I tried three times before I could book a table for dinner at Napulé, which tells you that this new restaurant on Sarasota’s South Tamiami Trail doesn’t need any validating words from me. Hordes have already discovered it and are making Napulé their favorite new spot for exceptional pizza, expertly crafted pasta dishes, homemade sausage creations and delicious and beautifully spiced seafood preparations.
It was worth the wait to secure a table. Ah, that tender octopus in a chile-tomato sauce served with crostini bread that you use to soak up the liquid after you demolish the sea creature ($12.95)! The steamed mixed seafood marinated in lemon dressing is as simple a dish as you can imagine, yet it will meet the expectations of a connoisseur at $13.95.
Napulé’s owners, Alessandro Di Ferdinando and Giuseppe Del Sole, were the proprietors of Made in Italy in Venice, a spot that became locally famous over five years for pizzas made by the yard, shaped in a rectangle and devoured by patrons. These pizzas used to dazzle customers in Venice, and now they are doing the same in Sarasota in a corner space at Napulé that is the focal point in a two-story restaurant where a lot is happening.
The pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning oven with a handsome gold-tile dome. It was imported from Napulé and customized for this restaurant. If you want to watch the process up close, there’s a marble bar with a few seats where you can talk to the pizza and calzone maker. Or you might sit upstairs at a table near the rail and look down on the pizza station, the open kitchen, the dessert cold case and the artistic display of cured meat and cheeses.
At the pizza hub, the dough masters can do 20 or so concoctions, and whole-wheat crust is available upon request. Pizzas range from about $11-$14, the most expensive featuring rapini and eggplant. (Because of an emphasis on vegetables across the menu, this restaurant is a viable vegetarian choice.) Specialty pizzas cost about $15 because they include expensive ingredients such as black truffle, speck or prosciutto. In Italy, it’s common to put potatoes on pizza. Not so much in America, but if you want to rise to a new taste challenge, choose the Violetta—purple potato, pancetta and both smoked and fresh mozzarella.
Meat lovers should not miss the mixed grill of lamb and sausage. But the lobster fettuccine, carbonara made with square house-made spaghetti, gnocchi with eggplant or classic saltimboccca can all transport you to Rome or Naples. Many of the recipes feature rapini, a slightly bitter, smaller cousin of broccoli. Rapini is in full glory at Napulé, where the kitchen knows how to bring out the best of this green vegetable that ought to be more popular in America than it is. Try the sautéed house sausage with toothsome rapini at $13.95 and be convinced. Or do the pork chop stuffed with rapini, smoked mozzarella, speck and served with truffle mashed potato for $29.95. Filling and rich. For a Roman riff on steak ($20.95), the tagliata de Manzo is grilled grass-fed New York strip with arugula, porcini, shaved Parmesan and truffle oil on top.
The menu is wide-ranging within the southern regions of Italy and the island of Ischia. The comfort-food lasagna is all that it should be at $15.95, and the fettuccine with porcini mushroom and truffle cream at $17.95 is a gourmet vegetarian item. Wines at Napulé pair with the regional foods; most are from Italy, California and Argentina. The price range is a sensible $26-$130, with one bottle tempting expense accounts at $280. Additionally, there’s a full bar.
Desserts are plentiful, ranging from a delicate, creamy lemon tart to traditional cannoli, tiramisu and specialty cakes that are rich and dark.
The decor is modern industrial-chic, which means a lot of hard surface and exposed ceiling mechanicals. The room is handsomely done, especially the tiles, light fixtures and the glittering pizza station. Above the open-kitchen area, a movie screen shows old Italian movies, mostly comedies and many starring the famous Toto, whose expressions and gestures communicate his dilemmas so well that it makes no difference that the sound is muted.
The movies add to the general choreographed chaos, with servers running up and down stairs juggling plates and wine bottles and people talking loudly at the bar or at the wooden tables downstairs, outside and upstairs where the best seats are.
Parking is awkward, so take advantage of the free valet parking. If you get there at the very end of lunch hour, you might be able to park yourself, but I wouldn’t count on it; this place has conquered the city. Count me in; I surrender to the Italian food at Napulé.