As I reflect on the best new restaurants in Southwest Florida, I’m on vacation in Greece, far away from my recent marathon-dining adventure from Naples to Fort Myers. I watch the sky fade to peach, then mauve, over Santorini’s caldera—a square of baklava by my side. The honey-drenched pastry is ubiquitous in Greece, but in my mind, none I’ve had compare to the origin of my sweet obsession: the baklava at Del Mar on Fifth Avenue South. Served warm, everything is in perfect balance–flaky layers of phyllo, ground walnuts, pistachios and a honey syrup that’s richly sweet but not cloying.
Owned by restaurateur Cameron Mitchell of Ocean Prime, Del Mar occupies two floors of desirable real estate that previously belonged to the beloved Café and Bar Lurcat. The establishment draws its culinary inspiration from Greek, Italian, Turkish and Moroccan coastal cuisine, all exquisitely executed by Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef David Vilchez. At the start of our meal, my sister and I sipped Citrus Coast cocktails (a concoction of vodka, Aperol, lemon, and Greek honey-cinnamon liqueur) over pearlescent snapper crudo with olive oil, lemon and paper-thin chile slices. Then came creamy hummus, piled with tender, pomegranate-braised lamb and a fillet of sea bass on a bed of warm Farmer Mike’s U Pick tomatoes, finished tableside with a light, heirloom tomato broth. A showstopping lamb tagine, served in the traditional earthenware pot, rounded out the meal. The rosy, double-cut lamb chops were perched on a bed of fluffy couscous and vegetables, accented by caramelized, almost jammy zucchini.
By the time dessert—the baklava and an equally stellar rum-soaked olive oil cake—arrived, we were well past full but managed to finish almost every bite. As we lingered in the upstairs dining room, with its towering trees and vaulted ceiling, we improvised a list of those who would accompany us on future visits to Del Mar. That feeling, the urge to plan a return trip even before the check arrives, is the benchmark for this year’s Best New Restaurants list. Whether slurping Thai soup or sharing a dozen oysters on ice, the compulsion to return and share the experience of a great meal is a metric that doesn’t discriminate.
As a former New Yorker, Pizzata Pizzeria + Aperitivo ranks high on my list of places to revisit. Owners Vinny Gallagher, a sourdough-obsessed baker, and Davide Lubrano, an Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana-certified pizzaiolo, debuted their first Pizzata location in Philadelphia during the pandemic to critical acclaim. Their 27-seat counter-service second act opened in North Naples in August. Vinny and Davide sling two distinct pies: New York-meets-Neapolitan rounds with thin crusts and thicker, Roman-style square slices (lunch only). Each begins with naturally leavened dough that’s slow-fermented for up to five days to build flavor and structure. The result shines in the Roman slices, which are airy yet sturdy with the chew of artisanal bread and golden, crunchy edges. With a focus on the dough, toppings are approached with restraint. Specialty pies feature bright tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil; ribbons of pancetta and briny Kalamata olives; or roasted portobello and cremini mushrooms with a drizzle of truffle oil.
For a fresh take on seafood, head to Coldwater Oyster Market in Fort Myers. Owned by chef Adam Nardis and his wife, Erin, the restaurant is an ode to seafood from icy waters, drawing on relationships Adam built as executive chef at The National Hotel in Block Island, Rhode Island (a sister restaurant to Naples’ M Waterfront Grille, where local diners first fell for Nardis’ culinary sensibility). Scottish salmon, Prince Edward Island mussels, sweet Antarctic red shrimp and lobster in all its forms—steamed with drawn butter and corn, baked and stuffed with crab meat or piled into chilled Maine or butter-drenched Connecticut lobster rolls—are all staples of the menu. But it’s the oysters that get star billing.
