You can learn a lot about a culture from its food.Peruse a Japanese menu for only a moment and you can picture the island nation’s proud fishing heritage. The conspicuous lack of beef on the Indian menu will clue you in to its sacred cow tradition. The richness of flavors and textures signifies the high art status accorded food in French culture, while the amazing flavors derived from the humble ingredients in Mexican cooking reveal the culture’s ingenuity. Southwest Florida is blessed with a wealth of international dining choices, perhaps more than any similarly populated place in the country. Gulfshore Life sent two dining mavens on a mission to find the tastiest dishes in five specialties—French, Mexican, Asian, Latin and Italian. They single out the cool offerings at their favorite restaurant in each category and, as a bonus, recommend delicious options at other dining spots featuring the various specialties.
The Mercato, 9123 Strada Place, Naples 598-0887 masa-restaurant.com
Modern Mexican takes center stage in Naples at Masa. This is a spicy food destination. Even dishes like the light mango salad arrive at your table with a kick. The grilled calamari is a welcome departure from the typical fried calamari, and Masa’s is served over black rice with fresh salsa. It’s the Baja fish tacos that shine brightest here though—thanks to a bursting-with-flavor cabbage slaw, pickled onion and habanero. The taco trio is also available with flank steak, fish, chicken or pork—the latter marinated in adobo sauce or roasted. Tamales are steamed in banana leaf with chard, Chihuahua cheese and red molito sauce, served with cilantro rice and black beans. The biggest surprise at Masa is the understated flavor of the snapper a la Veracruzana, prepared with tomato, olive, caper, garlic and Serrano. And for dessert, try the crepes with dark chocolate, goat’s milk caramel and candied pecans or pastel de tres leches—a three-milk cake.
4947 Tamiami Trail N., Suite 110 Naples 268-7674 fl acosrestaurant.com
At Flaco’s in North Naples, the thick chicken mole is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
3126 Tamiami Trail N. Naples 304-8629 mrtequilarestaurant.com
Salsa is the star of the show at Mr.Tequila’s, and patrons buy it by the pint as a marinade, as a chips-and salsa appetizer and as a topping for traditional Mexican dishes.
16440 Tamiami Trail S. Fort Myers 437-5701 enjoylafogata.com
At La Fogata in Fort Myers, try the enchiladas topped with a house made green enchilada sauce.
5200 Big Pine Way Fort Myers, FL 33907 415-4424 cantinalaredo.com
Get tampico, made with grilled chicken breast, is topped with sautéed artichoke hearts, mushrooms, spinach, red bell peppers with sour cream-poblano sauce and Monterey jack cheese.
Paella at IM Tapas
965 Fourth Ave. N. Naples 403-8272 imtapas.com
“In Southwest Florida, it’s the closest restaurant to Spain that’s not in Spain,”quipped one IM Tapas frequent diner. Isabel Pozzo-Polo and Mary Shipman have created a slice of the Iberian Peninsula via Latin America. Pozzo-Polo moved from Cuba to Spain and from Miami to Naples where she and Shipman prepare dishes like salt cod croquettes and white gazpacho and chorizo, alongside succulent Iberico ham and a host of other nibbles. They also have sizeable entrees that can double as appetizers—or tapas for which the restaurant is named. Beside the food itself, the best starter at IM Tapas is the sangria. It’s fragrant and fresh—and always a good match with anything on the menu that includes pork tenderloin, filet of beef and paella. IM Tapas paella is a large dish—brimming with seafood. IM Tapas is also famous, well, for not being famous.
EL Morro Cuban Cuisine
5555 Golden Gate Parkway, Suite 121 Naples 353-4017 elmorronaples.com
Guests should order the spicy rueda de serrucho a la plancha o frito—king fish grilled or fried—at El Morro.
814 Neapolitan Way, Naples 434-6653 cibaogrille.com
The crispy shrimp samaná at Cibao is prepared with jumbo shrimp breaded in a coconut flake and served with apricot coconut dip and French fries.
11985 Collier Blvd. Naples 352-3200 incaskitchen.com
The corn nuts and traditional Peruvian sauces are reason enough to visit Inca’s, but frequent diners enjoy the yuca a la huancaina—creamy cheese sauce with aji amarillo, Peruvian peppers, yucca, and a cilantro mignonette.
El Gaucho Inca
4391 Colonial Blvd. Fort Myers 275-7504 elgauchoinca
Choros al vino—black mussels with wine, lime sauce, and fine herbs— is one of El Gaucho Inca’s signature dishes.
4444 Cleveland Ave., Suite E Fort Myers 278-3303 elpatiofortmyers.com
Reviewers consistently rate the traditional lomo saltado, Peruvian stir fried beef as their favorite dish.
