I have eaten a whale's tonnage of grouper in my 30 years in Southwest Florida, much of it pulled straight from the Gulf by my husband. So when I tell you the black grouper piatti at Fifth Avenue's new Osteria Tulia rocked my taste buds, you can believe this was something special. No, make that extraordinary.The description sounded ordinary enough: "acqua pazza." Tomatoes, garlic, and red chilies made the bath for the olive oil-seared black grouper ($30). The "crazy water," as it turns out, comes from an old northern Italian fishermen's tradition of preparing fish while at sea using seawater. So saltwater — combined with a light fish broth, white wine, and leeks — impeccably succored the flaky moistness of the fish, as fresh-tasting as my husband's catches.
It was a highlight, without doubt, but not the first pleasure that evening. The Argentine Mendoza malbec and Chilean sauvignon blanc — both available on a select but well-rounded by-the-glass menu — gave us a chance to pause, sample the complimentary eggplant caponata with crusty bread, and take in the new digs here at the former Ristorante d'Angeli.
Age-worn wood and bricks that have lived previous interesting lives achieve the cozy, Italian farmhouse feel new owners Chef Vincenzo Betulia and partners were going for. Gaslights give glow to the outdoor sidewalk seating.
"We wanted to do something really different," said Betulia. "What a real Italian osteria looks like, feels like, and eats like. Simple, honest food. A true osteria in Italy is family-driven, small, and uses local products. The whole purpose was to have a small, rustic, bustling restaurant just like you'd see in Italy — vivacious, convivial, a little noisy. And we've achieved that in a very short time."
If you go
Where: 466 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and dinner, 5 p.m. to close, daily
Prices: Lunch starters and pizza $5-$14, entrees $13-$19; dinner starters $5-$16,
Information: 239-213-2073 or www.tulianaples.com
Like the décor, the menu, too, reflects the rustic side of Italian cuisine. The antipasti selections include Brussels sprouts ($8) caramelized with house-made fennel sausage and a warm, creamy herbed ricotta ($6) studded with walnuts and served with bruschetta. The Sicilian meatballs ($12) pack the added serendipity of pine nuts, currants, and chili flakes. The sauce demanded sopping up with the slices of artisanal bread provided with crockery cruets of fine Italian olive oil.
The salumi ($16) cured meat, the menu promises, is also made in-house and served with grana padano cheese, plus there's Tuscan chicken liver with fried egg and house pancetta ($7), whole braised artichoke with asiago fonduta ($14), and steamed Pine Island clams with tomato and leeks ($15) to start off.
What Chef Betulia doesn't import from Italy, he sources — like the clams — from local seafood and produce providers. The field greens in the Mista salad ($8), for instance come from a Buckingham farm. Slivers of raw slender asparagus, radishes, salted ricotta, lemon oil, and Dijon finish the dish with elegant simplicity.
The kitchen also produces its own pasta. The garganelli ($17) interlude — artisanal penne tossed with a wonderful braised lamb Bolognese-type sauce and sheep cheese. Braised duck ragu entwines with stracci noodles ($17); clams and pancetta with linguine ($18). "All the seafood in the house" goes into the creste di gallo ($19).
Piatti principali selections include rotisserie half chicken with toasted farro ($20), wood-grilled rack of lamb with fire roasted peperonata ($33) and hanger steak with house-cut fries ($25). The steak, although nicely seared and flavored with scallion butter, was probably our least favorite.
However the dolci came to a solid rescue again with surprises tucked into something already ingenious. The pineapple slice was roasted, the pecans toasted, the caramel salted, the vinegar Champagne based. But the vanilla ice cream! Just when you thought you'd tasted every divine nuance of this complex dessert, the crunch of cracked peppercorn sent an entirely new sensation down the pike.
Instead of dessert, or in addition to, you may want to opt for one of Tulia's original cocktails, such as the Honeybee ($12): handcrafted honeycomb vodka, Cointreau, lemon juice, and lavender.
Much of what you find on the dinner menu is available at lunch time. We didn't get a chance to try the wood-fired pizzas (served lunch and dinner), but had we, it would've been The Pig in the Olive Grove ($12), by sheer delight at its name alone. The roll call of ingredients — speck ham, olivada, mozzarella, and fresh oregano — decide the issue.