Image: Ivan Vighetto

Sarasota restaurants have been opening and closing this summer, echoing a national trend that began a few years back when the government limited expense account deductions. When diners had to fit into shrunken budgets—or pay their own way—shock waves ran through the industry and value became a new buzzword. Menus were revamped, staffs trimmed, prices lowered and new trends born. That's how we got bistro food: read simple, wonderful—and cheap.

Just as restaurants were shakily adjusting, along came the recession. 

Restaurants began folding at an alarming rate, even in supposedly recession-proof Sarasota. Some, like Ernie'sThe Oasis or La Scala, were only marginally successful in better times and couldn't survive the latest downturn. Others, like the now-shuttered Plaza and Bonjour, simply missed the market. Jack Graham, one of the owners of the Plaza, said a restaurant consultant told him their design would have worked better 10 years ago, when restaurants were destinations for special occasions and enough people had enough money to keep them in business. Today, diners are looking for a relaxed environment where they can escape from the routine of cooking without spending their child's inheritance. Prices were eventually reduced at the Plaza, but it was too little too late. And the owner of Bonjour had sold a successful restaurant in Harrogate, England and said he "always wanted to have a French restaurant in America." Whether Sarasota wanted a French restaurant didn't seem to be the determining factor. (French restaurants are struggling all over the country, as diners turn to trendier, spicier fare, such as Caribbean or Pacific Rim.)

The Brass Parrot also needed better aim to establish a market niche here. It's still open, but only for private functions; better interior design, food of a consistent quality and a less pretentious attitude when it first opened could have made it work for the general public, too. The official word on Ray Duranti's The Black Swan is that it's "on vacation." But Duranti, now a partner in The Royal Marine Ballroom, confided that he's trying to lease his Siesta Key location. Other recent closings include California Burgers, Cafe de Paris, the doughnut shop on the South Trail, The Fishery in Venice and Prawnbroker in Bradenton.

Now Opening

As quickly as restaurants close there are starry-eyed chefs and owners waiting in the wings for their turn to star. "My friends love my food..." is a common reason. Sadly, they seldom have the money, experience and skill to make it in a profession where failures far outnumber successes. Some will succeed only to decide they're blessed and can monkey around with a proven formula. The Flamingo Cafe is a perfect example. They shot themsleves in the foot when they traded a successful menu for tapas. But a few short months after Flamingo Cafe closed, Guadalajara is taking its shot at the same address.

Hope springs eternal, so despite all the closings, you don't need to worry about eating out. More than 200 restaurants remain on the local roster and if names are any indication, many of the newcomers serve ethnic fare.

There are two new Mexican restaurants, the Guadalajara on lower Main Street and the Tex-Mex, in Gulf gate. Tex-Mex is populated with a mixed bag of patrons in search of culinary titillation. The two-room restaurant is decorated with Southwest kitsch and serves adequate, though inconsistent, food. Pico de gallo that's perfect with cilantro and fresh tomatoes at one visit; dull and tasing canned on another. But the Monterey Jack-stuffed roasted jalapeno poppers are sensational. If only they'd skinned the peppers.

East of town, the recently opened Walkabout continues the craze for Australian-inspired steak houses, but Arrigato, a Japanese chain, confident that sushi and teppanyaki are here to stay, bought Tokyo Bay and closed just a few months later. 

Other newcomers (look for more details in upcoming issues): Cafe St. Louie in Bay Plaza; La Fontana, an Italian Restaurant on Main Street; Hunt Club, an English pub-style eatery in the Centre of Longboat Key. And First Watch has moved into the former site of the Sport Shop on Lower Main.

Viva Italia

There are three new Italian places and more are in the planning stages. Cafe Baci owners spent bundles on their south Tamiami Trail property. Bella Roma opened in a former Chinese restaurant in Siesta Key Village, and Cafe Beneva changed hands last summer and is now an Italian restaurant.

At Bella Romathe antipasto appetizer is fabulous feasting by itself. There's lots of Italian charcuterie, including a meaty and pistachio-studded mortadella. There's also a lusty white bean salad, ruby-ripe slabs of tomato with buffalo mozzarella and freshly baked, rosemary-scented bread to mop up the dregs. Pasta posillipo is a divine melange of clams, squid, shrimp and mussels in a zingy red pepper, wine and garlic sauce. Salads, included with the price of an entree, are a cut above the usual, with an abundant portion of Boston lettuce, ripe tomatoes and onions bathed in a lovely olive-oil-scented vinaigrette. Ossobuco, a sometimes special, is so good it can make you weak with wonder; and desserts, including tiramisu, a feather-light cake bursting with the traditional flavors of espresso and marsala, are worth every calorie. Prices are reasonable, about $7-$15 for an entree. 