Sashimi platter at Charlie Chiang's
12200 Tamiami Trail Naples 593-6688 charliechiangs.com
Charlie Chiang’s Asian restaurant sets the standard with deliciously fresh and healthful cuisine. Relax in the dining room’s Zen-like décor. Sit at the intimate sushi bar or riverside to watch eagles fish. Charlie and Christiana Chiang and their chefs bring authentic full-flavored dishes direct from China, such as the bold Szechuan seafood dumplings. Beautifully crafted “pine cone” grouper is crisp but tender with a hint of sweet and sour sauce. Norman Wong’s aromatic crispy duck bests your basic Peking duck, accenting the tender duckling with a refreshing hoisin-bean sauce. It’s served on pillow-soft steamed rice buns instead of fragile (and usually messy) pancakes. Sushi favorites include the crabmeat-and-Sriracha-topped volcano roll or the green dragon roll’s shrimp tempura, caviar and avocado. Pair with beer, wine or a signature cocktail, and you’ll be a repeat customer.
1500 Fifth Ave. S. Naples 530-5110 naplesbayresort.com
At L’Orient, Chef Eddy Thretipthuangsin cooks his popular Thai massaman curry short ribs for several hours before they are ready to serve.
The Sushi Bar at The Ritz-Carlton
280 Vanderbilt Beach Road Naples 598-3300 ritzcarlton.com
Heralded as the “coolest spicy tuna roll in Naples,” the volcano spicy tuna roll at the Sushi Bar at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples is topped with a mountain of lump crab and spicy sauce.
6355 Naples Blvd. Naples 593-5550 fujinaples.com
At Fuji, the kanisu—cucumber roll with krab stick, avocado, and masago—arrives at table with a tangy yuzu vinaigrette, a nice change of pace from typical soy sauce.
Home Thai Sushi Bar
3300 Bonita Beach Road, Suite 101 Bonita Springs 948-4663 homethaisushibar.com
A showstopper is the Fire Dragon roll—shrimp tempura, asparagus, avocado and scallion, topped with eel sauce and dusted with crisp tempura flakes.
Maguro Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi
13585 U.S. 41 N. Naples 591-0003 facebook.com/maguro.naples
Low carb? No problem. Maguro’s green river roll is rolled in avocado around spicy tuna with nary a rice grain to be found.
Lasanga at Angelina's.
24041 S. Tamiami Trail Bonita Springs 390-3187 angelinasofbonitasprings.com
One of the biggest lures of dining at Angelina’s is not actually on the menu. While Angelina’s is a favorite of many Southwest Floridians, it’s the service at this Lee County staple Italian restaurant that puts it on our list. On the menu, the not-to-be missed dish is the strozzapreti—an elongated pasta that is cooked well and paired with a house made sauce prepared with chunks of beef, veal, sausage, San Marzano tomatoes, garlic and basil. Meat lovers will like the short ribs—but ask for the baked ziti and bacon cake instead of the broccoli rabe for your side dish.
868 Fifth Ave. S. Naples 430-1060 albertosonfi fth.com
Ah, Alberto’s. If heaven was a pasta dish, Alberto’s agnolotti—pillow- shaped pasta stuffed with spinach and ricotta—would be it.
3545 Pine Ridge Road Naples 597-0744 sophiasitaliano.com
Sophia’s prepares its veal chop Milanese style—thinly breaded and pounded, topped with fresh arugula, chopped plum tomatoes and olive oil and finished with a balsamic reduction.
835 Vanderbilt Beach Road Naples 596-8010 trattoriaabruzzo.com
A dish that could make anyone love eggplant, Trattoria Abruzzo’s baked lasagnette with eggplant and pesto drizzle is a winner every time.
1290 Third St. S. Naples 263-1955 barbatellanaples.com
Barbatella transcends normal pizza with its capricciosa pizza—prepared with artichokes, tomato, mozzarella, mushroom, ham and olives.
Enzo’s Ristorante Italiano
4351 Bonita Beach Road Bonita Springs 992-5555 enzosofbonita.com
A yummy twist on risotto, Enzo’s arancini is a savory panko-breaded risotto ball filled with rice, peas and cheese and served with marinara sauce.
Vol-au vent at Blue Windows Bistro.
Fort Myers 849-0622 mybluewindows.com
Blue Windows Bistro gets our vote for Lee County’s most deliciously authentic French cuisine. Paris landmarks decorate the walls.One diner said, “It’s like dining in Christian and Mari’s home. Blue Windows brings back my best memories of France.” Owners Executive Chef Christian Vivet and wife Mari welcome you with classic dishes like Dover sole meuniere, coq au vin and foie gras, graced with silky, light French sauces. Creative dishes such as sautéed triggerfish au beurre blanc feature Florida’s seafood bounty. French or domestic wine pairs well with onion soup with Gruyère, duck rillette and lamb sausage. Our favorite entrées include the stunning vol-auvent’s shrimp, scallops and fresh fish with lobster sauce and crispy duckling with pomegranate sauce. Fine veal sweetbreads with Calvados sauce is comfort food at its best. Save room for a Parisienne dessert with a classic profiterole, apple galette, crème brûlée or an enticing Florida kumquat pie.
4339 Tamiami Trail N.Naples 793-5000 escargot41.com
Yellow tail snapper aux lardons— lightly sautéed snapper—is served with a merlot brown sauce complimented with garlic confit, mushroom, bacon, baby shrimps and fresh thyme sprig.
