Best Of

Best of the Gulfshore 2019

Our editors’ choices of the greatest people, moments and dining achievements of the year.

BY June 6, 2019
One of the mouth-watering pizzas at LowBrow Pizza & Beer. Photo by Craig Hildebrand.

Food & Dining


Best invention: The perma-food truck rally. The trucks rove around breweries and make stops at farmers markets, but the astounding success of Celebration Park—a plaza with eight kitchens on wheels and a waterfront bar near Naples Botanical Garden—proves the way forward is to just keep trucking.

Best not-so-simple salad: The burrata at Jimmy P’s Charred (which now has a second location in Bonita Springs) has always and will forever be the best-in-class because it moves way beyond a few slices of tomato and balsamic drizzle. Pickled red onions, edible flowers, a wall of prosciutto and a trio of sauces meld to form something bold yet perfectly balanced.

Best Reason for Kudos:

Melissa Donahue-Talmage of Sweet Melissa’s Cafe. Photo by Craig Hildebrand.

A Gulfshore milestone: Melissa Donahue-Talmage of Sweet Melissa’s on Sanibel was named a 2019 James Beard Awards semifinalist. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal this is: She joined an elite group of epicures across the country, honored in the “Best Chef: South” category with the best in the business.

These two chefs deserve a standing ovation: Asif Syed, chef-owner of 21 Spices in Naples, rose to the challenge on a Food Network episode of Beat Bobby Flay, vanquishing the celebrity chef with his chicken tandoori. Lerome Campbell, a pastry chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, was the runner-up on Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship, a season-long show that began with nine bakers competing for the top prize.

Plus, snaps to the teams at these restaurants: Bleu Provence yet again won Wine Spectator’s Grand Award. OpenTable’s 100 Most Scenic Restaurants in America included two in Naples, both from restaurateur Peter Tierney—The Bay House and The Turtle Club. And, National Signing Day for the Clemson football team included a ringing endorsement for Barbatella, from Coach Dabo Swinney, who had visited there to recruit Naples High’s Chez Mellusi.

Best argument for a narrow focus: Down on Naples’ East Trail, LowBrow Pizza & Beer jokes around on its riotously funny pun-filled menu that it’s “serious about pizza and beer and not much else.” They have the last laugh, however, because their personal-size Neapolitan-influenced pies are the definition of mouthwatering with cheeses like aged mozzarella and caciocavallo and toppers including garlic-sautéed mushrooms and house fennel-chile sausage.

Best reason to eat bread again: If you’ve experimented with keto, paleo or anything close to them, you don’t have to put that diet on pause to visit to the hog-heavenly Fuse BBQ in Park Shore—but you should for any of its five brioche sandwiches. The BCT (smoked brisket that falls apart in your mouth with a mess of cheddar, tomato, fried onions and mayo) is one that will linger in your dreams for months on end.

Best sweet nothing that’s really something: Almost lighter than air, the stiff meringues at Angelic Desserts, an all-organic bakery, are treats that are available throughout the year. But they get a festive slant for each holiday, like sprinkle-dotted Christmas trees, hearts for Valentine’s Day and ghosts for Halloween.

Best news for date night: Why not splurge on a staycation and head over to the new 21-and-up Lanai Tower at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort? Aside from the obvious allure of an adult-only pool, game room and quiet corridors, there’s a beach-fronting restaurant on the fifth floor helmed by a previous contestant of Top Chef.

Best coupling: When Bone Hook Brewing Co. decided to expand, it not only more than doubled its North Naples footprint and therefore grew its brewing operation; it also brought on the Phelan family of Pinchers and Texas Tony’s to run a full-service restaurant with bar classics like nachos, wings and burgers.

Best sigh of relief: Many locals were surprised and anxious to hear The Ritz-Carlton, Naples’ tiki bar and restaurant on the Gulf, Gumbo Limbo, was closed for extensive renovations last year. Thankfully, its character was kept intact, down to the wide tan chairs that are now at a more manageable height.

