Culinary Debuts

Raising the Bar on Latin Food in Naples

Unidos, in the Naples Design District, blends Latin America ingredients, techniques and traditions from across Latin America, along with unparalleled hospitality for our editors' new favorite dining experience.

BY May 1, 2024
(Photo By Brian Tietz)

Everyone is a regular at Unidos. Easy interactions punctuate visits to this Latin fusion restaurant, where the hospitality channels the attention of notoriously generous Hispanic grandmothers.

Soon after the restaurant opened in January, a friend and I sidled into one of the peony pink banquettes for supper. The dining room was already alive with the buzz of cocktail hour, and the late afternoon sun blazed through the wall of windows into the chic, midcentury-meets-coastal hacienda space—and directly into my eyes. Within seconds of clocking my discomfort, the hostess pressed a button to lower the shades (soon after, she raised them again, as if on cue, for sunset).

With an emphasis on remixing Latin American flavors and traditions with global culinary cornerstones (French, Italian, Asian, Spanish), the Naples Design District restaurant introduces something new to Southwest Florida. While hotspots like Bicyclette Cookshop, Warren and Le Colonial have claimed the media spotlight for the past few months, Unidos—from the trio behind Chicago-based restaurant Unidad—started with a quiet rollout, flying relatively under the radar.

For our team, the vibrant Ninth Street South newcomer is the undisputed standout of the year. Our Colombian-American editor-in-chief claims it was love at first bite when she had Unidos’ delightfully golden, crispy empanadas (“Who knew the original could be improved?” she says). The presentation and vigorous flavors resonated with our former food editor Andrew Atkins, too, who ranked the pork shank tacos in the realm of the divine. As for me, I was hooked by the service—all the attention of white-glove hospitality, with the relaxed feel of being with friends. The elements all add up to create a place that seems like it’s been there forever.

Around the open kitchen, barstools tempt guests to belly up for a front-row seat to the action. From our nearby perch, we can see executive chef Melina Martinez putting the finishing touches on our order of crispy yuca fries, a staple on many South American dinner tables. The 30-year-old, Mexican-born chef started as a dishwasher at Unidad when she was a teenager. Melina worked her way up the ranks until landing the lead role at Unidos. “We knew we had a person in Chicago who’s young, aggressive and a superstar in the kitchen,” says Carlos Angel, who is  Colombian and owns Unidos with husband-wife duo Sal and Jaime Muñoz. “[Melina] was the first to understand [our idea of] fusion.”

Melina, Carlos and Sal collaborate on the menus, playing with cooking traditions and flavors from gustatorily rich Latin American countries, including their native lands, as well as Argentina, Cuba, Brazil and Peru. Three-hour testing sessions are standard as the trio reinterprets heritage-driven recipes through the lens of popular global cuisines—and vice versa. Italian risotto gets tropicalized with passion fruit sauce-enveloped salmon, and in a riff on Asian crispy rice, Peruvian ceviche is perched atop croquettes of fried rice, served with Argentine chimichurri.

Every recipe harkens to a place—whether it be the team’s childhood family tables or the slate of restaurants they’ve scouted in the Americas in search of inspiration. The elote fritters—Unidos’ smashed, tempura-covered version of Mexican street corn with cult-favorite Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise—embody the spirit of teamwork, experimentation and underlying pride-of-place that anchors the restaurant. “It takes me back to my childhood,” says Sal, who lived in his family’s native Mexico for a couple of years in his youth.

Like the kitchen, the bar is central to the design and open to diners. High-spirited bartenders mix Latin libations like the pisco sour and caipirinha, as well as spins on classic cocktails, like an old-fashioned with a blended mezcal and rye base. Tropical sippers, like the blueberry-jam mojito mocktail I enjoyed, offer something equally intriguing for non-imbibers.

A festive atmosphere permeates the space as pop favorites remixed with Latin beats (think: Coldplay songs by a cumbia band) play in the background. At the heart of the operation is the flaming Santa Maria grill (similar to an Argentine parrilla but more versatile), fueled by high-heat South American Quebracho hardwood that imparts the intensely smoky, earthy flavor of Argentine barbecue. This beast of a machine is responsible for the envy-inducing pork tacos—a whole slow-cooked shank with meat that slides off the bone, served in a mini cast-iron skillet with greens and blue corn tortillas. Colombian chef Boris Alverez mans the grill, using two cranks to raise and lower the grates for the perfect level of caramelization on Argentinian vacío de novillo (flap steak), Brazilian picanha (juicy top sirloin) and cauliflower steak with passion fruit-coconut sauce.

Steak at Unidos
Carlos Angel, Sal Muñoz and Jaime Muñoz opened Unidos in January. Our editors were struck by the under-the-radar restaurant’s welcoming atmosphere, intuitive service and vibrant, Latin American flavors. (Photo By Brian Tietz)

Housed in a former Starbucks, Unidos stylishly blends into the setting with its gray wraparound metal overhang and black-framed windows. Inside, Jaime worked on the design, mixing rattan pendant lights with pink diner-style booths and rock-cage benches for a Latin midcentury-meets-coastal aesthetic. Ornate tiles, imported from Colombia, add to the sense of place, while the exposed ceilings and quartz bar keep the look decidedly contemporary.

Warm, spirited hospitality is a trademark of Latin American culture, and in this area, Unidos follows its muse to the T. Servers and guests quickly become friends, and Sal and Carlos often stroll the dining room, bussing tables, recommending dishes or offering special pours of late harvest Malbec. The restaurant embodies its name, Unidos, a.k.a. Together—everyone feels part of one, knitted, palate-expanding experience.

As we leave the restaurant, I’m sated and warm—like how I feel leaving a family member’s table. Many restaurants strive to create an ambiance that feels like home; Unidos perfects the vibe.  

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