NAPLES — Culinary roots must be firmly rooted to make a man leave a Western paradise for the often-thankless job of owning a restaurant. But that’s just what Michael Hernandez did this past year when he returned to Naples from picturesque Whitefish, Mont., to purchase a Third Avenue South staple eatery, Handsome Harry’s.
Several years ago Hernandez left the Naples restaurant scene after owning a number of area restaurants. He and his family immersed themselves in the small-town charm of Whitefish, known for its proximity to Glacier National Park, its breathtaking views and thriving culinary scene — something Hernandez says he steered clear of except for helping fellow restaurateurs open their own eateries.
“I took a Montana sabbatical and became Mr. Mom, coaching, taking the kids to school. But my wife, kids and I all love Naples, and we loved where we were, but the opportunity to come back and have a business here presented,” he said of his three children, Zoe, Mia and Zack.
Hernandez credits his love of food for his career in restaurant work, which he’s been in since college. “I really had a knack for seeing what people like and could see what it would be like trying to keep up with trends and get ahead of them and that was something that was always intriguing to me,” said the father who named one of his Naples restaurants, Zoe, after his oldest child.
Handsome Harry’s presented new challenges — first, that it was not a new concept. In coming back to Naples as the new owner of Handsome Harry’s, Hernandez knew diners would want to know: What’s different?
“If you haven’t been to Handsome Harry’s in a long time, there are changes to the existing menu, but several of the traditional dishes customers love are still here,” he said. “There was already a following for the menu, but we played around with it, refined it, and improved it — it’s a work in progress.” Hernandez and Handsome Harry’s longtime Chef Tony Biagetti think alike, something Biagetti says now allows him to contribute more to the menu and style of the cuisine than ever before.
“Tony is as tough on the provisioners as you can get in terms of getting the best product, because you really can’t make great food unless you start with the best ingredients,” said Hernandez. “For example, we only serve certified Angus beef, which means that only one in four Angus cattle qualify.”
Hernandez kept popular Handsome Harry’s dishes but wanted Biagetti to be creative and update the menu, something the veteran chef relished.
“When I found out we were getting new owners, I was bummed out. But when I heard it was Michael, I was happy because he’s been doing it for many years and has opened so many restaurants in Naples,” he said.
“I’m a working chef, so I’m back there in the kitchen cooking, and Michael is a chef’s owner — he wants to see what you can do, give you guidelines and you just take it from there.” A few of Hernandez’ and Biagetti’s favorite dishes include the Prince Edward Island black mussels appetizer prepared to order with chorizo sausage in garlic, lemon and white wine and accented with Manchego cheese and cilantro. Customers often order that as their entree, motoring through multiple baskets of bread to sop up the savory broth.
One of the pasta dishes at Handsome Harry’s, a hearty rigatoni with grilled chicken, cremini mushrooms and sweet green peas is served in a pan tomato-vodka cream sauce ($24).
Hernandez and Biagetti doctored up the traditional Handsome Harry’s salmon dish. It’s now roasted, cedar plank style, with a side of toasted orzo, wilted spinach, fennel and orange relish and is served with a caramelized apple buerre blanc ($28). A jerk-spiced pork tenderloin entree comes with an inventive side of Caribbean mac ’n’ cheese and Jamaican pineapple rum sauce ($29).
One of the seafood dishes at Handsome Harry’s leans toward the sweeter side of savory with a macadamia nut crust on mahi mahi fillet with lemon grass jasmine rice, roasted pineapple salsa and spiced rum beurre blanc ($28). The traditional lobster bisque is still in residence, served with a lemon cream and Maine lobster garnish. (cup $8.50, bowl $9.50) In the summer and offseason, Chef Biagetti becomes the culinary version of a mad scientist, experimenting with complicated cuisine like house-made charcuterie. He knows fresh beef and fish are what Naples wants, but Biagetti welcomes a few other changes to the restaurant.
One reason Hernandez and Biagetti wanted to update the menu was to accommodate the large groups that frequent the restaurant who have varying tastes at the same table. Another was to make Handsome Harry’s accessible to nearly everyone.
“We no longer have an $80 lobster dish on the menu for example — when Harry’s first started out and up until Michael got here, it was a high-end, expensive specialty- occasion restaurant,” said Biagetti.
“Now there is a bigger selection and we’re not a steakhouse anymore with a big baked potato and big tall piece of cake — it’s comfort food with a twist and even though we have lots of repeat customers who come back two to three times a week, somehow Handsome Harry’s is again the new kid on the block.”