The aperitivo pre-dinner-drink culture may have started in Italy, but the ritual transcends regional boundaries. The idea of gathering with friends at dusk to raise a glass conjures romantic notions of lazy afternoons and time well spent. Originally intended to ignite your appetite with a low-ABV sipper and morsels of olives and cheeses to tide you over until the main event, the tradition has become more about the experience of communing. And, it’s perfectly suited for our way of life in Southwest Florida, where we can duck inside and connect over curated vinos and thoughtfully crafted small plates after a day of strolling down Fifth Avenue South or cruising the waterways.
Over the past year, we’ve seen a bounty of new wine bars that transport the slow-dining style to our shores. Consider Casa Neri, on Naples’ Fifth Avenue South. You’d never know the space was once a Subway. Warm wood, a neutral palette and cascading greenery transform the restaurant into an upscale rustic haven that eschews visual distractions so diners hone in on the wine and small dishes, like their polpo arrosto: roasted octopus finished with chickpea puree and eye-catching dollops of basil cream. Casa Neri is the latest from brother-sister duo Andrea and Francesca Neri. Nearly a decade ago, they opened the traditional Italian Molto Trattoria, which is celebrated for its intimate setting and in-house pasta. They followed Molto with another Fifth Avenue South spot, seafood-focused La Pescheria, in 2018. For their next locale, the Neris wanted a different take on Italian dining. “There are so many Italian restaurants on this street—and in this town,” Francesca says.
The Rome native and her husband, Domenico, scouted for chefs around Italy. They discovered Marco Nitride, a young talent from Naples, Italy, who is part of the Associazione Professionale Cuochi Italiani, a respected organization of professionals and chefs who act as ambassadors of Italian cuisine. They drove to Marco’s restaurant in Naples, the regional capital of Campania, and liked the food so much they brought him back to Naples, Florida, to helm the Casa Neri kitchen, which opened in December. Everything in the 25-seat restaurant is made in-house, from the culurgiones (traditional, eggplant parmigiana-stuffed Sardinian pasta) to the tortelloni alla Genovese, which originates in northern Italy. And the wine list, which features 50 to 60 labels, champions smaller, niche wineries with small productions, like Bolgheri-based Le Macchiole.
Italian-born Maria Vilella also brings a taste of her homeland from the heel of Italy’s boot, Puglia—or Apulia, as it’s known in English—to historic Naples with the opening of La Bella Apulia Gourmet Market & Apericena. Maria opened her first restaurant in East Naples in 2021, but the space was too large. She shuttered it once she found a better location for her apericena market and cafe, which melds aperitivo and dinner, in the Shoppes at Dockside. “The kitchen of the other restaurant was almost the size of this entire space,” she says. In true apericena style, you can order an Aperol spritz or bellini and sip it alongside the bruschetta, salami and meatballs that Maria makes daily.
At this pocket-sized shop adorned with murals that look as if you’re peering into the ancient town of Martina Franca, she stocks the fridge entirely with imported cheeses (the SardoMagno with truffle shouldn’t be missed). Two daily homemade pasta dishes satiate those looking for a hearty meal. Many of the pastas get imported from Puglia, while the ravioli and 100-percent semolina pizza dough are made from scratch by Trulli Pasta, a local pasta and sauce maker, run by Domenico and Barbara Bosco. Enjoy the homey atmosphere while sipping a glass of wine—the majority are from Puglia, but you’ll also find bottles from other popular Italian wine-growing regions, so there are plenty of options to sit and linger. “In Italy, we don’t rush while eating,” Maria says. “I don’t turn tables here—I want people to have a place to sit, enjoy a glass of wine and relax.”
Further north in Fort Myers, Flock Wine Bistro takes cues from the buzzy aperitivo bars found in Rome’s Monti neighborhood, and specializes in boards (charcuterie, bruschetta) and ‘pinsa’ Romana flatbread pizzas. Roman-born Matteo Affatati and his wife, Alyson Casey, offer nearly 40 wines from the New and Old World (think: a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, vermentino from Sardinia and malvasia from the Canary Islands)—the majority poured by the glass. Here, the space is often full not long after opening, overflowing with the buzz of warm conversation and the clink of wine glasses raised for a toast as the sun sets. “We love the aperitivo lifestyle in Italy and how people gather together to mingle around food and wine,” Alyson says, adding they spent five years planning the concept for Flock, which opened in November.
Nearby, Uva’s Vino & Tapas is the brainchild of local restaurant vet Fernando Uva. He opened the Italian restaurant Terra Nostra—reputed for its baked clams, calamari and homemade lasagna bolognese—on Fort Myers Beach in 2008 before selling it off a few years ago. He debuted Uva’s last summer, straying from his previous approach to focus on the other half of his heritage: Portugal. His daughter, Nicole, moved back to Fort Myers in early 2022 after eight years of working in New York City hospitality to manage the restaurant for her father. “Guests say it reminds them of New York City, and that is a compliment I wasn’t expecting to hear,” she says of the restaurant’s cosmopolitan vibe. Small plates take influences from Portugal (particularly Fernando’s native Algarve) and the Mediterranean, with tapas including Serrano ham croquettes, Portuguese sausage flambéed with grappa and salted cod fritters, a recipe Nicole tested out at home before bringing it to the restaurant’s chef, Tony Grieco.
In addition to having a nice list of cordials, like grappa and sambuca, the wine menu features around 50 labels, with a focus on Spanish and Portuguese bottles. The selection changes monthly with lesser-known names and more popular ones, such as the aromatic Casal Garcia Vinho Verde from northwest Portugal. “Fernando has always been a fan of making big wines accessible to everyone—which is why we have some reserve wines by the glass,” Nicole explains, adding that if their vendors come across a good wine from Chile or Morocco, they’ll add it to the list.