Artful Dining

By staff November 1, 2006

The completion of the visitor's pavilion at the Ringling Museum of Art has an added benefit few of us were expecting: Treviso, which might just be the best restaurant in town. This place is so terrific that by the time the Venetian-style shrimp and polenta arrived, I started pinching myself.

Treviso is a nod to the Italian province where the Asolo Theater originated, the food is an amalgam of Italian regional cooking. Nothing at the unassuming entrance in the far corner of the pavilion prepares you for the clean lines and contemporary design in the restaurant. The west wall spills sunlight into the room, emphasizing the rich umber color dominating the kitchen wall. The ceiling soars, but the space is tempered by views of the museum grounds and the new TibbalsLearningCenter. It’s a wonderful stage for the innovative food.

The bruschetta is an excellent place to begin. The white plate arrives at table looking more like a still life than an appetizer. Three piles of beautiful toppings to smear on the rustic bread are crowned with a large, aromatic sprig of thyme, announcing the savory character of the dish. Tuscan bean tapenade takes the unassuming cannellini bean to a brave new territory, where oregano and pepper add sly spiciness. An eggplant relish is remarkable, with usually lackluster vegetable diced into firm, tasty little cubes.

Peasant bread salad is another star performer. We loved its mix of tastes and textures: roasted and fresh vegetables, salty sun-dried tomato and cured olives and rich smoked mozzarella cheese and salami. A generous portion of bread completes the dish, all tossed with the lightest of vinaigrettes.

Chicken salad is more traditional luncheon fare, here transformed into a Mediterranean feast with a dollop of spicy artichoke relish and accompanied by a well prepped rotini with sun-dried tomato. The chicken is sprinkled with toasted pecans and lies next to slices of foccacia.

While the number of entrées is relatively small—a trio of pastas and a grilled tuna dish—the execution is huge. Fabulous-looking plates march out of the kitchen, satisfying the senses. The polenta wedges served with our Venetian-style shrimp were a flavorful juxtaposition to the elegant sauce, rich yet light with a hint of lemon. The grilled shrimp weighed in somewhere in the middle.

Desserts don’t disappoint. Of course, there is the requisite tiramisu, light and creamy.  A friend describes the amaretto cheesecake as “amore” on a fork. We pounced on the tartufo, that ice cream and chocolate concoction with its center of cloyingly sweet cherries. Molto bene.

And we vowed to come back some afternoon to enjoy the terribly chic little wine bar.

Fine dining establishments in museums are the rage right now, and Sarasota’s snazzy new Treviso puts us right on the cutting edge. My only disappointment is that it’s not open for dinner!


Visitor’s Pavilion, The Ringling Museum of Art, Monday-Sunday, 11 a.m.–4 p.m., Designated parking across the street, Handicapped accessible, AMEX, VISA, MC, Reservations taken at (941) 360-7390


Wine bars have been in and out of favor for the past two decades. In the early years, they were mostly darkly lit, quiet spots where wine geeks gathered to debate the merits of malolactic fermentation or French vs. American oak. Thank Bacchus that’s all behind us. Today’s version of a wine bar is livelier and more mainstream, featuring full-service kitchens and often retail bottle operations, too.

The first thing we observed about the wine bar at The Grape, downtown at Five Points, was that it was filled with upscale-looking women. Hmmmm. Owner Richard Pizzuto theorizes that a wine bar is the ultimate for the new girls’ night out: “There is only wine, so you don’t get a lot of guys doing beers or shots,” he opined. “Women feel safe that if they’re going to meet guys here, they’ll be classy guys.”

Social studies aside, we loved The Grape for lots of other reasons. First of all, the room sports stylish booths with huge windows opening to the outdoor tables and Main Street. The vibe is hopping, especially on the weekends, with live music and lively conversation in the dining room. 

The second reason is The Grape’s innovative way of defining wine. Wines are classified between one and 10, in order of the style of the wine. The sorting begins with light whites and extends through the full range of whites, reds and sparkling wines. Those categories are referenced in the menu. So, for example, if you want to order the roasted garlic hummus, the menu suggests choosing a “2” through a “6.” The system also helps in ordering “flights”—tasting portions of a variety of one type of wine.

Since there are 120 wines to be tasted, it’s all about discovery. The menu reflects that mission. Most of the munchies are in the $5-7 range and perfect for sharing. First stop is an array of spreadable appetizers. The garlic hummus came with an Italian tomato salsa that made the dish really take off. Beyond spreads are adorable little “pita pisas,” and the cambozla, prosciutto and fig concoction was delectable—rich and creamy and sweet with figs, yet chewy from pita bread.

