credit cards

Easy parking in mall lot

* * *

Situated off bustling Fifth Avenue South in rooms once occupied by McCabe Bros. Steak House , El Pampa Argentinean Grill, adds a welcome new ethnic dimension to Naples c. The beef empañadaes are so toothsome you'll want to take a half-dozen home. Definitely a menu star in the appetizer category. Vegetarians will need to dine elsewhere because the sights and smells of grilled meats are celebrated everywhere in this busy metropolitan bistro. We're talking steak, pork, ribs, rabbit, quail, sausage, lamb and the ubiquitous chicken. Salmon and lobster make a curtsy but the crustacean is teamed with an eight-ounce grilled filet mignon ($38.95). The essential element of the basic silverware setting at El Pampa is a serious steak knife.

Entrées average $22 and are accompanied by potato and vegetable. Be warned, the potato arrives encased in aluminum foil (an unfortunate gesture) and already dressed with generous amounts of sour cream and bacon bits. If you don't want the condiments, make your wishes known when you place your order. Warm, good bread is accompanied by hummus and herb-infused olive oil.

The dining room and bar retain the Island Plantation style of the previous restaurant, but the new owners have added South American artwork and the servers wear black-and-white uniforms accented with woven sash belts and scarves at the neck, gaucho-style.

The chief attraction at El Pampa, besides grilled meats, is tango. Three evenings a week a couple drives from Miami to entwine and perform the steamy and passionate dance of love-hate up and down the aisles of the restaurant. Waiters dodge them, children imitate them and women watch with envy, while men observe with dread because the thought looms of going back to Ohio and having to take dance lessons. But and the dramatic music and all that staccato twirling and dipping is fun; and it diverts attention from erratic (but pleasant) service. El Pampa is stingy with the plateware; your bread and butter plate is also your appetizer plate. It's taken away before the entrée and then you're a plate short. If you decide to split a dessert, the dish will be placed in the center of the table with no plates provided. Instead of being listed on the menu, the desserts are brought to the table on a tray include flan, crème brûlée, chocolate mousse or cake. Desserts are about $6 and look more complex and luxurious than they actually taste.

The wine list is extensive. We ordered a David Bruce pinot noir ($36). Chardonnays are fairly typical and range in price from $32 to$76. Dry Creek is at the low end and Far Niente at the high. There are choices for any wine palate and El Pampa offers 10 by the glass. Argentina is one of the few nations that produce wines made primarily or exclusively from the Malbec grape, which the French use for blending. These wines are versatile and pair successfully with a variety of foods. So, raise a glass and say cheers to grilled meat and the tango.

El Pampa Argentinean Grill

699 Fifth Avenue South, Naples


Lunch: daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Dinner: daily 5-10:30 p.m.

Credit cards

Reservations suggested

Catering available

Street parking 

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