Best manifestation of the Franco-American alliance: At Café Gourmand on U.S. 41 south of Immokalee Road, the crepes are not to be missed—and for just $13.50, you get the French-American Friendship Breakfast with a choice of hot beverage, herb-spiked scrambled eggs, crunchy  home fries and bacon, plus a pick of sweet crepe.

Best motivation to show Everglades City some love: It bounced back from Irma with its fair share of bumps, but the town is home to some pretty iconic dishes (from alligator nuggets to blue crab sandwiches) we still should be supporting. A true epicurean gem is Camellia Street Grill, which puts a chef-trained eye toward seafood pulled straight from the Gulf; salads with ingredients from the on-site garden; and nontraditional spins on Key lime pie (in a semifreddo state, or churned out as a milkshake).

Best quiche Lorraine outside of France: It may sound like hyperbole, but the Tony’s Off Third rendition could pass muster with the pickiest of Old World chefs. Once heated, it’s an infinitely cheesy Gruyere masterpiece with the right ratio of browned bacon and melted sweet onions in a flaky circle.

Best promise: When local legend Vin DePasquale—who over the span of more than four decades built and ran the charming old-timey The Dock at Crayton Cove—announced he retired and sold the Naples City Dock seafood spot to boating entrepreneur Doug Traina, Neapolitans could rest easy hearing that Traina vowed to keep the character intact down to the wood paneling and nautical sculptures.

Best food fraternity: Roger Weatherburn-Baker, leader of the Naples Bailliage (chapter) of international gastronomic society the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, has hit his stride. He has had wild success planning seasonal themed events (costumes welcome!) for his members, like a full-blown African safari dinner complete with traditional drummers, animal encounters, Cape Town wines and a menu replete with traditional spices.

Best Naples Wine Shop for Your Personality

Eco-conscious: Natural Wines Naples
No grapes in these bottles were grown using chemicals, and none have preservatives, either.

Artisanal gourmand: The Wine Store
Providing a personal touch and specializing in small producers and high-end rare finds, it’s the opposite of a big-box experience.

Luxe collector: Naples Wine Collection
If premium pours are what you seek (like the latest Opus One), know there is no shortage at this posh shop.

Related: The 28 Best Restaurants in Southwest Florida 


Best chocolate chips, period: You’ll be a convert the second you take  a bite of Chloe’s Cookies, a startup that delivers locally its twists on the basic chocolate chip, like sea salt, oatmeal, peanut butter, raspberry and more.

Best pretext to pretend you’re a grilling novice: We’re always thrilled when an authentic ethnic restaurant debuts; now, Lee County can celebrate Ember Korean Steakhouse—its forte being tabletop Korean barbecue. There are rows of the DIY tables, but we encourage you to let the servers give you a boost; they know just how long that wagyu strip and short rib need to sizzle.

Photo by Craig Hildebrand

Best bet for only a buck: It’s dollars to doughnuts that anyone will go crazy for the sweet concoctions laced and topped with everything under the sun at the San Carlos Park newcomer Nuts 4 Donuts. Baked fresh each day at $1.50 apiece, you won’t want to stop at just the owner’s Oreo cookie, Kahlua mudslide or Nutella-glazed. (Editor’s Note: As of June 1, Nuts 4 Donuts closed its retail location, but it is still operating for catering and private events through its Facebook page.)

Best reason to get hot and bothered: Salty, crackly, perfectly tender and rubbed with some heat, the wings at Coconut Point’s The Saloon are reason alone to step into the wild Western eatery. Smoked first then fried, they’re delivered with a choice of house sauces, including one with uber-spicy ghost pepper.

