Is this Southwest Florida’s Best Pasta?

Next Door restaurant, in Cape Coral, redefines the relationship with comfort and community—one dish at a time.

BY December 1, 2023
Next Door in Cape Coral
(Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Pasta constructs a bridge between past and future, as dishes move from one generation to another in a flash of poetry and improvisation. Hands dusted in semolina-kneaded dough fold in the flavors of our earliest recollections—a tangle of pasta shared in celebration or family chaos or love. At Cape Coral’s waterfront restaurant Next Door, the love is woven into every dish.

The restaurant’s four chefs craft an experience: pasta not as a meal but as a feeling. They adapt Italian tradition with modern-day innovations, expanding upon myriad ways to shape, infuse and cook this blend of flour and water. The pasta machine is more than a device just as the pasta is more (and different) than noodles—each embodies a commitment to craft, an interrogation into what could be. What if pasta were hydrated by red wine or charred onion reduction? What if we use the water that cooks the vivid green ramps to turn the pasta the color of the sea? What if diners were challenged to reconsider the most basic elements of cooking and dining? The answer: a revolution in pasta at Next Door.

Opening at 5 p.m., the intimate, open-concept restaurant is no larger than a family-style trattoria, with a dozen marble and oak tables dressed in shades of black and gold. Beyond the tables, three black pendant lights illuminate an expanse of butcher block in the modest kitchen. On one end, the pasta machine shines. On the other, steaming, ready-to-serve dishes line up in a flash. Executive chef John Hill, alongside chef de cuisine and pastry chef Jessica Shoemaker build the plate’s story, from texture to taste, crafting rhythmic vignettes—a burst of orange and red with mussels nestled into a bowl of Calabrian chili broth; streaks of blue, yellow and pink creating a dreamscape in the sunset ravioli.

Visiting Next Door for the first time, I’m enveloped in the din of pots and pans and the crackle of brown butter. Families gather as if in their own homes, each table a cacophony of laughter. Jessica delivers a plate of Next Door’s homemade peach burrata and focaccia. The small purse of stretched mozzarella is iridescent, pearly white, filled with cream-soaked stracciatella. The silken shreds run as my fork pierces into the olive oil-rich focaccia, a golden, airy bread now smothered in cream. “So many layers of love go into this dish,” Jessica says. The cheese curds used to make the burrata are crafted in New Jersey by a small producer that imports Italian buffalo milk for their buffalo mozzarella. The chefs infuse the small, soft curds and cream with the bright, honeyed flesh of a just-ripe peach, then pour the silky mixture into a mozzarella shell.

Next Door is a collaboration between John and Jessica and executive chefs Ben Voisin and Fabrice Deletrain. Ben and Fabrice first opened Fathoms Restaurant & Bar and The French Press cafe before debuting Next Door’s sister restaurant, Gather, in 2017. The quartet of restaurants supercharged Cape Coral’s dining scene.

After joining Gather in late 2019, John’s homemade pasta started garnering attention, arriving at diners’ tables in a parade of colors, shapes and textures, sourced from untraditional wells. “Next Door felt like a necessary next step,” Ben says. He and his wife, Valeria Zanella-Voisin, had long thought of creating a smaller Italian joint. “When we moved here in 2014, no one was going that far with it, making it from scratch. For us, it was always that missing piece,” Val, marketing director for the restaurant group, adds.

John and Jessica—who met and started dating in culinary school and worked in high-profile New Orleans kitchens before coming to Southwest Florida—made the vision possible with their pedigree and skill. The menus at Gather and Fathoms, both larger in scale, demand a certain consistency. But within the warm, trattoria-like Next Door, the chefs can focus their attention on the smallest of details with the grandest of ambitions. The restaurant stands as an emblem of how far Cape Coral’s food scene has come and represents a big step forward in Southwest Florida’s culinary cachet. A place where chefs can hyperfocus on a singular dish like pasta and move it forward—a rare and bold feat.

