I spend most of the year nose down, researching, writing and editing stories about the restaurants defining our region and the food enriching our lives. Every so often, I stumble across a place that sends me into a sort of stupor: a restaurant prompting me to rethink my preconceived notions of what food could and should be. This year, I can count on one hand—four fingers, to be exact—the places that prompted such a paradigm shift.
This is the metric by which we’ve chosen our best new restaurants. The pared-down list is a departure from our typical Best New Restaurant format, where we rave about the many new spots we love. This year—prompted by a few particularly inspired dining experiences—we think it’s just to narrow our list down to those we see as singular expressions. These are chef-led spaces, born of passion and grit, where creativity and commitment to excellence shine in every bite. The menus are exciting, the interiors are thoughtfully designed, the servers deliver home-style hospitality, the ambiences are mesmerizing, and at every turn, there’s someone striving to do their ingredients and the art of dining justice. In these ways and more, these four restaurants signal a new standard for dining in Southwest Florida. We can throw our weight behind this notion—there’s nothing like them.
Bicyclette Cookshop wasn’t supposed to make the cut of Best New Restaurants. The minimalist, chic dining room, attached to Naples Cyclery at the Pavilion Shopping Center, opened on November 15. We went to print two weeks later. It’s a little-known fact that in the magazine world, we work four months in advance. Weeks from print, nothing is supposed to come in or out unless absolutely necessary. But, adding Bicyclette was a necessity. The restaurant was announced seemingly out of nowhere over the summer and emerged with a force this fall as the sort of space that would feel at home on a Michelin guide.
The story of Bicyclette is one of connections. When New York-native Kayla Pfeiffer worked at Campagna Hospitality Group restaurants The French Brasserie Rustique and Bar Tulia Mercato, she met Naples Cyclery co-owner Louie Mele and Campagna’s former chief operating officer, Colleen Dunavan. Kayla worked her way through area restaurants until last year, when Louie offered to give Kayla a blank canvas—her own restaurant, a place where she could tinker and innovate to her heart’s desire. The 28-year-old chef agreed and tapped Colleen to help design and build up the space. “Now that it’s finally here, I’m not going to let up,” Kayla says. “I want to keep going and motivating and teaching my staff and constantly making everyone around me better and vice versa.”
Over two months in the fall, Kayla and her team demoed Fit & Fuel, the cyclist-favorite cafe attached to Louie’s bike shop for 12 years. The new space blends a wabi-sabi aesthetic, California modernist vibes and groovy ’70s influences. Throwback hip-hop sets a subconscious ‘cool’ standard throughout the space. Toward the back, a picture window into the kitchen shows Kayla and her fellow The Culinary Institute of America-trained sous chef, Kelly Zielinski, working their magic on a modest four induction burners and two ovens with a shoebox of a cooler, so ingredients are fresh daily. (The only items Kayla doesn’t make in-house are french fries and Bugles chips. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, Kayla posits.) Like a good chunk of Bicyclette’s staff, Kelly worked with Kayla at The French, Bar Tulia Mercato and PJK. “It takes a lot of work, but it also takes a lot of time … to find and meet these people,” Kayla says.
Kayla’s personality is stamped everywhere; dishes draw from her memory and inspirations that don’t subscribe to any culinary tradition. Caviar is served with crème fraîche and Bugles in custom Bicyclette tins, calling back to a beach trip when Kayla had several kinds of caviar and only corn chips to pair with the delicacy. She riffs and elevates, fermenting jalapeños in-house to make the pepper relish for the indulgent chilaquiles and crowning crisp chicken schnitzel with a dusting of umami-infusing furikake seasoning and ribbons of thinly sliced radish. Even the simplest things are served with finesse, like the vanilla soft serve infused with Fratini olive oil (that Louie milled himself on a visit to Umbria) and sprinkled with fennel powder and sea salt.
The wine list also trends sophisticated with an eye toward natural producers, and the cocktails are bracing (with NA options available), fueled by the longtime Naples drink wizards behind the bar. In all, Bicyclette is what emerges when a group of industry vets unite to create the restaurant of their dreams—and it’s an absolute treat for us diners. You’d be hard-pressed to find more inspired, well-executed dishes in any major market.
If Bicyclette centers around multidisciplinary, multicultural riffing, then 11-month-old Next Door in Cape Coral focuses on singular refinement. The three-chef team is devoted to exalting and perfecting pasta, all while honing Cape Coral’s ever-growing culinary excellence.
