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How Angelina’s Ristorante in Bonita Springs became an Institution for Southwest Floridians

Since the early 2000s, Angelina's has maintained a loyal following, with its reliable recreation of Italian classics, awe-inspiring wine tower, and above all, the familial service.

BY May 1, 2024
Angelina’s Ristorante
Angelina’s Ristorante commands a sort of magical reverence from its loyal clientele, who are devoted to the authentic Italian food, elegant ambiance and doting service. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

My nonna used to prepare this for me when I was just a boy,” Angelina’s Ristorante sous chef Daniel Bellinger tells patrons—most of whom are friends and family—at a wine dinner in March. During the monthly event, Angelina’s chefs thoughtfully pair dishes with select wines from a vintner. Tonight, the focus is on Napa Valley’s Groth Vineyards & Winery. Daniel is wistful as he details the labor of love before us: little slips of delicate pasta dough pinched at their ends, drenched in a deep pool of bronze-colored brodo, a long-simmered homemade bone broth. Each parcel of caramelle pasta, named for its shape like a wrapped caramel, encourages a sort of reverie. This is slow food rooted in a communal past.

Tonight, the small bundles are filled with slow-braised pork. Flecks of meat swirl in the brodo as spoon after spoon of broth is drained. It reminds me of Southern potlikker, or ‘what’s left behind,’ meat and bones boiled down to a hazel elixir. But at Angelina’s Ristorante, nothing feels forsaken—everything is golden.

Each step takes hours, which turn into days. “And this is just one course of many,” says Angela Smith, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Don. Generations of Italian culture and history trace the outer edges of Angelina’s Red Room, where the wine dinners are held. The space is adorned wall-to-wall in varying shades of red, reminiscent of blushing Burgundy and sun-ripened tomatoes. Reverent poems, generously stenciled on the walls, wrap the room, punctuating the connection between earth and table—and the people seated around it:

“My darling, you breathe in the fragrance of the vine. / Feel joy in the warmth of Tuscany and its food. / The pasta is rich, the wine is full, and the friendship is sincere.”

Dappled light filters through each layer of the large, hung Renaissance paintings that appear as if lit from within. The soft lighting makes any visit to Angelina’s feel warm and inviting, but it’s the people who make the restaurant a home away from home. Here, the servers quickly learn your name—or at least your favorite wine. Fruits and vegetables are pulled from the earth sometimes hours before arriving at your table, sourced from neighboring Farmer Mike’s U Pick, which delivers to the restaurant daily. Dishes are anchored in tradition with an ingredient-first philosophy—a collection of staples executed with passion, from the fresh mozzarella, stretched by hand each day, to the imported Italian balsamic and olive oil, made specially for Angelina’s. Food writers often wonder if one should eat to live or live to eat, but here, there is no difference. Good food is seen as a necessity, and so is the company with which it is enjoyed.

Angelina’s Ristorante is Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s love song, their family story. And for them, family is meant in the truest Italian sense of the word. Every server, runner, chef and customer-turned-regular marks the heartbeat of this place—a coordinated rhythm of familial excellence going on 16 years. This is the Smiths’ Italy, the food Angela has always loved to cook and Don has loved to eat.

Don was recently retired when the couple opened the restaurant in 2008. He had spent decades in the fast-food industry, rising through the ranks at McDonald’s, before joining Burger King as president and CEO. Later, at PepsiCo, Don helped breathe life into the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell franchises. Before he retired in 2005, he owned all of the Perkins and Friendly’s in the United States.

After three years, it was time to slow things down—not as retirement suggests by nature but as love requires. It takes time to develop dishes that honor centuries of tradition and specials so good they remain unchanged for years. The couple could risk an uprising if they removed the beloved, salty-sweet, slow-roasted veal agnolotti or the sea salt-encrusted yellowtail snapper, which has been on the menu since day one. Presented whole inside a dome of salt, the snapper remains warm inside its castle, ready to be cracked open tableside. The escaping steam floods the Rococo lights above several times a night when the dish is ordered.

Italian cooking is simple yet evocative. Individual flavors are pronounced rather than layered, often accented by just a drizzle of olive oil or a pinch of salt. Angela, an avid home cook and recipe-tester for America’s Test Kitchen, including their magazine Cook’s Illustrated, helped design the menu. Don worked on the building. Both made a commitment to their staff, treating them as family and asking only that they do the same for Angelina’s guests. Theirs is a hospitality rooted in care, a level of service unparalleled in fine dining. “So many of our regulars ask for a specific server. And some will even coordinate their reservations around a server’s schedule,” Nick Kattman, an assistant general manager and sommelier at Angelina’s for nearly 11 years, says. Nick began as a server and quickly dove into the restaurant’s wine program.

