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Marvelous Melange

If you needed any more proof that Bonita is becoming the next swank Southwest Florida address, just visit the new Chops City Grill there. The restaurant, which is located in The Brooks, is a branch of celebrated Naples Chops City Grill, and it delivers exactly what you'd expect from the team that also brought us Pazzo Italian Café and Yabba Island Grill: expert service, a varied and intelligently plotted wine list, and well-prepared food presented with just the right amount of artistic flair.

The decor skews young and hip with vivid purple walls, a curvaceous yellow platform ceiling and contemporary pendant lighting. Seating is at banquettes, booths and tables arranged at an appropriate distance from one another, and there's a handsome bar at the entrance. Gleaming copper columns are referenced in the copper salt and pepper shakers on the snowy tablecloths covered with white butcher paper. Potted palms inside and a tight high hedge of ficus trees outside screen the highway view and filter the sunlight streaming in through big windows and tall narrow glass doors. The jazzy music may be louder than you're used to but as the evening advances, table chatter takes over to create a convivial buzz. This is a place where you are content to linger over a meal.

Chops is more than a traditional American steakhouse, although superior dry-aged beef is the star of the establishment and comprises the management's biggest food cost. The menu is fusion-contemporary American bistro with a light overlay of contemporary Asian. Pot stickers, crab spring rolls and sushi are on the appetizer menu along with clam chowder. Several cuts and kinds of steak ($22-$29) are balanced with items such as panko encrusted sea scallops in a sake-vanilla sauce. The seared salmon topped with a crab-and-sesame-seed soufflé is served with a carrot miso, gingered soy and chop suey-style vegetables. At $19.95, this is a standout dinner for salmon lovers who crave variation on a standard theme. The blackberry cabernet sauce that came with the sirloin strip steak arrived in a separate sauceboat and circled the table so everyone in our party of six could exclaim over it. We've all vowed to try and duplicate it in our home kitchens. Maybe Chops City wants to bottle and sell it.

The presentation of the dishes (and indeed the plateware itself) demonstrates Asian influences; and up until recently, even the dessert menu spoke with an Asian accent. Since the restaurant opened, however, some of the desserts have lost their five-spice grace notes because they failed to rally mass taste appeal. The most popular remains the molten chocolate cake. Dense and liquid, heavy and light, black and warm on the inside and capped with vanilla ice cream, it's the yin and yang of chocolate concoctions, and so rich that two can be sated with just one modest-sized portion.

Management considers the spirits at Chops City central to the full dining experience. Besides the extensive wine list (350 by the bottle and more than 30 by the glass), separate publications on the table extol the mixed drinks, the hard liquors (such as single malt scotches) and after-dinner selections. New wines are constantly being added, and the waitstaff knows what's available off the list. Expect to choose from about 70 American cabernets, 30 Italian reds, 29 French reds and 40 chardonnays.

As popular as Chops City Grill is in downtown Naples, you can expect Chops City Grill in the 'burbs to do just as well. And parking at The Brooks is a lot easier than negotiating car space on Fifth Avenue South during season.

Chops City Grill

U.S. 41 at The Brooks Grand Plaza, Bonita Springs. 992-4677. Dinner: 5:30 p.m.-closing, nightly. Credit cards. Reservations suggested.

Shopping can make you hungry and thirsty. This is particularly true in an outlet mall, where you do a lot of walking and rushing in and out of dressing rooms. A relaxing, reliable eatery is essential. Now Tanger Outlet Mall Stores on Summerlin Road (on the way to Sanibel Island) has Greco's Italian Delicatessen. If the name sounds familiar to Fort Myers Beach locals, that's because Greco's was a fixture in Santini Plaza for 23 years until the owner, Vince Greco, retired two years ago.

Like so many retirement plans, Greco's didn't work out. The cook/businessman got bored, so when space became available at the outlet mall, he put his apron on again and dragged his older brother Frank out of retirement to help make the subs, salads, Sicilian pizzas, hot meals, and to stuff the crispy cannoli shells with light, sweet cream filling. Once again Greco has a success on his hands-those same hands that knead bread dough and make sausage starting before dawn every day.

