Little Plates, Big Flavor
I’ll never forget the first time I had the culinary pleasure of tapas. I was in Manhattan on my way out the door to dinner when my phone rang. My 80-something-year-old grandmother was calling. I told her I was late to meet a friend at a new tapas bar and would call her later. She was horrified, and I could just see the look on her face when she asked, “Why on earth are you going to a topless bar?”
Naturally I explained that I had said tapas, otherwise known as small portions of typically Spanish food. Tapas bars and restaurants exploded in urban areas several years ago. As the fun of trying several small plates rather than one large dish caught on, many restaurants and bars began offering small items billed as “tapas” on their menus. The best tapas can be found at traditional Spanish restaurants, but creative chefs have taken the miniature meals to new heights, such as at IM Tapas in Naples.
IM Tapas is located just off U.S. 41 on Fourth Avenue North. The atmosphere is nudged along by buttery yellow walls, art collected by the owners and an eclectic blend of fantastic music. Here, love is in the details, down to the mirrored electrical plates designed to match walls in the bar and sparsely arranged tables which allow for plenty of breathing room.
The flatware is unique—sturdy and heavy, but with an almost whimsical design. Unlike many tapas bars where you’re crammed in to the point of irritation, the whole place seems designed to make you relax. The overall décor at IM Tapas is suited for long evenings luxuriating over inventive food and lavish wine. Dining here is about conversation. Sharing new dishes. Debating obnoxiously between whether to order sangria or wine. Let me help you with your decision … the wine list is select, but the sangria is some of the best I’ve had inside the borders of these United States.
If the sangria at IM Tapas is exceptional, the food is ridiculous. Foodies will relish IM Tapas, but it’s really for anyone who loves good food. Many of the recipes at IM Tapas are courtesy of Chef Pozo Polo’s mother, Hilda, who is originally from Cuba. The family emigrated from Cuba to Spain many years ago, hence the authenticity of the food, before settling in Naples. IM Tapas is all in the family, named for Chef/Owner Isabel Pozo Polo and her partner and Sous Chef Mary Shipman.
Pozo Polo takes a few welcome liberties with traditional Spanish cuisine by adding superior ingredients and applying modern cooking methods to the style of the cuisine. For example, while many traditional croquettes just include potatoes and spices, Pozo Polo incorporates a very light béchamel sauce mixed with a little potato, nutmeg, salt cod and panko bread crumbs in her croquettes. Good grief. Tapas are meant for sharing, but you won’t want to.
The key to enjoying an evening at a tapas restaurant is to try many of the small plates. We tried several Spanish favorites, including Pozo Polo’s croquettes ($13.50). Next on the list was a chorizo steeped in cider and spices ($9.50). The flavors of this dish literally explode in your mouth, and when it’s gone, you’re left with the gratitude that bread allows for sopping up the remaining sauce. The pork tenderloin is cooked with Moroccan spices—another creative choice by Pozo Polo—that add a whole new dimension to the meat, which is cooked to sublime tenderness ($10). The beef filet tapas dish was another win ($15), as was the rice pudding for dessert ($6).
I always try a dish that I suspect I may not enjoy, and I’m usually wrong. Such was the case with the white gazpacho (no tomatoes) made from European cucumbers and almonds, laced with garlic and accented with sliced grapes ($6). What a unique combination of flavors, between the sweetness of the almonds and grapes, crisp cucumber and potent garlic. Finally, we tried the paella, a staple cuisine at any Spanish restaurant ($35). It was also divine, and brimming with seafood.
IM Tapas is the perfect place to grab a tapas and cocktail at the bar any day of the week, even for people who hate bars. By yourself you can get away with a bill under $40. For a party of two hungry diners who can’t decide between the gazillion dishes that appeal to your taste buds at that moment, that number can jump into the heavens. So the only warning I have about IM Tapas is that you’ll want one of everything. However, this is a place that’s worth every cent so don’t worry … you can always go back next week.
IM Tapas 965 Fourth Ave.
N., Naples; (239) 403-8272. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. Reservations are strongly recommended. Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
The Secret’s in the Sauce at Vino de Notte
Fort Myers’ trendy hotel Indigo is home to Vino de Notte, an Italian restaurant where the chef has a flair for sauce, spices and specials. Several four- and two-top tables fill quickly as the evening wears on. Ask for street-side seating, which has a slightly urban feel to it. Vino de Notte is also partially reminiscent of places like Asia de Cuba, which allow more than one dining party to sit at a single, long table. The décor is a brusque blend of black-and-white art, and red, white and black accents. If there is such a thing as minimalist Italian design, this is it.
Ah, Italian. For the most part you can always find something to love at a traditional Italian restaurant. At Vino de Notte, which means “night of wine,” Chef Rocco Pisera prepares traditional Italian dishes and specials that reflect his culinary history. Pisera is from Pittsburgh, but also toiled in the kitchens of the Carolinas, Maryland and New York City. Anyone can baste a chicken or bake a pasta dish. The secret to good Italian is in the sauces, and that’s one area where this chef excels.
Vino de Notte does appetizers very well, and an early favorite was the melt-in-your-mouth polenta ($9). I expected the eggplant rolatini to be a typical eggplant dish (a la miniature eggplant parmesan), yet it was anything but typical ($8). So many flavors burst out of the first bite, the eggplant appetizer quickly surpassed the polenta as our favorite. The portobello bruschetta on toasted bread with mushroom and gorgonzola is a must for mushroom fanatics ($9).
As with all of the other sauces we tried, the Milanese sauce on the chicken and veal dishes was scrumptious. The sauce on the filet Oscar with crab stuffing and asparagus ($28), which to me was a weird dish to serve in a traditional Italian restaurant, was once again the star of the dish. The gnocchi at Vino de Notte was a bit weighty, but the sauce was perfectly spirited with just the right amount of garlic and especially pepper ($19). The tomato-based sauce was a very light trick of the tongue—you don’t really get all the flavors until you swallow a bite and give the spices a chance to linger over all of your taste buds. Another intriguing appetizer was the frito patata with white truffle aioli, otherwise known as French fries ($7). I’ve never met a truffle fry I didn’t love, and this sharable appetizer was mouthwatering. Traditional Italian food aficionados can rest easy knowing that their uncommon, albeit lip-smacking, appetizer at Vino de Notte is flanked by Old World spaghetti Bolognese ($16) or penne pomodoro ($15) on the regular menu.
When dining at Vino de Notte, you may want to order one appetizer at a time. Some of the dishes are served on long, narrow plates to accommodate large portions, leaving little elbow room to spare. We each got a small appetizer and our table was pretty crowded.
Vino de Notte 1520 Broadway, Fort Myers; (239) 322-1800, www.vinodenotte.com. Open 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations accepted. Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.