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Italian Chefs Innovate with Classic Flavors Across SWFL

The fresh wave of Italian culinary innovators would sooner tout pickled peppers, squash blossoms or speck than garlic bread and red-sauce specials.

BY November 1, 2023
Charcuterie and wine
(Photo by Dan Cutrona)

“People still to this day believe Italian food is spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna. Some of it is, but the majority is not,” Vincenzo Betulia says. The chef-owner of Campagna Hospitality Group sees it as his mission to challenge that assumption. Thanks to waves of Italian immigrants that started journeying to the U.S. in the 1880s—mainly from the tomato-growing regions of Southern Italy—every corner of our country, especially Southwest Florida, has embraced the comforting balm of pasta pomodoro and a killer Caprese salad. But a movement afoot is reinventing the (cheese)wheel for Italophiles.

On this quest for Italian 2.0 in Naples, Fort Myers and beyond, the blueprint is pasta, pizza, risotto, you name it. But chefs are either zooming in on the lesser represented of Italy’s 20 regions for inspiration or incorporating 21st-century cooking techniques and working with Florida’s indigenous ingredients to develop dishes that may recall Nonna’s Sunday gravy, but in a novel way. Vincenzo, who started Osteria Tulia on Naples’ Fifth Avenue South a decade ago, has led the charge. Some dishes he serves are instantly recognizable, like cacio e pepe, a quintessential Roman mélange of biting Parmesan and cracked pepper enveloping al dente pasta, but most of his menu is a study of lesser-known regions (as well as a few Vincenzo innovations mixed in). Aside from the cacio, another pasta dish he jokes he can’t cut without risking crucifixion is the hearty, herb-heavy tomato-based sugo of braised lamb neck atop tenderly hand-folded garganelli from Umbria. “I’m here to educate, and I know that I’m doing the right thing,” Vincenzo says. Where he has the most fun, however, is at Bar Tulia, an Italian-inspired gastropub he launched next door to Tulia in 2014, with a second location at Mercato that opened two years ago. “With Bar Tulia, I’m not boxed into Italian—I can do whatever I want without feeling like I’m cheating on a girlfriend,” Vincenzo says. That can mean adding ramen to the pasta section or doing an up-market take on chicken parm (whose parentage blends Italian and American influences). But pizza is his greatest canvas, he says. The Modena pie is a staple—with no red sauce in sight, dollops of house-made ricotta mingle with shaved Brussels sprouts, crispy roasted garlic chips and pancetta. Vincenzo notes a research trip he took last September that hit seven regions in one swoop. “There’s so much more we collectively can do.”

The restaurant that put Vincenzo on the map back when he was a rising chef in Naples, the twinkle-light-dotted Campiello on Third Street South, still shines. The restaurant maintains a monthly tradition of a special menu centered around a single region—August’s was Puglia, the heel of the boot. The dinner included wines and sweet and savory options indigenous to the Southern Italy area, like a primo of panzerotti (which resemble mini-calzones) brimming with scamorza, a local mozzarella-like cow’s milk cheese. In the restaurant’s standing selections, modern mixes with traditional in captivating ways. The pepperoni in the pepperoni pizza, for example, is the least exciting ingredient in a shared cast of gooey stracciatella, piquant pickled peppers and a vodka-based sauce.

Steps west from Tulia on Fifth Avenue South, La Pescheria treads the same Gulf waters and turns the preconceived notion of an Italian restaurant on its head. Co-owners and siblings Francesca and Andrea Neri designed a focused menu dedicated nearly exclusively to shellfish-laden frutti di mare. You’ll delight in chilled shrimp with artichokes and pistachios or grilled octopus in a celery-lemon vinaigrette. Dorona, from the prolific Aielli Group of restaurants, melds Italian influence with a steakhouse-style flare, plating Bistecca Fiorentina and aged-to-order Angus ribeyes alongside burrata-whipped mashed potatoes. Venetian chef-owner Fabrizio Aielli’s creativity runs high in the pasta list, too, like with his version of carbonara featuring twice-smoked bacon and an egg poached in a 63-degree water bath for 40 minutes to delicately seal in the unctuous, runny yolk. “Italians are very passionate about their food and heritage and will argue for days on what is from which region, and the same applies to a dish like carbonara—some prefer to use cream, others prefer to use eggs, but the most important is that you use fresh and quality ingredients,” he says. “I never actually sat down as a chef and said to myself: ‘How do I create a “different,” or “modern” carbonara?’ The best dishes are created spontaneously and in the moment.”