Best reinvention of a classic: Skinny Dogz Brunchery has perfected almost anything that’s consumed before noon (chicken and waffles, hash and grits), but the best thing on the menu is its collection of Benedicts on biscuits. Creations range from the P.R. (skirt steak, sweet plantains, spinach and sofrito hollandaise) to the Coney (hamburger patties, American cheese, onions, Coney sauce and mustard hollandaise).

Best move in the game of chef chess: Over the years, Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm has stepped up as a dining destination. And when Richard Howze was hired as executive chef, it was the most natural fit—he had cultivated a reputation as a farm-to-table advocate, and now he’s presiding over a kitchen with a bucolic wonderland at his fingertips.

Best (kid- and adult-friendly) way to cool down: Après-fishing, boating or sunning, there’s nothing better than a burst of ice on your tongue. Friddu Gourmet Pops and Bubble Tea in Matlacha has everyone covered with the dozens of artisanal recipes they whip up, such as sweet cream ricotta fig, pineapple cilantro and simply strawberry.

Best case of double happiness: Traditional dim sum is hard to come by in Southwest Florida, and fans of the little Chinese nibbles had flocked to Fort Myers’ Ginger Bistro for a fix. Last year, the owners (who also specialize in Hong Kong-style barbecue) added a second location in Cape Coral.

Best one-way ticket to Philly: Chef-owner Tim Yoa of Artisan Eatery came out of the City of Brotherly Love with a culinary degree, and while his fine-dining education shines in this upscale-casual counter service café on Daniels Parkway, he does his roots proud with a classy rendition of cheesesteak—on a baguette, gooey from a ridiculous amount of American, and chock-full of shaved ribeye and fried onions.

Best home away from home: Trying Silk Road in Fort Myers for the first time, you know you’re in for an adventure with what’s touted as “Central Asian cuisine.” Turns out an entire Uzbek family runs it, with the mom baking bread and making dumplings and her children helping with everything else. Service is so genuine and warm, with such pride in their heavily Russian- and Mediterranean-influenced fare.

Best excuse to bank your calories: If decadence defines a successful weekend, book a table at Tarpon Bay’s Sunday seafood brunch. The buffet is fit for a king or queen, with towers of raw-bar favorites, chafing dishes stuffed with eggy greats, and platter after platter of cheeses, pastries and other surprises.

—Dorothea Hunter Sönne

Related: Readers’ Choice Awards 2019

People & Projects 

Photo by Neubek Photographers

Best gift given at a Saturday night party: Philanthropists Jay and Patty Baker kicked off the Naples Senior Center at JFCS’ $15 million campaign to raise money for new, state-of-the-art headquarters with a lead gift of $5 million at the center’s annual fundraiser on Jan. 12. The campaign’s pledge total exceeded $10 million before the end of the evening. As for the best Friday night party gift? The Bakers turned around and donated another generous sum in fittingly dramatic fashion at The Naples Players’ 65th anniversary soiree on Feb. 8. 

Best fusion of old and new: The Southwest Florida Community Foundation transformed the historic Atlantic Coast Line Railroad depot into the “Collaboratory,” a high-tech hub for nonprofits, businesses, government organizations and the community to use in their work toward shaping the region’s future.

Best make-believe: Late for the Sky Production Co. launched Naples-opoly, a Monopoly-inspired board game featuring fun spins on the classics (think landing in a traffic jam instead of jail; getting a sunburn instead of having to pay income tax). Properties up for grabs include Tin City, the Naples Zoo, Clam Pass Park and other hometown hot spots.

Best collapse: Another quirky Guinness World Record broken: To raise awareness for the need for food aid in Collier County, nonprofit Meals of Hope toppled a whopping 3,913 cereal boxes like dominoes at the start of September, which is Hunger Action Month.

Best wedding gift request: Naples couple Katherine Parker and Dr. Ed Dean asked their 185 guests to make donations in goats in lieu of giving them gifts at their July nuptials. They have until June 16, 2019, to reach their goal of a “1,000-goat wedding,” with the knowledge that $50 enables the Villages in Partnership nonprofit to buy one goat for villagers in Malawi, Africa. As of mid-
February, they were up to 780.

