When I hear that another Italian restaurant has opened in Lee County, I’m about as excited as I would be for another pair of flip-flops. Can you blame me?
Red-sauce eateries abound in this area, so it’s hard to drum up enthusiasm for another boxed pasta joint. Fortunately, Osteria Celli in South Fort Myers is not one of those places. Opened just before the beginning of the year, this is one new Italian restaurant worth getting worked up about.
During a recent Friday night dinner, I immediately noticed a detail that sets this establishment apart from most of the rest: real Italians. At a table against the wall, sipping after-dinner espressos, speaking Italian—they were as good a sign as I could have hoped for.
Osteria Celli’s menu features a combination of traditional favorites you’d expect, starting with carpaccio and bruschetta, moving on to gnocchi and stuffed cannelloni, plus some surprising additions, such as caramelized Brussels sprouts with pancetta and balsamic-glazed short ribs.
To begin, my companion selected the polipo, a plate of grilled octopus accented by garbanzo beans and kale dressed with a lemon-garlic emulsion ($14). The octopus arrived firm with a smoked flavor, its subtle taste complemented by the sharpness of the citrus-bathed garbanzos. The dish had a sophistication that suggests a chef who pays attention to texture as well as flavor.
My appetizer gave the same impression. I chose the bietole, a salad of red and gold beets, sliced oranges, arugula and squares of tangy ricotta salata all dressed with a pleasingly acidic vinaigrette ($10). The freshness of the salad paired well with a glass of chilled verdicchio ($7).
The restaurant’s wine list is another of its noteworthy features. Sourced from family-owned Italian vineyards, the list offers diners an opportunity to sample wines that don’t often appear on local menus, many from lesser-known regions like Sardinia and Puglia.
For her main course, my companion opted for the evening’s special: grouper baked with potatoes, artichoke hearts and fresh green olives ($28). The dish had a full, complex flavor that felt at once Mediterranean and Southwest Floridian. The zing of the artichokes and olives provided a satisfying counterpoint to the mild grouper.
I chose a plate of fettuccine Bolognese ($20). The truth is, I’m a die-hard red-saucer. I love classic Italian done well. The dish was exceptional—a rich ragu accented by fresh herbs and served over noodles cooked al dente. The pasta is made in-house, as is the sauce.
“We start with a pot of fresh tomatoes about this big,” our waiter explained, miming a large stockpot. “Then we simmer it down until it’s about this big.” Here, he mimed a 2-quart pot.
I believe it. The sauce had none of the bracing saltiness I’ve come to expect from canned-Italian joints.
To finish the evening, my friend and I again took diverging routes. This time, she opted for a classic: tiramisu ($6). The dessert arrived in a drinking glass, looking more like a cup of mousse than the traditional square slice. But the taste was identical, with the right blend of mascarpone filling and espresso-soaked ladyfingers, topped with cocoa powder.
I chose the panna cotta alla cannella ($6). The custard-like dish arrived in a tall glass, the baked cream topped with sliced, candied apples and crumbled amaretto cookies. The dessert felt festive and original, and the rich cream made for a satisfying endpoint to the meal.
As the menu points out, osterias in Italy are casual local eateries with a focus on simple but quality food. Osteria Celli is exactly that. This is not the place for white-tablecloth dining; in fact, there are no tablecloths at all. The furniture is simple rattan, and the artwork on the walls is attractive without being opulent. There’s a bar with seating that looks into the large open kitchen. When people in Southwest Florida say “upscale casual,” I think this is exactly what they have in mind. And it works out well. With none of the trappings of a fancier restaurant, Osteria Celli puts the focus on its exceptional food.
15880 Summerlin Road, Unit 308, Fort Myers, 267-1310, osteriacelli.com. Open Sunday through Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-10 p.m. Wheelchair-accessible. Reservations recommended.