Italian-born culinary creatives are unleashing the full capacity of their heritage, elevating and riffing on recipes taught to them by parents and grandparents, reinvigorating the notion of what it means to be an Italian chef. Intimate spots in hideaway locales, like Massimo Puglielli’s Mino on Naples Bay, Monica Valtolina’s DiGusto in a nondescript storefront behind U.S. 41 and Marco Corricelli’s Osteria Celli in a Fort Myers shopping center, draw crowds who taste the love imparted in their food by the chefs who run them. Spiced shrimp using chilis from Massimo’s childhood in Abruzzo or Lombardian gnocchi in a river of speck-dotted gorgonzola from Marco’s native Milan are favorites. In addition to her concise contemporary menu—which includes five types of charcuterie boards, each highlighting a different region of Italy—Monica also sells takeaway products and offers cooking classes for those wanting to recreate the magic at home.

Ravioli from Next Door
Next Door leans into inventive twists. Black garlic knots with whipped roasted red pepper feta open for handmade pasta selections, like striated sunset ravioli with color derived from inky blue sweet potato infused into the dough. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Molto Trattoria and its younger sibling Casa Neri, which opened last year, have a similar feel, with locals cramming into the convivial spots in the milieu of Naples’ Fifth Avenue South. Francesca and Andrea Neri also own these two restaurants, where the duo has brought the best of their Roman family recipes over the past decade at Molto, and let their creativity run wild for contemporary palates at Casa Neri in shareable plates like eggplant-parm dumplings. Smashing down notions of Italian-American and even Italian-Italian flavor profiles is Next Door, a market and restaurant next to sister restaurant Gather, in Cape Coral’s Tarpon Point Marina. The striated “sunset” ravioli is an almost too-beautiful-to-eat coral and inky blue sweet-potato-infused dough punctuated with whipped ricotta and pear that’s blanketed in basil-inflected cream and a crumble of walnuts. Do ingredients like hot honey and roasted red pepper feta belong on an Italian menu? Next Door thinks so, and the team is dedicated to figuring out how, with delicious results.

When you’re on the hunt for modern Italian fare, sometimes the best place to find it is at a restaurant that, outwardly, doesn’t seem to hang its hat on Italian at all. At Naples’ The Local, gorgeous greens supplied directly from Inyoni Organic Farm and vegan specialties like kung pao avocado belie the full-on Italian chops of owner Jeff Mitchell. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Mitchell was raised in Detroit where his maternal grandparents, immigrants from the region of Lazio, owned a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth Italian restaurant for 45 years. Since opening his place in 2013, he’s made the pasta dough, pizza dough, ricotta and pancetta in-house. “It’s my heritage and where my heart’s at. As much as I try to go away from that, it’s who I am,” Jeff says.

The chef makes the cuisine style his own with an oft-health-conscious spin. For the past seven years, he’s used the same sourdough starter for his pizza dough. He initially made the change to provide a more rustic flavor profile then realized the easily digestible ingredient was ideal for customers with food sensitivities. When a server mentioned that she couldn’t eat pizza due to her dairy allergy, he also started making almond “cheese” in-house. His vegan squash blossom pie with fruity, dense Lucques olives, truffle oil, fragrant balsamic, and fresh basil is just as much a crowd-pleaser as his “stroganoff” noodles topped with braised lamb, crème fraiche and herbed breadcrumbs. “The stroganoff is my take on an American or a melting pot-style pasta. I love Italian food, but I wanted to do something a bit different,” Jeff says. “Naples needed something a
bit different.” 

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