Consider this: Pine Island is known for more than its celebrated (every July. in fact. at Mango Mania) mango and tropical fruit harvests. Its working waterfront brings in everything from fresh mullet to wild pink shrimp. The island’s three communities – Matlacha, Bokeelia and St. James City – are old Florida and way off the well-eaten path. And that’s what makes them such a treasure for foodies seeking something real and really colorful.
Follow me to some of my favorite meals and local hangouts.
The Perfect Cup, Matlacha
Like much of what happens on Pine Island, this breakfast-lunch spot moves at its own pace. That is to say, despite its house-roasted coffee buzz, leisurely. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. For breakfast, get there early. It may not be on everyone’s radar, but the locals know best. Pay attention to the specials board for the day’s benedicts and other dishes. Or try the Crabby Big Daddy omelet with lump blue crab, asparagus and provolone.
Blue Dog Bar & Grill, Matlacha
What I love best about Blue Dog is its commitment to sustainability. That surfaces most tastefully in its mullet dishes, sourced from the island’s commercial fishermen. There’s always the best-ever smoked mullet dip and a mullet sampler platter on the lunch-dinner menu. Monday brings Mullet Madness, a weekly special Chef Jess Tincher pulls from his repertoire of 250-plus dishes. Mullet Reuben or mullet en papillote, anyone?
Saltwater Smokehouse, St. James City
Here’s the real deal for barbecue – smoked onsite for six to 20 hours and served with genuine homemade side dishes. Besides ribs, pulled pork, et al, the menu flexes to such unexpected and finely executed dishes as ahi tuna nachos, gumbo, Cuban sandwiches and cheesesteak. Wash down lunch or dinner with mango ice tea, mango sangria or a Florida craft beer. Friday night, come early (any time after 4 p.m.) for juicy, juicy prime rib – before it runs out.
Tarpon Lodge Restaurant, Bokeelia
One of the island’s finest dining experiences, it lives in the historic eponymous lodge on the waterfront in the tucked-away Pineland neighborhood. Whether you come by car or boat for lunch or dinner, start your meal with its signature blue crab and roasted corn chowder. Sit inside the wood-planked dining room or on the screened porch to order from the pasta, seafood and steak entrees. Don’t miss the bar with its fireplace and trophy fish for a nightcap. Or day-cap.
Miceli’s Italian Restaurant, Matlacha
Locals love it for more than its solid-good, affordable Italian fare, but also for its waterside backyard with live music starting every night at 5 p.m. The menu covers all Italian bases, from pizza and grinders to pasta, seafood and steak specialties. The Reese’s peanut butter pie is a diet killer well worth the crime.