Le Lafayette French Restaurant
375 13th Ave. S. Naples 403-7861 lelafayette.com
Le Lafayette’s roasted halibut and shrimp dish is infused with vanilla sauce—a decadent treat.
11224 Tamiami Trail N. Naples 597-8867 cotedazurrestaurant.com
The flavorful foie gras at Cote d’Azur is prepared with toasted brioche, fi gs, pear and served with a port wine reduction.
Chez Boet French Home Cooking
753 12th Ave. S. Naples 649-6023 chezboetnaples.com
Chez Boet’s lamb tagine prepared with lamb, cumin, curry and prunes is served in an individual pottery dish with couscous.
1234 Eighth St. S. Naples 261-8239 bleuprovencenaples.com
Shellfish fans often order the moules grillées au persil et a l’ail doux—pangrilled mussels with lemon, garlic and parsley.
Executive Chef, Masa Michael Mueller
WE SAT DOWN WITH THE CHEF OF Naples hottest new restaurant to get an idea of what makes Masa so exciting and how a man with a German last name started cooking modern Mexican cuisine.
Gulfshore Life: How does modern Mexican cooking differ from what we would get at a Tex-Mex joint?
Michael Mueller: Much of what we are trying to do at Masa is pull back the surface layers you see at most Mexican restaurants and try to delve deep into the regional history in terms of flavor profile, technique, ingredients. We go to great lengths seeking out the best chilies, spices and produce we can find, taking pride in bringing out the depth of flavor and textures this cuisine has to offer. It truly is a sophisticated cuisine.
GL: How can we expect Masa’s menu to evolve over time?
Mueller: This summer my sous chef and mentor, Jay Sparks, and I will head back to Mexico for research for the upcoming menu change, spending more time in Mexico City as well as the region of Oaxaca. Mexico City has some of the most amazing restaurants in the world and terrific street food, which I’ve also enjoyed in South East Asia, Brazil, Italy and New York City, so I have great appreciation for how the locals eat. Oaxaca is like Lyon in France and is truly the heartbeat of this beautiful food.
GL: What’s your favorite dish on the menu and why?
Mueller: Our barbacoa sopes, made with boneless short rib is braised in a banana leaf, with chilies, tequila, Mexican beer and aromatics, runs the spectrum of texture variance and is true to the ideals of aforementioned street food.
GL: Where did you learn to cook Mexican food?
Mueller: I’ve traveled to Mexico many times and have always been fascinated by the people, culture, music and food. My wife and I have always cooked Mexican food at home and it tends to be our go-to cuisine when we are out on the town. And I’ve been so very fortunate to work with some truly amazing Mexican cooks throughout my career. My prep team is comprised of four of the hardest working Mexican women I’ve ever worked with, so every day we are teaching each other new things. —Kelly Merritt
It seemed a crime to talk about the best in international foods and not give mention to the wonderful diversity of street foods from a variety of countries represented in our region. From Bayshore (the divine tripe tacos at Taqueria San Julian) to Cape Coral (the Turkish gyros from the Doner Kebab King Karl food truck), you can find a portable meal to fit your craving for worldly cuisine. Most of these restaurants serve people from their home countries, which follows my general rule of thumb—when looking for the most authentic, look for the homesick. And that’s what makes Golden Gate City the most concentrated home of Latin American street food in Southwest Florida. Here are three of my favorite places:
4724 Golden Gate Parkway, Suite B, 300-0227
A relative newcomer, this Colombian restaurant doesn’t have an overly long menu, but what it does it does well. From delicious arepas stuffed with pork belly to hamburgers with special sauce and crushed potato chips to my personal favorite, choripapa—boiled, then fried baby potatoes served with chorizo and a tangy mayonnaise—Sabor has the goods. Also, don’t forget to grab some pandebono—a delicious sweet and savory cheese bread—to go.
Tortilleria La Rancherita
4960 Golden Gate Parkway, 331-7220
There are many things that make La Rancherita great. The extra bit of pineapple in the chopped pork tacos al pastor, the hints of sweetness in the tamale fillings and the fall-apart tenderness of the carnitas are all contenders. But the thing that really sets it apart from the other taquerias in Golden Gate City is the perfect salsa aguacate. This smooth avocado-based sauce offers the tiniest hint of heat and a good deal of umami to already fantastic tacos.
World Bakery & Cafe
4075 Pine Ridge Road, Suite 10, 304-0333
Technically, this Cuban place near the corner of Pine Ridge Road and Collier Boulevard is outside Golden Gate City, but it’s just right around the corner. And it’s definitely worth an extra few minutes in the car for both the sandwiches and the guava pastries. Your doctor certainly won’t recommend many visits to this temple of carbs and fats, but I definitely will. Go for the croquetta preperada, which smashes three delicious ham croquettes onto an already magnificent Cuban sandwich. Go for a the wonderful café con leche. Go for the arroz moro. And make sure to get the pastries, which are impossibly flaky and a little crunchy on top with a soft core of guava goodness. —Jonathan Foerster