The 32-seat restaurant at Tarpon Point Marina was long-awaited. Hospitality Group Holdings (which owns Fathoms, The French Press and Gather) first announced Next Door in the fall of 2021; a year later, Hurricane Ian delayed the opening. The restaurant finally fired up the ovens last Valentine’s Day. Fittingly, it’s easy to fall in love with the place.
On the evening I first visit Next Door, chef John Hill approaches my table to greet me and my partner. His handshake is powerful, with an oven mitt that dwarfs our hands and thickly corded forearms, strengthened from years of pushing and pulling dough into pristine parcels, like the ones that later arrive at our table in gorgeous striations. John—who grew up cooking in his Italian grandmother’s Pennsylvania kitchen, served in the military as a weapons scientist and studied the culinary arts at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh—technically leads the kitchen. But the modern, minimalist waterside restaurant stands as a true collaboration between him and co-chefs Jessica Shoemaker and Ben Voisin. The threesome unites to make savory-sweet puffs of knots slathered in black garlic butter and fluffy chunks of focaccia for plunging into whirls of whipped red pepper feta.
Each seasonally changing menu represents a deeper expression of the team’s creativity. “We’re locking in,” John tells me. “We’re pretty much able to run with Next Door.” If they’re running, Next Door is doing a marathon, and there are no shortcuts. In winter, John adds to his intensive sunset ravioli to reflect the amber hue our Gulf skies take on during the cooler months. When the first Florida cold spell hits, John takes the summer pasta that’s colored with blue-infusing butterfly pea flowers and beet-tinged red water and adds orangey dough tinted with roasted red pepper to reflect the sun blazing over the marina.
At Next Door, it’s not just about prettily plated parcels, though. It’s black garlic macaroni and crisped asparagus gnocchi, and butter-soft cuts of Wagyu filet mignon. It’s a devil’s food cake made that day by Jessica, who layers in thick swathes of Frangelico-infused buttercream frosting and serves the slice with a scoop of espresso ice cream. It’s indulgence and comfort and contentment. The team is grounded, not confined by their Italian ties. They take the humble, traditional pasta and turn it into the dishes that make us rethink Italian food and tell a story with every bite. “It’s like a proud parent watching their little girl grow up,” John says of the restaurant nearing its year anniversary and perfecting its stride. “So many times, you see projects that start and end within six months. Seeing [Next Door] blossom, seeing it grow—that’s the biggest thing.”
Skills perfected since childhood and heritage also ground Clara Fasciglione’s Wolfmoon, in Downtown Bonita Springs. You might not expect to find a bakery on our list of region-defining restaurants, but Wolfmoon deserves every bit of the accolade. Here, in a tiny cafe in the modern Entrada Plaza on the corner of Old 41 and Bonita Beach Road, Clara and her partner, Giovanni ‘Gio’ Baldini, run one of Southwest Florida’s best new breakfast and lunch spots. Clara lives and breathes a from-scratch philosophy. The chef’s (nearly) singular focus on croissants delivers iterations like the classic butter Alpha, the caramel-filled Suprema and the double-chocolate Black Wolf.
Every voluptuous croissant you have the pleasure of sinking your teeth into is baked fresh that day, with a surprising amount of consideration into the seemingly simple, flaky wonders. The restaurant is outfitted with a reverse-osmosis system for the purest water and consistent yeast fermentation. Butter comes only from Normandy cows that forage from nutrient-rich marshlands to ensure a high-fat flavor bomb with minimal moisture (too much water makes croissants go gluey or flat). And, each wispy layer of butter and silky dough is hand-folded into thirds and fed through a machine sheeter one, two, three times for dozens upon dozens of perfectly even layers that give each laminated croissant its airy crisp.
Clara’s time in the kitchen dates to working in her mother’s restaurant in her native Argentina at 13. She studied at The Instituto Argentino de Gastronomía in Buenos Aires, then moved to Naples during the pandemic and worked as a server at Del Mar Naples. Clara used her tip money to fund her first foray into Wolfmoon. The restaurant’s name is a nod to her country’s native medialunas—‘half moon’ crescent rolls—which Clara baked when she arrived in Naples to connect with fellow Argentinians. She transitioned to more marketable, French-style croissants when she had trouble finding scratch-made pastries in the area.
