Best of February: The top things we ate in SWFL

Will Watts

February is the month of love and we loved every minute of dining in Paradise. From a sunset dinner on the water at Sale e Pepe, to beyond sports bar staples at the Marco Island Brewery, a giant sandwich and gourmet balls from Frankie’s Deli to a Sunday afternoon of celebration in Goodland, at the Crabby Lady.

Here is the best of February.

Sale e Pepe, Marco Island

An early dinner reservation at Sale e Pepe, inside the Marco Beach Ocean Resort, ensured we would be seated in plenty of time for a spectacular Marco Island sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. And Mother Nature didn’t disappoint. It was a bit nippy for outside dining, but we checked the predicted temps and dressed appropriately; and there was a portable heater near to our table.

More:‘Watts for Dinner’: Luxurious sunset dining at Sale e Pepe

The sunset wasn’t the only spectacular event on the horizon. Our dinner would prove to be one of those meals you’ll remember for the rest of your life. This night would also be imbued with a couple of Sardinian cosmopolitans which were infused with rosemary syrup, a limoncello reduction and served with blueberries and an orange twist (made famous by the HBO series “Sex and the City”).

My dining companion picked the Autunnale to begin his meal; a salad featuring fall greens, pear, walnuts, crispy smoked prosciutto, citronette dressing (a citrus vinaigrette), and shaved ricotta salata (an Italian cheese made from the whey part of sheep milk). A beauty to behold, the greens were like butter and the cheese? An even richer butter. The sweet and crunchy walnuts with the salty bits of prosciutto brought the balance to this joyous selection.

For his entrée, he selected the 12 oz. black Angus ribeye and a side of broccolini featuring Calabrian chili, garlic and nduja, a spicy pork. The hearty ribeye was cooked to near perfection (and that’s about all one can expect). The broccolini had a nice crunch and the chili sauce made this side a spicy masterpiece.

More:‘Watts for Dinner’: Goodland’s Lady serves up savory seafood

I started off with the crudi, which features the chef ’s selection of raw seafood (tonight was flounder), and seasonal Mediterranean condiments; which on this night included threads of saffron.

I continued my ocean-voyage with the flounder “Meunière,” Georges Bank flounder with a sprinkling of green beans, pearl onions, almonds, lime and a brown butter balsamic emulsion. The stronger flavors resided in the crust-like top of the filet, while the inside featured mouth-watering tenderness and a nice delicate flavor, allowing you to create a different experience with the way you took each bite.

For dessert, I picked the panna cotta, featuring little bits of dark green pistachio cake, an Acacia honey cream with a gel texture and surrounded by fresh diced strawberries and with a small serving of strawberry sorbet. Just like my flounder, the presentation allowed me to experiment with each amazing bite.

My dining companion picked the “Lingotto al Cioccolato,” featuring Valrhona grand cru dark chocolate ganache, a hazelnut crust, sea salt caramel and a gold leaf. Think of it as an elegant Milky Way bar for the wealthy. I jest. The presentation of this dessert was just as incredible as the rich flavor.

“The Fifth Avenue” from Frankie's Authentic Italian Deli, South Naples.

Frankie's Authentic Italian Deli, South Naples

I ordered the “The Fifth Avenue” featuring roast beef, turkey, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and horseradish sauce. I held on the horsey sauce and added mayo and mustard to the mix.

The meat and cheese are Boar’s Head; my favorite supplier of deli ingredients (and bacon). The bread is soft and chewy, just like you’d expect. The circumference of the sandwich is so big, I can’t get half of it in my mouth at a time. A nice problem to have as it isn’t about having a small mouth; it’s about having a big sandwich. There’s a great balance of ingredients. My only regret? I wish I had specified yellow mustard instead of Dijon.

My dining companion picked the Frankie’s chicken cutlet from the cold subs menu, even though technically, the chicken is served hot; the whole sub is not. The sandwich features breaded chicken cutlets, like you’d find in chicken parmesan, minus the red sauce, add a balsamic glaze and fresh mozzarella, arugula and roasted peppers. Fresh, tempting and delicious, this dish looks like an amazing Italian salad on a sub roll.

More:‘Watts for Dinner’: Frankie’s offers traditional menu and so much more

We also order a couple of arancini. Arancini are stuffed rice balls which are coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried. Although they come with an assortment of ingredients inside, these ones featured rice, chopped beef and mozzarella. Simply amazing. I’ve been to some of the best Italian restaurants in Southwest Florida, without finding a dish this good.

The grouper and fries basket from Marco Island Brewery.

Marco Island Brewery

While the appetizers list was tempting, we went off script and ordered a steak quesadilla from the dinner menu to share. As quesadillas go, this one was hearty, plenty of meat and cheese. This dish is served with prepackaged sour cream, a nice pico de gallo and a side of rice.

More:‘Watts for Dinner’: Brewery more than the name implies

For my entrée, I selected the firecracker shrimp flatbread, featuring mozzarella and pepper jack cheese, caramelized onions, a spring mix and the namesake shrimp. I expected the shrimp to be spicier and less sweet; but at any rate, the shrimp were plentiful and delicious.

My dining companion ordered the grouper and fries basket, which oddly enough, is not an actual basket. It features hand breaded grouper, thick French fries, cole slaw, lemon and tartar sauce. The cole slaw won rave reviews, grouper tenders were thick, and the breading served as a nice compliment.

ZaZa’s, Marco Island

Things got off to an appetizing start with not one, not two, not three but four appetizers! First there was the complimentary chips and salsa. Then there was the Mexican street corn, in not one, but two of the dishes we ordered. Bravo! Then, there was the queso blanco fundido to complement the chips.

The salsa had a nice smoky texture and is not too hot for those concerned. The queso blanco fundido has bits of chorizo, a spicy Mexican sausage, floating around and is the perfect addition to the chips.

I ordered the elotes or Mexican street corn. Basically, you take corn on the cob, add mayor, sour cream or sweet cream, cotija cheese and Tajin, a seasoning mix of chile powder, salt, and dehydrated lime for a mouth-puckering kick.

My partner in dine picked the esquites instead. It’s very similar, except the corn is off the cob and the ZaZa menu says they use sour cream instead of mayo and there’s no cheese.

More:‘Watts for Dinner’: Giant burrito, elotes worth a visit to ZaZa

We also sampled tacos. Two slow-cooked pork carnitas tacos and two spicy al pastor tacos on corn tortillas. The carnitas tacos were better, as it appears the al pastor were not roasted on a vertical split but were replicated to a near proximity.

There was also chile relleno burrito. In this dish, strips of the chile are mixed with cheese, rice and beans inside of a giant burrito. While not highly representative of the chile relleno dish, it was a delicious and generous alternative to a meat-filled burrito.

This newspaper pays for all meals related to dining reviews. We do not solicit or accept free food.

If you go

Sale e Pepe

  • 480 S. Collier Blvd., Marco Island
  • 239- 393-1600
  • sale-e-pepe.com

Frankie's Authentic Italian Deli

  • 6654 Collier Blvd., Suite 106, Naples
  • 239-304-9033
  • frankies-authentic-italian-deli.business.site/

Marco Island Brewery

  • 1089 N. Collier Blvd., Marco Island
  • marcoislandbrewery.com
  • 239-970-0461


  • 1095 Bald Eagle Drive, Marco Island
  • 239-970-5205
  • eatatzaza.com