Best aquatic heroics: James Fitzek, of Golden Gate Estates, and his family helped rescue three Cuban migrants off the coast of Key West in July. The family and friend Capt. Don Hiller of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office were heading back to shore after a day of boating when they spotted the migrants, whose own boat had exploded at sea, clinging to a piece of rubber.

Best reason for balding: Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida CAO Armando Llechu and more than a dozen other influential individuals had their heads shaved in September by pediatric cancer patients, to promote Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

Best superstar appearance: The one and only Cher chose Hertz Arena to kick off her first tour in five years, in January. The sparkle was real.

Best of Social Season

Best celeb in a new context: Actor Dennis Quaid played guitar at the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples’ annual Night at the Museum.

Photo by Peter Falencik

Best sloth: This guy (left), who made an appearance at the “Baby, It’s a Wild World” vintner dinner during the Naples Winter Wine Fest.

Best unveiling: The Naples Senior Center at JFCS debuted plans for a much-needed new facility at its Evening for Better Tomorrows event.

Best slice of pie we couldn’t eat: Broadway “it” girl Waitress, the uplifting musical about a small-town server and gifted pie maker, came to Artis—Naples in February.

Best take on an already hot ticket: Florida Repertory Theatre did justice to August Wilson’s American drama Fences, on the heels of its huge success on both Broadway and the big screen starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington.

Best see-it-to-believe-it moment: In November, Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall at FSW hosted the revolutionary In Dreams: Roy Orbison in Concert—The Hologram Tour. The name says it all.

Best battle against beauty contests: Naples resident Melissa Bazley launched, a subscription delivery service of “ugly” but perfectly edible produce, to help reduce the rampant problem of food waste.

Best illustrated love of community: We were in awe of Juan Diaz’s impressively researched and designed proposal for a mural celebrating our area’s history, meant to grace the Gordon River bridge underpass. This in addition to several other works over the years making good on his advocacy for public art.

Best surprise thank-you: A group of moms were so appreciative of longtime Coastland Center mall carousel operator Mary Warder that they banded together to gift her $5,000, to help Warder buy a reliable car to drive to the three jobs she works to afford her daughter’s medical bills. A group of adoring kids presented “Miss Mary” with the giant check.

Best mellowing of yellow:  When Germain Arena became Hertz Arena, Estero residents balked at the new owners’ rendering of their plans for a garish, full-on Hertz yellow paint job on the venue’s exterior. What we ended up with was a subtler, more modern-looking approach with bands of yellow, gray and white (phew!), and we think it actually looks quite nice.

Best example of “do unto others”: Speaking of hurricanes, a few Southwest Floridians who know their far-reaching effects all too well lent help to our neighbors affected by Hurricane Florence. Among them were Lee County emergency and Florida Power & Light crews, who traveled to the Carolinas to provide their services, and North Fort Myers’ Animal Refuge Center, which took in 19 cats and seven dogs from a partner shelter in South Carolina that was forced to evacuate.

Best “discovery” of the skunk ape: No, there isn’t more questionable video evidence of Florida’s Bigfoot ambling through our swamps. But the creature was revealed—along with many other large critters and figures—to live in PVC, foam and silicone form at the Pine Island home of 3-D artist Jeff Abbott.

Best return to normal: It had felt like forever since we were able to stroll the full length of our beloved Naples Pier post-
Hurricane Irma, but the iconic landmark reopened six weeks ahead of schedule on July 30.

Best return from the bench: Orthopedic surgeons cut the recovery time of not one but two Alabama football players in half  by using the minimally invasive “Knotless Syndesmosis TightRope Implant System” developed, manufactured and marketed by Arthrex. Some rival Florida team fans might have been a bit bummed, but we are proud that a Naples company helped those guys get back on the field.