The focaccia and calzones at $4.95 each are totally toothsome. and the same goes for the hoagie supreme or any one of the other 26 sandwiches the Greco brothers prepare. If you want hot food, there's lasagna, spaghetti with clam sauce, manicotti, pasta with sausage and several other familiar favorites all under $9. A specialty of the house just might be the broccoli and baby shells. "We were raised on that stuff," says Greco. "It's our mother's recipe."

Greco has owned restaurants since 1958, many of them in New Jersey. He came to Southwest Florida in 1977 to visit an aunt, decided he liked the Gulf beaches, and in no time he had a deli on Fort Myers Beach and a favorable listing in Frommer's Guide to Florida. Now, he's enjoying great word of mouth for his Italian Delicatessen at the Tanger Mall. In addition to the cold meats and cheeses and the hot prepared entrées, the big, airy emporium stocks specialty items necessary to augment an Italian dinner or to cook one from scratch. Besides serving the mall shoppers at tables inside and out (total seating about 50), Greco's will do catering with one week's notice.

Greco's Italian Delicatessen

Tanger Outlet Mall Stores, 20350 Summerlin Road, Fort Myers. 590-0822. Monday through Saturday: 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. No credit cards. Eat in, take out, catering.

Bravissimo for Naples' new Italian restaurant of the same name! The restaurant deserves cheers for food and ambiance. The furniture in the sleek and modern lounge looks as if it were lifted from an innovative Milan showroom and transported to Seventh Avenue Naples. But the curvy and comfortable leather tub chairs in saturated colors were actually custom crafted in Chile, which is the home of co-owner Francisco Aquino and his wife Anna Maria, who sometimes helps out at the hostess desk. The executive chef and other owner, Bruno Sacco, are from a small town near Florence. He met and married Francisco's sister China (pronounced Cheena) in Rome. The carnival masks on the lounge wall are from Venice, thus blending décor choices from two cultures.

In the dining room, rich red walls are ornamented with opera posters framed in Old Master gilt. The tables are spare and sophisticated. No candles, no flowers. Just white cloths and the essential condiments including a slim, clear-glass bottle that holds infused olive oil for the fresh bread that comes to the table with your menu.

The fare, described by the chef as classic Italian, represents many regions and cooking styles of the country. No fusion, no artful vertical distortions of meat and vegetables. Just traditional home cooking from all over Italy. Expect white sauce, red sauce, Milanese ossobuco, Roman-style oxtail stew, Tuscan steak, Venetian ravioli (stuffed with beef and lamb), Sicilian tuna (it's got anchovy sauce) or ricotta and spinach, the last a specialty in Bologna.

The menu lists about eight pasta selections, four fish dishes and six meat entrées with an average price of $22. Entrées are supported by an intelligent collection of Italian wines, many of them big, house reds that stand up to the full, rounded flavors of the stews and beef dishes. There's also a sampling of California labels and a few from Chile. Chef Sacco, who owns restaurants in Santiago, knows the wines of Chile. When he is off checking other properties, the chef in charge at Bravissimo is Warren Cordova, formerly of Annabelle's.

There's enough variety (and fish) so that a vegetarian could be happy at Bravissimo. Appetizers are the usual carpaccio, fried calamari (the portion generous enough to share at $8), prosciutto and melon, and a few other non-surprises, although all are well rendered. There are three soups, including a ginger-spiced carrot soup and a mild gazpacho at $6. Four salads include a direct and refreshing fennel and tomato melange at $8.

Among the five desserts are the old saws tiramisu and crème brûlée-pleasant but not thrilling. I say go straight for the chocolate mousse cake, which is four layers of both mousse and cake topped with ganache. This hearty wedge rests in a shallow bath of fresh berry sauce. You can order one at $6.25 and share because it's so rich. Or sample the fritter with ice cream and milk sauce for something authentic but unfamiliar to many Americans.

Quality Italian meals presented in a chic and comfortable setting always make a welcome addition to Southwest Florida cuisine. The owners (and the eager-to-please waitstaff) at this downtown restaurant certainly have their act together for a winning performance that may leave you bellowing "Bravissimo!" as you exit.


849 Seventh Ave. S. 435-1882. Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Nightly 5:30-9:30 p.m. and until 10:30 p.m. on weekends. Major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Easy parking in designated lot in front of the restaurant.

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