Fresh pasta from Next Door
Next Door’s ingredients are meticulously sourced for an entirely original, artisan-driven experience. “When we moved here in 2014, no one was going that far with [pasta], making it from scratch. For us, it was always that missing piece,” says Valeria Zanella-Voisin, of Hospitality Group Holdings, which owns Next Door, Gather and Fathoms. The restaurant is conceived as a workshop for the dream-team chefs—including Jessica Shoemaker (below), John Hill, Ben Voisin and Fabrice Deletrain—to reimagine and perfect pasta. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Jessica refers to the kitchen as a “chef’s playground.” Inside, the culinary maestros take fleeting thoughts and passing flavors and play. “We can taste something, have it linger, then come to this outlet with these chefs and shop the walk-in pantry, find inspiration,” she says. The basil spaghetti began with John struggling to get the flavor just right. The sage-colored pasta infused with cut basil lacked the floral finish of an Italian summer meal. Jessica riffed, suggesting he add their house-made, herbaceous pesto burrata. Ben, without skipping a beat, chimed in: “Basil burrata!” The chefs got to work making the delicate, contrasting textures of the lush, supple sphere, which John nestled into the basil spaghetti. “When the dish arrives, you cut the burrata first, and that basil stracciatella gives you that beautiful floral finish,” John says. A dish may be beloved, but it is not immune to transformation. The recently returned asparagus gnocchi is now ricotta gnocchi paired with wild mushrooms, black garlic and Parmesan streusel. “It may be a fan favorite, but can we come up with something even better?” John mused. “We would have never known if we hadn’t pulled it from the menu. If there wasn’t a reason to fill the void.”

Despite the chefs’ penchant for innovation, dishes are anchored in the wisdom of the past. Ben was raised in Bordeaux, France, to wine merchant parents who worked with small, family wineries. He learned how history and heritage, how a familiarity with the land creates depth and character, yielding a distinct identity. Ben curates Next Door’s wine list with his parents’ lessons in mind. The Buglioni Valpolicella Ripasso—a harmonious pairing for the sunset ravioli, with its intense flavors of ripe fruit and spices with hints of vanilla—for instance, is produced on a 153-acre organic plot in Valpolicella, Italy, where the family owners are exacting in their practices—only 40 percent of the grape harvest ends up in the bottle. The wine list mirrors Next Door’s ethos of excellence at every step, using thoughtfully sourced ingredients—from locally grown produce at Bonita Springs’ Farmer Mike’s and pasture-raised heritage pork to imported Italian flour to small-batch cheese curds. “Why not take the next step, do what no one else is doing?” Ben asks.

Following the bounty is familiar territory for John, who grew up on his family’s farm in New Castle, Pennsylvania, home to a dense population of Italian-Americans. As a child, John experienced farm-to-table in its purest form, even apprenticing for an area butcher when he was 12. His grandmother was a proud Italian-American with a certain reverence for assimilation—she eschewed the traditional Italian moniker ‘nonna’ for the American ‘grandma.’ Still, her hand-rolled pasta was a simple fact of life.

While John attended the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, his relationship with pasta came well before, beginning with a lesson from his grandmother. John had heard from friends about a peculiar toy, Silly Putty, and how the pink silicone blob would copy print when rolled across a newspaper. John asked his grandmother for the stretchy plaything, but she knew a better way. “Let’s make it,” she said. 

Back home, she showed him how to blend flour with water and use his fingers to draw a well in the center with walls that were neither too wide nor too thin. She showed him how to whip the egg yolks with flour into a golden ball. “So, I knead it, and I knead it, and I knead it,” John recalls. But the flaxen, golden dough was not quite what he expected. John wondered if it would hold the same power as the storied Silly Putty. “It doesn’t need to, John Paul,” his grandmother told him. “I thought she was showing me how to make a toy for myself,” John says. “No, she was recruiting a production assistant. After that, it was constant. If she was making pasta, I was working the dough. A lot of the ratios in my mind—flour, water, egg—stem from when I was a kid.”