Best gifts to our children: Funding so many causes for kids in need here, the events of the Naples Winter Wine Festival raised just over $16 million in January, followed by nearly $2 million by the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest in February.

‘One More Cent’ by Cesar Aguilera

Best Artists as Activists: In creative and thought-provoking ways, our arts community challenged us to come together and think about the issues that divide us. Florida Gulf Coast University’s art galleries hosted Up Close and Unimaginable. Featuring the work of artists Cliff Evans of Texas and Gregory Green of Tampa, the exhibition explored the heightened threats of war and terrorism in the U.S. and around the world—and the psychological toll that these threats take on us. … Southwest Florida artists countered anti-immigrant rhetoric with the group exhibition Them: An Anthology of Migration at the Sidney & Berne Davis Arts Center. Featuring the work of a diverse and foreign-born cadre of artists—Mila Bridger, Mariapia Malerba, Danielle Branchaud, Reynier Llanes, Juan Diaz, Cesar Aguilera, Aimee Perez, Ndola Penzy and Brian Weaver—the collection celebrated the contributions and richness that immigrants add to America. … The Laboratory Theater of Florida took on the same issue, at press time working to stage The Immigration Project, an original play based on the lives of Southwest Florida immigrants. … Artist and Chico’s founder Marvin Gralnick hosted a three-day extravaganza of art and entertainment at his Fort Myers home designed to call attention to and raise money to combat the red tide and blue-green algae that devastated Southwest Florida waters last summer. A portion of the proceeds went to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s research efforts. … A whopping 30 local artists banded together to form ART AID, an auction for which they each donated works to benefit Legal Aid Service of Collier County. … The Alliance for the Arts’ CHANGE program hosted a two-day “What’s Your Mask?” workshop that was dedicated to combining the arts and civil discourse to encourage frank conversations about identity and how we relate to each other. CHANGE (Communities Harnessing the Arts to Nurture and Grow Equity) is working to diversify the arts and make them more accessible to minority communities.

Best gift from a co-worker: After two years on a waiting list, Marianne McGiffin of Lehigh Acres received a new kidney in February—thanks to her friend and Cape Coral obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Melanie Altizer. The two met working at Lee Health, where McGiffin was an office manager until her health prompted her to leave.

Best “page turners”: Lisa Scottoline. Lesley Stahl. Maureen Johnson. Brad Meltzner. A. J. Tata. Between the Friends of Collier County Library’s Nick Linn Lecture Series and the Lee County Library System’s annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival, bookworms have plenty of great opportunities to meet and mingle with their favorite authors.

Best crossover: The Dalí Museum, and later Big Cypress Gallery, presented Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dalí’s Spain. The famed photographer traveled to the surrealist painter’s old stomping grounds in the Catalonia region to capture in black and white its unique topography and character.

Best oversaturation: Estero residents, fear not! If you get hurt, sick or otherwise need medical services, your village is teeming with specialists ready to help. Lee Health opened its 163,000-square-foot medical facility/wellness complex on a 13-acre campus at Coconut Point. Not to be outdone, NCH Healthcare System opened a freestanding emergency room, along with an outpatient surgery center, physician offices and imaging services, in a 41,000-square-foot center just south of the Estero/Bonita line. In other health care news: Lee Health topped off Gulf Coast Medical Center, adding three new floors with 216 patient rooms and 52 intensive care center rooms. … Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida broke ground on a new $15 million health care complex in East Naples. … And NCH Healthcare dropped its objections to the proposed Braden Hospital, which wants to serve Ave Maria and Immokalee.

Best at jumping through hoops: For the first time ever, the Florida SouthWestern State College men’s basketball team topped the NJCAA rankings. And the Florida Gulf Coast University women’s team had a stellar season, winning the ASUN tournament and making their sixth NCAA appearance in eight years. 

