As much as sweet ambrosia and Dionysus’ happy potion defined what the gods indulged in, these dishes have achieved near mythic status in our own local food lore. Whether you’ve lived here for 20 years or you are just visiting for a week, you need to check out these recipes that have defined the restaurants that invented them.
Butternut Squash Ravioli
24041 S. Tamiami Trail, Bonita Springs, 239-390-3187, angelinasofbonitasprings.com
Perhaps what Angelina’s is most famous for is its climb-up wine tower, which ascends into the cathedral ceiling like a spinning castle turret and houses more than 4,000 bottles. And then there’s the complimentary limoncello shots to end each flawless meal. But what you may not know of, and what keeps regulars returning time and time again to pair with those extraordinary libations, is the equally exquisite butternut squash ravioli.
Aside from the dish being the restaurant’s No. 1 best-seller consistently since the first time the grandiose doors opened 10 years ago, it says something meaningful that the recipe has remained unchanged despite a changing of the guard in the kitchen several times (including a one-year stint by Top Chef finalist Sarah Gruneberg, who also had a 3-year stretch with Michelin stars as the executive chef of Spiaggia). If you see the ravioli mentioned in a Yelp review, chances are it’s a five-star write-up.
Reinvention of the wheel is the secret ingredient, as the dish itself is not groundbreaking or novel. Brown butter-sage treatments are a dime a dozen. But the more-is-more approach deployed here is one you won’t find anywhere else, and it is unforgettable. Candied pecans swim in an orange-infused sauce with currents of truffle oil and peppery arugula—there is sweet, there is tang and there is crunch, all before you even get to the pillowy pockets of puréed squash perfection, making it everything you want in a plate.
Ginger Apricot Shrimp
Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro
865 Fifth Ave. S., Naples, 239-594-5557, bhabhabistro.com
You cannot go wrong with anything from the menu at this serene, jewel-toned eatery that elegantly channels the undulating sand dunes of the Middle East. Owner Michael Mir’s family recipes from his native Iran have become the unlikeliest success story in a town that worships its steak and potatoes, crab cakes and coconut shrimp. Not many places can claim a wizard-like balancing act when executing agrodolce notes, nor claim a masterful blend of bites from the deep-fryer with those possessing a velvety smoothness. It’s the ultimate yin and yang, as seen through by-the-book Persian classics and the kitchen’s “innovative Persian” dishes (per Mir), the latter of which take inspiration from the ancestral homeland of Cyrus and Xerxes but inject Florida ingredients and different culinary styles.
This is one such dish that first surfaced at Bha! Bha! (which translates to “yummmmm” in Farsi) when it was in the Pavilion on Vanderbilt Beach Road, long before it moved to the mecca of Fifth Avenue South in 2012. In fact, it has been a staple of his contemporary Iranian-fusion selections since it made an appearance in 2007 in Gourmet magazine. We think its longevity has something to do with the tamarind and pepper mediating the saccharine stewed apricots surrounding the plump shrimp, and the moist pillow of saffron-tinted basmati rice that can soak up every last drop.
Add in one of the bar’s signature martinis, like one with rose petals or even the saffron-infused one for extra bite, plus a serving of the warm and savory haleem bademjune blended eggplant dip to start—and you’ve got the schematic for a legendary meal.
Porterhouse for Two
2800 Tamiami Trail N., Naples, 239-263-5851, andressteakhouseofnaples.com
If picturing your ideal dinner involves you closing your eyes, clicking your heels and imagining you’re in a trendy neighborhood of Miami, the allure of Andre’s Steakhouse will be lost on you. For this temple to an excellent porterhouse is a place for serious lovers of steak—no frills, no garnishes, no stunning visuals on the walls (or otherwise). There have been almost no updates to anything since the restaurant opened in 1993, but the porterhouse—oh, that porterhouse. It accounts for most of the 575,870-plus dinners served there (a feat notched on Jan. 7, 2017). It’s so buttery you could probably slice it with a toothless blade; so thick that if you order a cut for two, it could most definitely serve three; so juicy it leaves a reservoir of au jus behind to repeatedly spoon over your hulking crimson slices.
It’s Naples lore how Andre’s came to be, and if the restaurant induces an eerie round of déjà vu, there’s reason for that: Andre Cottoloni had worked at the preeminent Brooklyn chop house Peter Luger Steak House for a decade when he decided to try his version of that ultra-traditional, tunnel-vision dedication to dry-aged steaks in Florida. He brought with him what he knew best: the oldest of the old-school steakhouse experiences. Here, it’s less picturesque and a bit more dated than what you may remember from New York. But it most definitely has that deity-like worship of the brilliant-cut solitaire of marbled meat that is, mercifully, as decadently rich as we remember.
Miso-Broiled Sea Bass
USS Nemo Undersea Cuisine & Adventures
3745 Tamiami Trail N., Naples, 239-261-6366, ussnemorestaurant.com
If you happen to stumble upon the USS Nemo website, the first fixed image is that of their most popular dish. The caption beckons: “Come enjoy miso broiled sea bass. It’s our signature fish entrée.”
“Popular” and “signature” are comical understatements.
The restaurant has been holding court for more than a decade with a cast of thousands willing to swear that it’s one of the best pieces of fish they’ve ever had (with TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews to prove it).
Part of it has to do with French-Canadian chef Nicolas Mercier’s penchant for infusing sauces learned in classic culinary training with flavors found in Southeast Asia, a union that works surprisingly well in Southwest Florida. But part of it also has to do with the perfect texture, temperature and blend of flavors that each piece of the plump bass affords. That consistency is what has elevated this dish to iconic status and, as The New York Times printed in 2014, is “almost worth a trip to Naples in and of itself.” Copycat versions of this essentially Japanese preparation can be found across town (as well as across the country, gaining traction in food circles over the past decade), but almost everyone can agree this is the one that needs to be on your bucket list.
Key Lime Pie
11509 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 239-395-4000, keylimebistrocaptiva.com
In this case, it’s all laid out in the name—Keylime Bistro on Captiva Island puts its money where its mouth is. You may even find yourself eating dessert first, because the signature Key lime pie is just that good.
In the land where this confection is as ubiquitous as palm trees, most places serve it virgin, save for maybe a dot of whipped cream. That’s part of why the house specialty at this come-as-you-are, tropical-hued café is so notable: It’s not your average slice. The softer-than-average tangy custard base and its delicate graham cracker shell dissolve in your mouth, with a memorable punch coming from a second layer of a cream-cheese-based, super-whipped topping spread on top. Add gobs of fresh whipped cream and drops of Key lime, raspberry and crème anglaise sauces beautifully radiating from under the pie, and it’s a heaven-on-earth experience for sugar addicts.
You might plan a visit for the pie, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that the rest of the menu entices, too. The blackened shrimp over greens with a tomato-orange vinaigrette or island staples like coconut shrimp and almond-crusted mahi mahi are delectable (and affordable) in their own right. And an oft-overlooked fact about this eatery is that, for more than a decade straight, it has won the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator for its selections that are fathoms beyond what you’d expect to find at a restaurant just a block from one of the most laid-back beaches in Southwest Florida