Though John loved cooking, his grandmother encouraged him to move in a different direction, “to serve his country as it had served him.” He joined the Air Force, where he developed smart weapons as part of a scientist immersion program. But he’d always return to the kitchen, moonlighting as a server and cook during leaves. “I’ve wanted to be a chef my entire life.” The Air Force proved equally formative in his culinary journey. As a scientist, he learned to combine known ingredients and techniques to create something new—each experiment a synthesis of ideas and creativity.

Next Door’s pasta recipes remain close to the ratios John learned in childhood, but the pasta become vessels for radically distinct flavors. John honors the small, rectangular shape of agnolotti but allows the dough to continue beyond its savory filling, like an open envelope—a small stretch of dough crisped in brown butter followed by an intense burst of homemade heritage pork sausage. The slips of pasta lie atop a bed of toasted kale and tiny enoki mushrooms with sweet cherry tomatoes, all dressed in beurre blanc. Ravioli is transformed with the edges shaved and rendered into small suns infused with beets. The multicolored pouches are filled with whipped ricotta and set in basil cream with pear, walnuts and arugula. The filling shapes the taste, but so does the dough, which is slightly different from traditional pasta, with milk and olive oil supplying a fatty richness. 

Very little is wasted. The sunset ravioli derives its striations from what would otherwise be considered refuse. Beet trimmings, leftover from Gather’s beet carpaccio, are used to hydrate the dough, turning it the Burgundy red of pressed grapes. Arugula, basil, dandelion—any type of green soon to expire—is blitzed alongside a chlorophyll extract to produce a verdant dough. Discarded tops of palm-sized burrata balls, knotted and trimmed, become the finishing touch on rigatoni.

The desserts are no exception. Jessica uses the bar’s fat-washed whiskey, laced with the crisped agnolotti’s browned butter, to create her newest ice cream. Blueberries leftover from Gather’s Sunday brunch are blended into a cerulean custard. Trained as a pastry chef and cross-trained in just about everything else, Jessica crafts magic with Next Door’s desserts—from affogato, a coffee-based Italian sweet with hazelnut praline, to imaginative scratch-made daily cakes.

Housemade pasta
The chefs consider how ingredients from one dish could inform another. Water from blanching beets may go toward hydrating pasta dough for a pop of color, discarded bits of burrata could top your parmesan-dusted rotini, or the bar’s fat-washed whiskey could become the base for Jessica’s ice cream of the day. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Just beyond the kitchen’s pendant lights, the confections stand proudly in the foreground. Red velvet casts its rose-tinted glow, breathing warmth and nostalgia into the kitchen—a throwback to the comfort foods Jessica would prepare for her family as a young girl. She grew up with a single mother who juggled two jobs. Jessica often had to cook dinner for herself, her mom and her brother. Spaghetti and meatballs were a mainstay and the perfect vehicle to stretch precious staples. Cakes requiring the simplest of ingredients—eggs, sugar, flour—were decadent treats.

Her appreciation for baking was cemented when she and John worked at Salon by Sucré—a well-known New Orleans cafe run by a pastry chef. “They made chocolates and macarons, everything from scratch. It was a pastry chef’s interpretation of savory food,” Jessica says. In 2019, when the couple moved to Florida to be closer to family, Jessica worked at Norman Love Confections before joining Gather. Now, Next Door’s intimate space grants her the opportunity to reimagine sweet and savory classics, presenting each in their truest form. Jessica’s olive oil cake, an Italian favorite, has a crackling crust and an aromatic oil-rich middle paired with a Meyer lemon and bay sorbet, a whipped lemon crémeux and white chocolate.

The enigmatic alchemy of tradition and innovation is the foundation of Next Door’s legacy. As the twilight sinks across the landscape, I decide whether to spread another dollop of whipped red feta across my black garlic knot or trace the edges of my peach burrata salad to soak up the fig vincotto. I know each is woven with the flavors of a lifetime. “We all have a history with pasta,” John says. “At some point, whether it’s eating it or making it—it doesn’t matter. The beautiful thing, the absolutely beautiful thing about our pasta is that everyone plays a part in it.”  

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