Tell us about your favorite Italian restaurant in Collier, south Lee
There may be 100 Italian restaurants in Collier and south Lee counties, but you know which one you like best. We’d like to know, too. Tell us which Italian restaurant in Southwest Florida is your favorite and why. At a future date, we’ll take a look at what people here like in Italian food and where they think their favorite dish is done best. Please include:
-- The name of the restaurant (and location, if it’s one of a chain).
-- What you like most about the restaurant — the food, the service, the ambience.
-- What your favorite dish is and what makes it great.
-- Your first and last name, and city of residence.
-- Please e-mail your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
-- Buon appetito!
NAPLES — We really like pasta.
We must. What else could explain the seemingly endless number of Italian restaurants that sprout up like weeds on side streets and strip malls? How else would every other new restaurant opening have a name that ended in a vowel?
“No one ever got mad at a good bowl of pasta,” Naples Tomato owner Jack Serfass says.
A quick glance at the Naples Daily News restaurant guide points out nearly 100 Italian restaurants in the Collier-South Lee area. The nature of the restaurant business means some of that century club certainly have closed. But the Italian kitchen boom in town means more have sprouted up in their place.
Compare that to 31 Chinese restaurants or 40 Mexican eateries. The only category with more listings is American, a hodgepodge group which includes nearly every bar, burger joint, diner and fast food chain in town.
“It seems like the number of Italian places has doubled in the past couple of years,” says David Bayer, owner of Ristorante D’Angeli, an Italian restaurant on Fifth Avenue South. “There’s no way the market can sustain half of that.”
Bayer’s restaurant might be at the epicenter of Naples mambo Italiano. He’s directly across the street from Cafe Luna, which also specializes in Italian food. Two doors down from Cafe Luna is Bellini Bar, an Italian restaurant. Two blocks west of D’Angeli is Bice. Two blocks east is Vergina, which is two doors up from Ron’s Italian Pizzeria and Cafe. Head to the end of the next block you’ll find the newly opened Rossopomodoro, which is diagonally across the street from Pazzo! Cucina Italiana.
If you count a yet-to-be-opened pizza place a couple of doors away from D’Angeli, there are 10 Italian restaurants along Naples main restaurant district. But it’s not the only area where multiple Italian restaurants duke it out.
In Pine Ridge Crossings, a plaza on the Southwest corner of Pine Ridge and Airport-Pulling roads, Joey D’s and Cappricio both serve dishes originating from the Boot. At the Mission Square plaza, on Pine Ridge, Noodles and Cafe Alessio stare each other down from across a parking lot.
Near the Lee County line, Sam Bucco Bistro and Naples Tomato operate in the same plaza. But Serfass says it’s not a competitive situation.
“If they run out of napkins, they come borrow some from us,” he says. “And if we run out we borrow from them.”
It’s not the type of cooperation you’d see in other industries. If two golf stores supply stores opened up in the same plaza, basic economic theory suggests they would engage in a price war until one cried “uncle” and went out of business.
Serfass says that even though both Naples Tomato and Sam Bucco sell similar products, they aren’t the same.
“We’re not selling the exact same golf ball,” he says. “People realize that there is room for diversity of tastes. So they might eat here because they like something we do and then go to Sam Bucco because of something they do there. So it’s easy to not be competitive.
“If we were all selling the same thing, then we’d be a lot less comfortable (being in the same plaza.)”
Maybe it’s easier to think that when the New York Times raves about your lasagna. They’ve been trading on that glowing review since 2006.
Serfass rejects the notion that there are too many Italian restaurants in town, specifically. His argument is that there are too many restaurants. Period.
To cut through the congestion, restaurateurs can take a couple of tactics. You can either ease toward the mainstream or veer heavily toward tradition. Unless you are one of two local restaurants to specialize in the incongruous combo of Italian and sushi.
At Naples Tomato, Serfass says eased toward the middle, serving more Americanized versions of classic Italian dishes and adding things like prime rib to the menu.
“That’s why we call ourselves Naples Tomato,” he says. “We don’t have ristorante in our name for a reason.”
Bayer’s restaurant in downtown Naples does, also for a reason.
“We’re not Americanized,” he says. “This is authentic food you would have in Italy.”
Bayer says he needs to be authentic to compete with lower prices across the street at Cafe Luna, where they offer dinner for two and a bottle of wine for $29.95.
To keep authenticity up and prices as low as possible, Bayer’s had to make some tough choices. The restaurant used to have a manager and an assistant manager.
“Now it’s just me and my wife,” he says. “She’s here in the morning and I’m here at night. I’m here seven days a week.”
That’s the way restaurants tend to work, especially family-run businesses. But in a down economy it is doubly true.
So why would anyone open a restaurant, especially an Italian one, right now?
Richard Amador is glad you asked. After three years without his own restaurant, he opened Amador’s Bistro Italiano on U.S. 41 just north of Golden Gate Parkway. Amador has owned Italian restaurants in Naples for close to 20 years. He closed an eponymous restaurant on Bayshore Drive three years ago.
He says he only started up a new restaurant because people in town knew his name and his reputation. But there was no doubt that his new spot would serve la cucina Italiano.
“Italian food is something special,” he says. “It’s down-home cooking, comfort food. But when you go out to eat for a special occasion, you go to eat an Italian restaurant.”
And as long as people think that way, Italian is still going to be a cuisine of choice for many people looking to open up a new restaurant.