October 31, 2014

Perfectly Pazzo!

When asked why he robbed banks, legendary bank robber Willie Sutton replied, "That's where the money is." That pretty much answers my question about why there are so many Italian restaurants in the Naples area. That's where the customers are. There's apparently no end to the number of Italian eateries Southwest Florida can support, from hole-in-the-wall pizza joints to casual, family owned cafes and national chains, to upscale Mediterranean cuisine served on white tablecloths by a waitstaff educated in fine Italian wines.

Pazzo! (which means crazy) is one of the most successful Italian cafés in Naples, and despite the name, there are sane and savvy business heads behind this venture. Pazzo! has everything going for it including prime real estate: It sits on Fifth Avenue in downtown Naples. The restaurant offers both outdoor casual dining on the sidewalk (just like Italy) or you can find a cooler table inside, where there are an open kitchen, handsome polished wood bar, cozy banquettes and tables arranged and laid in bistro fashion.

The atmosphere is modern Mediterranean, but neither the acoustic ceiling nor the thick carpeting can absorb enough sound when this place is in full swing. The surrounding buzz will drown out intimate conversation as effectively as it destroys the background music. Pazzo! is a place for your outdoor voice even if you're sitting inside. Nobody complains, though, and on any given evening you'll see a glamorous mix of young Dolce-and-Gabbana-clad singles, sunburned tourist families, seasonal residents and year-rounders out for a stroll and a quick bite.

The bar is the big business here. Expect to order a good-looking (and refreshing) Bellini or cosmo, or even a Godiva chocolate cheesecake martini, all for about $7 apiece. The wine list is Cal-Italia with familiar selections including nearly 40 chardonnays ranging from $24 a bottle up to $95. And although there is a decent selection of sauvignon blancs, there are strangely (and sadly) none from New Zealand, a nation recognized for its superior offerings of this varietal.

An agreeable feature of the Pazzo! wine list is an invitation to order flights. Choose either three reds or three from the white side of the list and have your trio for only about $10. This is a wonderful way to sample new labels. The flight adds up to about one healthy pour, but you feel like you're getting more since you tend to linger over each mini-pour and do the compare-and-contrast thing. Eleven reds and an equal number of whites are available by the single glass, and you must choose your flight from this part of the wine menu.

The menu supports the ambience with a rich mix of familiar appetizers (antipasto, calamari, Tuscan bean soup, mussels), salads and about 10 pastas including a flavorful butternut squash ravioli. There's plenty of fresh seafood and traditional Tuscan and southern Italian preparations such as veal piccata or scaloppine, chicken parmigiano, pork ossobuco. No fusion, no innovative modern Italian cuisine, just popular dishes properly prepared. Average entrée is about $16. The kitchen pays attention to artful presentation with attractive compositions on oversized plates with garnish sprinkled like confetti around the rim. Everything looks as festive and appetizing as it tastes, including desserts such as lemon panna cotta, tiramisu, zabaglione or gelato.

We enjoyed an especially comforting risotto made with lobster broth and flecked with chunks of shrimp, lobster and asparagus. Somewhere in that bustling noisy open kitchen is a patient cook who knows exactly how and when to add the hot broth to the Arborio and how to slowly, diligently stir the pot. The resulting risotto is creamy, not gummy, with deep to-the-bone satisfying toothsome flavors. This is a cook to encourage and a risotto to savor. We'll go back for more.

Pazzo! Italian Cafe

853 Fifth Ave. S., Naples. 434-8494. Dinner seven nights a week from 5:30-10 p.m. Reservations suggested. Credit cards. Street parking.

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Bavarian Beer Garden in Fort Myers

Outside it's a big, plain building decorated with flags in a strip mall. But inside, Manni's German-American Restaurant is a boisterous Bavarian beer garden with fountains and vine-covered trellises threaded with tiny white lights. The band is playing, nine kinds of German beer (in really pretty imported glasses) are being hustled from the bar to tables that conveniently (for the waitstaff) have big black numbers sticking out of wire holders on the pink tablecloths. Flowers would be nicer, but I guess the numbers are efficient.