Another newcomer, Cafe Baciis more upscale and expensive. Expect to spend around $9 and up for pasta, $13-$20 for other entrees. like Bella Roma, this restaurant is aimed at the middle-of-the-road Italian diner, the one who has moved up from fried mozzarella and spaghetti to frito misto and linguine.

Faux malachite-topped tables are well-spaced in the large, sprawling restaurant. White walls provide crisp background for the pastel pinks and greens and lush, live plants. The staff is friendly but unschooled and seems to rush around the room, often empty-handed. If you lust for the bitter Italian greens, then Cafe Baci can slake your hunger with its salad of arugula, radicchio and shaved Parmesan drizzled with fine olive oil. Veal is excellent albeit in short supply. I mined through a mound of arugula and tomato salad to find the four veal medallions buried under it. Pasta dishes are excellent and the bread, nothing short of perfection. Frito misto is crisply fried and delicious, and stracciatella is a classic combination of flavorful chicken stock with shreds of egg. Including figs and prosciutto on the menu is a tease; I've tried to order it at two visits but no figs were available.

Cafe Beneva's looks haven't changed with the new ownership. It remains starchy inside with a few prim plants, a deli-type counter and well-spaced tables. At the intersection of Webber and Beneva, it can be difficult to find because of the tiny signage, but the lovely menu is worth a couple of drive-bys. Luscious roasted duck with fresh plum sauce and a crisp yet moist grilled Cornish hen are unusual options on the mostly Italian menu. Fried calamari is perfection and pasta with seafood, including oversized sea scallops, is to dream about. Tortellini in a gently seasoned Bolognese sauce with a hint of fennel was another delight. Crostini would have been addicting if the bread were better. Skip the bread and have dessert. Don't miss the marvelous cookie-crusted apple tart in a buttery caramel sauce or fresh raspberries, if available.

A quick look at some of my favorites among longer-established Italian restaurants in town...Vito's is across the street from Cafe Beneva but worlds away in style. Vito is a charming host who personally buys and arranges the flowers, paints the walls when necessary, builds furniture, selects the menu and wines, and does everything, within reason, to assure the serenity and comfort of his loyal clients. Vito's food is fabulous, though pricey. Expect a dinner for two with several courses and a bottle of wine to hover around $50-$75—but I think it's worth every penny. Favorites include the cannelloni, flipping-fresh grouper with capers, any of the pasta or veal dishes. Vito's special holiday menus are indeed special but you must reserve early for his delightful Christmas Eve—if it doesn't put you in the holiday spirit, nothing will.

Bellini, located in town on Main Street, lures diners with a window display of the day's antipasti. Artists' scenes of Italy, a few plants and crisp linens create a relaxed atmosphere. Regular patrons tout the linguine with fresh clam sauce. Any of the fresh fish offerings is a wise choice, and the Caesar salad is one of the best in this area.

Bellini's sister restaurant on Siesta Key, La Terrazza, offers creditable fare, too. A mirrored wall makes this tiny restaurant appear larger than life and copper washtubs filled with plants create privacy in the main dining room. There's a sidewalk cafe for urban tourists who miss the hum of traffic, and a book room that's spacious and comfortable. Riccardo, the owner, is Continental and charming. Gnocchi light as a cloud and pillows of stuffed pasta with a walnut sauce, when available, are positively habit-forming. Add a bowl of garden-fresh minestrone and my appetite's sated.

I adore the pasta all chitarra in a luxurious cream sauce studded with prosciutto and peas at Tassotti's on the South Trail. Gnocchi is wonderful, too, and poached fresh mussels are served with freshly baked bread that's perfect for sopping up puddles of sauce. Meltingly tender grilled veal loin and great grappa are even more reasons to visit this spacious, comfortable restaurant.

Italian desserts have never been a passion of mine, but a "festa" without espresso is like a story without an end. You know these restaurants are Italian; the machines are working and the brew strong and spine-straightening. Viva Italia!

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