Sourcing from the East and West Coasts, Coldwater has one of the largest oyster selections in the region, with as many as two dozen varieties in season. Along one wall of the industrial space, the raw bar lays out the day’s selection, and the staff geeks out over salty-sweet Little Skookums, creamy sweet petites and plump, buttery Flying Points. Adam—who recently began hosting oyster shucking classes—is obsessive about oyster culture, from the generational legacies of farms to the role the bivalves play in regional ecosystems to the nuances in flavor and texture that result from an oyster’s specific merroir (the seafaring version of terroir). Oyster passports, available upon request, allow regulars to track the 180 varieties (and counting) that have passed through the restaurant since it opened in late 2021. Jot down tasting notes and pairings from the 44-tap bar, stocked with local craft beers and brews from oyster-producing regions, like the award-winning Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine. Aficionados can also take the experience home with them: The onsite market stocks oysters, fresh seafood and prepared foods from the menu, like the peppery chowder.
The Nardises weren’t the only restaurateurs to debut a new act in Lee County over the last year. In March, Caitlin Emery-Schewe and Brandon Schewe of Downtown Coffee and Wine Company opened The Bohemian, the perfect date-night spot in Bonita Springs. Caitlin and her mom spent a year sifting through local consignment and antique stores for the jewel box interior, complete with turquoise walls, gilded mirrors, Palm Beach Regency-inspired art by local Kristy Gammill, and lavish touches, like black-and-white leopard-print carpet and pirate-monkey sconces. (Trust us, it works.)
Brandon, who cheffed at D’Amico & Partners’ Mexican restaurant Masa, The French Brasserie Rustique and BALEEN at LaPlaya Beach & Golf Club, took a similarly unconventional and artistic approach to developing the menu. Inspired by the couple’s travels, the cuisine is eclectic and playful with shareable plates, like shards of crispy, togarashi-dusted chicken skins; a mess of rye bread with whipped goat cheese, sweet figs, hot honey and arugula; and a 40-ounce aged tomahawk steak, kissed by the Florida oak-fueled Argentinian grill. Behind the bar, Caitlin and Brandon embrace another citified trend: low-ABV cocktails. Without a full liquor license, the couple shakes up light libations, like the herbaceous, sake-based Green Goddess and the Prosecco Pop, with a seasonal fruit popsicle plopped into a glass of Italian sparkling wine.
While The Bohemian embraces a melting pot of global flavors, newcomer Ichi Togarashi is laser-focused on the culinary traditions of Asia. In a tiny, nautically decorated space across from Cambier Park, chef-owners June Dispongsa and Somi Vasitorn celebrate Asian multiculturalism, using locally farmed and imported ingredients in traditional recipes. The 100-plus-item menu reads like a primer on the continent’s greatest hits. June’s grandmother passed down the recipe for the lacquered char siu; Vietnamese dishes are influenced by Somi’s Thai-Vietnamese upbringing; and little-known Singaporean, Burmese and Indonesian dishes are inspired by people the duo met while working in the restaurant industry.
The dishes are universally lighter, fresher and more nuanced than Americanized versions of Asian cuisine. Of the more than 20 soups on the menu, don’t miss the Thai spicy beef nam tok, which strikes the ideal balance of spicy, sweet, sour, salty and intensely savory notes.
For a special-occasion splurge, nearby Nosh on Naples Bay offers haute cuisine small plates. When a longtime friend moved to Southwest Florida this summer, we marked the occasion at chef Todd Johnson’s newest restaurant at the Naples Bay Resort & Marina. A stalwart of the Southwest Florida dining scene for three decades, Todd came up at Chef’s Garden (now Ridgway Bar & Grill) and, most recently, led the kitchen at RumRunners in Cape Coral for 18 years. Nosh is his first independent endeavor—anchored by a pantheon of luxurious, impeccably sourced ingredients. A single Hokkaido scallop (a Japanese variety known for its sweet, delicate flesh) sits atop a velvety corn bisque; an intensely marbled secret cut of acorn-fed Iberico pork eats almost like steak; and Jurgielewicz ducks are dry-aged in-house for 10 to 14 days. Intricate presentations elevate humbler fare, like Berkshire pork and Colorado lamb cuts, tied together into a mosaic-like fillet on a pool of porcini-Marsala demiglaze.
After eating our way through the menu, my friend and I split dessert. As we finished the last bites of brownie-like cake, topped with peanut butter mousse and cloaked in shiny chocolate-bourbon ganache, we realized we were the last people in the restaurant. Rather than planning a return trip, we were looking for reasons not to leave at all.