Best development news:For tourism and economic growth: Collier County is sprinting ahead with its $70 million sports complex in East Naples, featuring a 3,000-seat stadium and multiple fields.
… For the Florida panther: Collier Enterprises has withdrawn its application for 4,000-acre town called Rural Lands West east of Golden Gate Estates and is considering a scaled-back village instead. There are still many questions, however, about the new proposal’s environmental impacts.   

Best homecoming: The Key Marco Cat, the graceful part-man, part-feline Calusa relic unearthed by archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing in 1896, has come home. The Smithsonian is loaning Marco Island Historical Society the cat and several other artifacts from that historic expedition for the next two years.


Places & Experiences 

Best Effects of Red Tide: Last summer’s red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks were the worst—decimating our marine life and turning freshwater in parts of Lee County into emerald-green goop—but they may have brought out the best in us. … In response: The Community Foundation of Collier County spearheaded (and helped fund) a red-tide relief effort, yielding nearly $100,000 for out-of-work fishing guides and others; the Harry Chapin Food Bank set up mobile pantries across Lee and Collier coastal communities; Lee County launched a website listing incentives to patronize hurting businesses; individuals and small businesses held everything from pub crawls to donation drives to help. … The crisis also brought together business organizations and scientists. It increased the standing of grassroots advocacy groups such as the Captains for Clean Water and Calusa Waterkeeper. And it may at last have captured Tallahassee’s attention. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ first act in office: an executive order creating a task force to address blue-green algae, adding a chief science officer to his cabinet and a pledging to speed up construction on a 17,000-acre reservoir near Lake Okeechobee, meant to reduce discharges of tainted freshwater down the Caloosahatchee.

Best way to diet—and to cheat: Fort Myers celebrated the arrival of two chains—Whole Foods, the emblem of all that is good for you, and of Krispy Kreme where you can order gooey rings of dough, straight out of the frialator.

Best baby bongo: Bakari, of course. The newborn bongo (a type of antelope, left) was born Jan. 23 at the Naples Zoo. In an online contest, voters chose the name Barkari, which means “one who will succeed” in Swahili.

Best testament to our paradise: Even the great whites have finally caught on to our unbeatable vacation spot. Trackers from data-collecting organization OCEARCH registered not one but two pings (sorry, The Hunt for Red October fans) from great white sharks in the Gulf of Mexico on the same day, Jan. 28—from the 11-foot-6-inch Nova and 9-foot-8-inch Cabot.

Best Southwest Florida counter to Punxsutawney Phil: Owliver the burrowing owl predicted six more weeks of winter in Cape Coral’s inaugural take on Groundhog Day: Ground-Owl Day. (His prediction was the opposite of Phil’s.) Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello declared Feb. 2 Ground-Owl Day following a new city ordinance that protects the threatened species.

Best 120-second press: Viewers of CBS News Sunday Morning know that each week’s episode ends with a fan-favorite 2 minutes of enchanting, almost narration-free nature footage. The wilds of J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge were featured on July 22, 2018, and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary made the cut for Dec. 2, 2018.

Best way to make grocery shopping fun: Lucky us. Lucky’s Market, the health-conscious grocer, has announced plans to open stores in Naples and Cape Coral. We’ll toast to that news—quite literally, as the small chain allows patrons to drink while shopping.

Best discovery: Cape Coral may be a relatively new city, but utility crews last summer stumbled upon something that offered a peek into a long, long, long ago past—a footlong bone fragment that archaeologists believe belonged to a mastodon or a wooly mammoth at least 2.5 million years ago.

Best new spots for a getaway: Recently added nonstop flights at Southwest Florida International Airport and Punta Gorda Airport have expanded the map for where you can go directly from the Gulfshore: Las Vegas (Frontier); Phoenix (Frontier); Albany, New York (Allegiant, Frontier); Portland, Maine (Frontier); Syracuse, New York (Allegiant, Frontier); Madison, Wisconsin (Sun Country); and Appleton, Wisconsin (Allegiant).

Gulfshore Life staff

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