It takes three minutes for the bartender to draw a glass of beer at Manni's because the owner, Manni Daum, insists on a luscious, creamy head of foam, "just like you get in Germany." Manni was a singer for 20 years in Germany and Chicago; he says he finally got tired of traveling and decided to open a restaurant. His jolly joint seats 160, and the owner says he sees more American customers than German tourists, although there are plenty of those, too.

When you go to Manni's for lunch or dinner, leave the calorie counter at home and forget cholesterol because the schnitzel prepared Swiss-style comes with sour cream gravy and mashed potatoes. The rye bread is fresh and sliced thick, Thursday is schweinshaxen (ham hock) night, and both Black Forest cherry cake and apple strudel with ice cream are on the desert menu.

Executive chef is Werner Dietrich of Bavaria, whose culinary history includes positions on cruise ships, at restaurants and big hotels in Europe, Canada and New Zealand. He understands completely what owner Manni's clientele comes through the door expecting-home made, high-quality German food prepared traditionally and served on heaping plates. No artistic flourishes here. Food takes up any room where fancy garnishes might otherwise appear. Besides schnitzel prepared four different ways, you can order up bratwurst, Oktoberfest ribs, sauerbraten with red cabbage, potato pancakes, spaetzle, sauerkraut, those bread dumplings called semmelknoedel and even chicken, steak and salmon. Entrées average about $14. Daily specials are $9.95. If you leave this restaurant less than stuffed, it's no fault of Manni's.

Manni's Restaurant & Lounge

U.S. 41 and Boy Scout Drive, Fort Myers (across from Page Field Airport). 277-1272. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:15 a.m.-10 p.m. and on Sundays (in season) from 5-9 p.m. Closed on Sundays in summer. Reservations accepted. Live entertainment and dance floor. Credit cards. Easy parking in strip mall lot.

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North Naples Neighborhood Trattoria

Every neighborhood needs a dependable trattoria for casual lunches and dinners, for take-out pizza, or for sitting with a few friends over a bottle of vino and solving the world's problems. In North Naples in the Pavilion Shopping Center, Angelo's is that amiable place. Folks who go there one time generally end up making this family-owned eatery their little corner of the world of traditional Italian food.

Sit at booths, banquettes, tables or the bar in two rooms that are neatly furnished and comfortable, but not fancy. There's a hint of Mediterranean influence in the décor. But most of the budget goes into the kitchen, where two sisters, chefs Sandy and Caterina Lucarelli, stir the sauces. The family recipes reach back to Bari, Italy, and were brought to America by Jack and Lucy Lucarelli decades ago. From Long Island, the family moved to Naples. Jack and Lucy own Angelo's along with Jack Jr. Daughter Marie Trimboli is the manager.

The menu emphasis is on hearty soups, salads, hot and cold heroes (about $6), calzones and comfort food entrées that are generously sized, such as the baked ziti with eggplant, scungilli marinara, or fettuccine Bolognese. Of course, there's spaghetti with meatballs. Average price about $13. The pizzas (regular and thick-crust Sicilian) are among the best you'll find in the city ($8-$20 depending on size), and while Angelo's offers 20 different toppings, a local favorite is the plain and simple La Margherita. Why tamper with perfection?

Angelo's Pizzeria and Restaurant

8971 N. Tamiami Trail, Naples. 598-2222. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, 5-9 p.m. Take-out too. Free delivery.

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Ask Marsha:

Q. I intend to bring a bottle of wine in the $25-$30 range to friends as a housewarming gift and I want the label to be outstanding. Of course, the wine should be good, too. Suggestions?

A. Roaming the racks at Haskell's with general manager K.C. Boudrie produced a $30 winner. It's a 1999 Chateau Carbonnieux Grand Cru. This white, food-friendly Bordeaux is mildly oaked and medium bodied with 70-percent sauvignon blanc and 30-percent semillon. It's dry but has a hint of a sweet finish. The French love to drink this wine with oysters. The wine is a pale gold. And the label is classically handsome, bearing an illustration of the chateau. Your design sense and good taste in spirits will be admired by your friends. With luck, you'll get invited to dinner to enjoy the wine.