Initially working from a commissary kitchen, Clara sold croissants online to a local crowd with the idea of taking the business national. But the kitchen was hot and demanding. Meanwhile, she noticed the lack of true, local, artisanal bakeries. Now, Wolfmoon’s food program extends beyond pastries into croque monsieur sandwiches, with folded slices of rosemary ham and provolone between buttery croissant slices; hearty Caesar salads, piled high with organic produce and hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken; and breakfast staples like quiche and chia pudding. Thick, fudgy brownies are shockingly gluten-free, and the golden-tinged créme brûlées beg to be bought. Everything is conveniently packaged for grab-and-go snacking or can be plated to linger over at one of Wolfmoon’s eight or so indoor and patio tables.
Amid the steady spread of third-wave coffee shops, Wolfmoon’s coffee program stands out, too. Ethically sourced beans come from Fort Myers-based Take Two Coffee, and the menu is tightly focused on essential espresso-based drinks. “It’s not like I’m fluffy, you know?” Clara notes. Why should her drinks or space be? All that handiwork is served up in a hip, industrial jewel box of a space, with midcentury wooden furnishings by Naples’ New Age Design and coral motifs splashed across walls and surfaces with moxy.
Considered design is a hallmark of Southwest Florida’s new class of dining innovators. The sophistication is evident at Rebecca’s Cocktail & Wine Bar. Naples’ sustainable architecture champion David Corban designed the Balinese-inspired, glass-wrapped building that artfully blends urban industrialism and organic elegance. Bamboo covers the pitched ceiling, which is reinforced with exposed piping and contrasted with warm, slatted yellow pine panels and polished concrete floors. An intricate mosaic from Italian tile brand Sicis spans two walls, including behind the 40-foot quartz bar. Throughout, rattan and wood furnishings are laid out to encourage conversation among patrons and discovery of the more than 1,100 bottles of wine, conveniently lined up in the back retail nook for sipping there or at home.
While our other three Best New Restaurants are chef-led institutions with soulful menus, Rebecca’s is something else entirely. Less of a restaurant and more of a libation-fueled social playground, the space debuted last spring after two years of high anticipation and plenty of whispers. “I heard there’s going to be a Krug bar inside.” “Aren’t they partnering with Thomas Keller?” The rumors were lofty but not ludicrous when you see the resulting $15 million, 1.5-acre complex that includes Rebecca’s and private social club, The Maddox.
Rebecca Maddox, the entrepreneur behind Bayshore Arts District catalysts Three60 Market and Celebration Park, runs Rebecca’s with a superstar roster of highly pedigreed hospitality pros. General manager Jason Parsons led The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club for more than a decade, and industry vet (and brother to noted Naples chef Todd Johnson) Matt Johnson leads the beverage program. Rebecca tapped locally loved and highly regarded chef Darren Veilleux to lead the kitchen. Since the April opening, Darren has expanded the mostly charcuterie menu with plates that beg to be shared. Think pizzas laden with San Marzano tomatoes and pepperoni roasted until crisp and curling at the edges, chilled lobster with scoops of zesty lemon ricotta and pea pesto crostinis topped with delicate slivers of prosciutto.
Charcuterie boards remain at the forefront, with global cheese and cured meat selections, loaded with the likes of Atlanta-made Spotted Trotter duck pastrami, Belletoile triple crème brie from France and California’s Journeyman chorizo. Though Rebecca’s is intentionally inclusive (they retained the $3.60 markup on wines that made Three60 famous and the menu has plenty of by-the-glass pours at various price points), there is a grand caviar service. The list comprises no fewer than seven varieties, including one made by Thomas Keller (the culinary hero shows up, after all).
The entire Three60 wine trove has migrated to Rebecca’s, where folks can shop from one of the state’s largest and most sophisticated retail wine collections. “If there’s a hard-to-get wine in Florida, I have a good shot of getting it,” she says. Behind the bar, the cocktail menu exemplifies Matt’s mastery of the craft and Rebecca’s intention to bring people together. “It’s that sense of community,” she says. “We all want to eat and drink. But we also want to have fun.”
Year-round, my work centers on finding the best expressions of dining on the Gulf. And, year after year, new restaurants push the definition of what it means to be the best. Every so often, though, a place—or in this case, four places—appears to redefine the category altogether.