The young oenophile was drawn to Angelina’s legendary three-story wine tower. Within the 30-foot-tall structure, everything is precisely controlled—temperature, humidity, the UV from the sunlight streaming in from the restaurant’s garden. Little brown wine tags dangle like paper jewels in the filtered light. The older, more sensitive vintages are nestled side by side, accessible via a staircase that winds toward the heavens.

At Angelina’s Ristorante, it’s the food. It’s the service. But it’s also the wine. Nick takes me inside the wine tower, and I wonder at the possibilities within the nearly 4,000 bottles, all revealing their own pilgrimage, their own language. Italian wines take precedence, but there are also several first growth Bordeaux, which reach their peak after two decades. “They have to be on their side at the proper temperature and ideal conditions,” Nick says. Given Florida’s flat landscape, the Smiths dreamt up the towering glass column in the middle of the dining room to emulate the effect of an underground cellar. “I found it fascinating. It was like a moth to the flame,” he adds.

Nick volunteered to store the bottles, learning the tower top to bottom. He recently traveled to Italy, as many at Angelina’s Ristorante have, eager to visit the country and see the culture that shapes their daily life. He and wine director Dinah Leach live in a state of constant learning. Dinah teaches a wine class every week and encourages all staff to attend. After one year of employment, Don and Angela pay for their servers to take the level-one class of the Court of Master Sommeliers exam, the first step in becoming a certified sommelier.

Angelina's Ristorante Executive sous chef Israel Martinez
Executive sous chef Israel Martinez is considered the backbone of the kitchen. Here, he finishes a dish tableside—a common occurrence at Angelina’s. Like much of the staff, he’s been with the restaurant for years. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Jamie Edmunds, another tenured server at Angelina’s Ristorante, sets down the final course of the wine dinner—lamb shoulder over parsnip puree with carrots, paired with a 2019 Groth Vineyards reserve cabernet sauvignon. The lamb shoulder was braised then pressed under a weight overnight. It’s dense, meltingly tender, rich and delightfully sticky.

As Jamie finishes her rounds, she shuffles through a series of tickets in her apron, each one reflecting the likes and dislikes of familiar customers. She notes their preferred wines and favorite pairings and often offers to send them home with what remains at the evening’s close.

One table over, an exuberant diner asks who’s responsible for the marinara and how it’s made. Jamie answers, “Mrs. Smith, of course, one of the owners.” The diner approaches our table apologetically; she must have the recipe. Angela smiles, a broad, welcoming gesture. “When we first opened, Don told me that the kitchen might need some help tweaking [the sauce]. It wasn’t quite right. I came in and shared my recipe. Garlic and olive oil toasted on the stove. San Marzano tomatoes—I squeeze each one by hand. And then let it be. It’s the simplest thing,” she says. The diner nearly hugs her in gratitude.

Moments like this are frequent at Angelina’s Ristorante, when a dish is made so simply, with such reverence for its parts, the diner feels inclined to slow down and savor each bite the way one hopes to savor life itself. The pappardelle ‘Capri,’ a restaurant staple, features only Sorrento lemon olive oil; juicy, Italian San Marzano tomatoes; and fresh basil to temper the richness of the oil. Wide, handmade pappardelle are cut with imported bronze dies, creating a porous texture that clings to the glossy sauce. “It feels and tastes like Italy,” Daniel says.

During our final course, Daniel is joined by executive sous chef Israel Martinez, who stands quietly by the Red Room’s French doors. A piano plays in the background, framing the moment. Israel began as a dishwasher at Angelina’s. He was captivated by the smells and sounds of an Italian kitchen—flour suspended in air, 80-pound wheels of aged Parmigiano Reggiano, San Marzano tomatoes, grown in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius. He was eager to immerse himself, to learn more, to do more.

Over the years, Israel mastered the menu, working his way up to sous chef. When Angelina’s longtime head chef resigned, Don and Angela leaned on Israel. “No one knew we were without an executive chef from the moment the position was emptied over a year ago to now. All because of Israel,” Angela says. 

The Smiths call him “the horse,” a reference to how he carried them all. Daniel came on several months ago after working his way through Napa Valley at Michelin-starred restaurants including The French Laundry. The environment in the California restaurant was markedly different from Angelina’s—more of a pressure cooker, less of a homecoming. Tonight, the chefs are busy but relaxed; a certain tenderness motivates them. “We are lucky to have you both,” Don and Angela tell the chefs. With their hands over their hearts, the men respond, “We are the lucky ones.”   

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