When you're looking to go all out, consider these restaurants:
466 Fifth Ave. S., Naples, 239-213-2073, osteriatulia.com
Boisterous, busy and beyond fun—those are the building blocks for the main draw: chef-owner Vincenzo Betulia’s creative, flawless food. Most chefs keep up with the times, but his obsession is almost maniacal. He serves nothing but fresh pasta, and his pizzas’ toppings are as unique as their names (in “The Sergeant Pepper,” pepperoni and onions are tamed by local honey). When he opened Bar Tulia, the gastropub next door, Betulia spent months researching cocktails to be ahead of the curve. It’s no wonder he’s heading to the James Beard House in New York City this month, and we know he’ll represent us well.
3745 TamiamiTrail N., Naples, 239-261-6366, ussnemorestaurant.com
A storefront staple for years, with kitschy portholes reminding us their specialty is “undersea cuisine,” USS Nemo is beloved for one reason alone—you’d be hard-pressed to leave there without a phenomenal meal. The menu is full of bold, clever combinations, most with an Asian streak and using classic technique. A grilled tuna steak coated with warm goat cheese on a bed of lobster risotto, crisscrossed with roasted tomato puree and a balsamic drizzle is Nemo’s in a nutshell: risk-taking, beautiful and delicious all in one (making you forgive the sea of tables squished together and the inescapable din).
On a budget? Try these SWFL restaurants.
The Bay House
799 Walkerbilt Road, Naples, 239-591-3837, bayhousenaples.com
Even if you don’t like Southern food, you have to give this place a try. The flavors are teased out in such a way that even the most steadfast of disbelievers may convert. Oak-grilled filet gets a side of pimento cheese gratin. Corn bread is elevated with blackened salmon, zucchini ribbons and a buttermilk vinaigrette. And the divided-yet-connected setup of the elegant main dining room with a rowdy tavern by its side satisfies hankerings for both refined dinners and nights spent listening to local bands over plates of fried oysters. The big bonus is that the entire place is anchored on a beautiful mangrove-lined bay.
24041 S. Tamiami Trail, Bonita Springs, 239-390-3187, angelinasofbonitasprings.com
A lot of restaurants avoid being seen as a special occasion spot. Angelina’s wears it as a badge of honor. The valet greeting you under a porte-cochère recalls service from a bygone era. Striking features are amuse bouches, complimentary shots of digestivi and a wine tower where the sommelier scales spiral stairs to snatch rare Tuscan vintages—not to mention, the kitchen delivers an amazing butternut squash ravioli and rack of lamb that could feed a famished caveman.
A Table Apart
4295 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs, 239-221-8540, atableapart.com
Ask anyone who dines out as if it’s a competitive sport and he or she will say this nook in Bonita Springs from a Hawaiian-born chef wins the gold. Jeff Acol likes to mix escargot with adobo, put kalua pig in quesadillas and toss in a plate of lemon-essenced linguini with Kurobuta pork Italian sausage. The dining room is homey in a Florida way with faux-finished walls and potted plants. (If we’re being honest, it’s tempting to say, “The food deserves better than this.” It also deserves a full liquor license.) But when memorable meals are the yardstick, this comes out on top.