Taste of Marco: Islanders flock to Esplanade for end of season party

Lance Shearer

Give people a “taste” and they’ll come back for more.

With that thought in mind, holding the Taste of Marco at the end of the tourist season makes a lot of sense. Sunday saw the 29th Annual Taste of Marco return to the courtyard at the Esplanade, with 14 different eateries providing samples of some of their menu items to hundreds of attendees.

Local restaurants, which have been jammed with seasonal residents for several months, are now staring into the long hot summer, and are happy to remind year-round Islanders they can now get a table. Of course, for some at the Taste, the afternoon was more about a party, enjoying the music of the Ben Allen Band and a beer from the truck parked out front, or a cocktail from CJ’s open-air bar. They could not only drink wine, they could win bottles in the silent auction, along with a 50/50 raffle, posing in the photo booth, or spinning the YMCA’s prize wheel.

The Greater Marco Family YMCA is the charitable organization that diners were supporting, helping underprivileged kids attend the Y’s camp and educational programs, said Y executive director Cindy Love.

“This is a fantastic community event. The funds we raise will let children who couldn’t affort it come to our youth development programs.” The Y expected to net approximately $20- to $25,000 from the day, she said. Membership Director Deborah Passero sat at a table, detailing all the services the YMCA offers.

Next door to her, a series of boxes for each restaurant gave Taste-goers the chance to vote for their favorite in the People’s Choice award, which went to Michelbob’s. ZaZa’s Mexican Grill won best overall, and the Island Country Club booth took prizes for both most creative presentation and best decorated booth.

Verdi’s won for “best bite,” and also took the Judges’ Choice award. Those judges were three nuns of the Salesian Sisters from St. John Neumann High School in Naples. Co-organizer Allyson Richards said she heard one year the judging was “rigged,” and wanted to bring in judges whose integrity was beyond question.

“The sisters can’t be rigged,” she said. The sisters had a tough job, sampling each dish from all 14 entrants, but they attacked the task seriously, taking notes on each item as Richards and Tiffany Homuth delivered tray after tray of foods to them in a screened off section of CJ’s. Restaurants participating included CJ’s on the Bay, Coldstone Creamery, Crabby Lady, Island Country Club, Italian Deli, JW Marriott, 10K Alley, Mango’s Dockside Bistro, Marco Island Yacht Club, Michelbob’s Ribs and Steak, Pincher’s Crab Shack, Subway on North Collier, Verdi’s Bistro, and ZaZa’s Kitchen.

People made the rounds of all of them, sampling like a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower, pausing for a beverage, sitting the shade or dancing in the sun as Ben Allen and crew played tunes such as “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”

Volunteers made the event possible, from the happy guys staffing the beer truck with its truck-mounted taps, to ticket takers, raffle salespeople including perennial volunteer Susie Walsh, horticulturalists giving out advice at the Calusa Garden Club booth, and Marco Island Academy Key Club members such as Grace Fields, 16, who took on the unglamorous task of emptying an endless series of trash containers.