The mini crab cakes are just that: tiny dollops of delicious crab cakes circling a spot of spicy aioli on a plate. We liked the Mediterranean quesadillas (priced around $8), especially the Tuscan, with chevre oozing out between the tomatoes, spinach and basil.

Entrées are more complicated finger food—composed salads, sophisticated sandwiches and similar fare. The tenderloin salad is protein plus, with a healthy increment of blue cheese on a robust mix of salad greens. It’s a low-carb lover’s fantasy. That’s true, too, for the cheese selections. With a half-dozen to choose from, the cheese course becomes a self-directed mix and match. We paired St. Andre, a triple-cream French favorite, with pecorino, an aged Tuscan cheese and an English cheddar. Heaven.

Such heaven that dessert seemed out of the question. For those so inclined, various chocolates, gelato and other sweets beckon. 

The Grape is part of a chain that began in Atlanta. “It’s all about demystifying wine,” says Pizzuto, who hopes to open a second franchise in this area. You’ll get no sour grapes from me about that.


Plaza at Five Points,

1413 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 364-WINE (9463), Parking on the street, Handicapped accessible, Credit cards, Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.–midnight, Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sunday, noon-9 p.m.


Downtown wine bar and restaurant Cru was opened in 2004 by John Anderson, who also owns Pastry Arts, a shop further east on Main Street. The menu won lots of fanfare from the start; now Chris Covelli,  who jets between a cooking school in

Italy and another restaurant on Cape Cod, has come aboard, and the food has never been better.

Covelli’s gazpacho is unlike the customary chunky tomato-and-cucumber chilled soup. This version looks like the richest, creamiest tomato soup, and tastes like a cool, cool kiss. A spinach salad features Stilton blue cheese and seems to be only briefly touched by the vinaigrette with its hint of bacon. We loved the sweet and salty combination of the fresh greens and cheese, and a candied walnut on the side was perfect.

The stand-out entrée is pan-seared scallops, with a tangy sweetness enhanced by an unexpected hint of cumin. The bed of leeks on which the scallops rest makes for a delicious green. Wedges of fried polenta in which manchego cheese is blended literally melt in the mouth.

The pièce de résistance and the best reason to revisit Cru is the gorgeous ahi tuna, rolled in black and white sesame seeds and  topped with a pool of wasabi foam. The plate and the tastes are kicked up another notch with an artistic swirl of caramelized soy for dipping the tuna.

The wine list is varied, with bottles priced to complement the $7 to mid-$20s food prices. I wish even more wines were offered by the glass, and, hopefully, this will happen. Until then, order by the bottle (and take what you don’t finish home).


1377 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 951-6272, Closed Sunday and Monday for dinner, Open Sunday for brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4-10 p.m., Credit cards, Reservations, Complimentary valet or on the street, Handicap accessible


Chef Cliff Whatmore, owner of Southgate Gourmet, was recently in

Oregon for the American Cheese Society’s annual convention and Festival of Cheeses. We asked him which wines caught his fancy during his visit to Oregon.

“Definitely some of the pinot noirs coming out of the WillametteValley,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in a new appellation called Dundee Hills. You’ll see lots of wines coming with that on the label.” Whatmore has a favorite from that appellation, a winery called Archery Summit. “It does some great, small-plot wines. One is all biodynamic, which is a step beyond organic—like planting during the phases of the moon and performing different rituals. It’s a paganistic kind of approach, but a real neat thing.” Southgate Gourmet doesn’t carry Archery Summit yet, though Whatmore is on a mission to get some. “But Derek has some at his restaurant on Central,” he says. 

Whatmore does carry wines from one of Oregon’s original wine operations, Sokol Blosser. “Their Dundee Hills pinot noirs are awesome. I love their blends, too,” he enthuses.

A stop at the Carlton Wine Studio was also on his agenda. “I love the Eric Hamacher wines. Their ‘H’ pinot noir is wonderful, one of my favorites. I love pinot noirs, and especially for Thanksgiving.” 

He predicts more great wines will be coming out of south Oregon by the Rogue River and the HoodRiver, which has a high, dry climate like WashingtonState. “Nothing beats the WillametteValley, though,” he declares. “ It’s such a great place for agriculture—wonderful volcanic and organic soils make for terrific wines, and the produce is outstanding, too.”

Pinot noir will find its way to our Thanksgiving table, too. While it’s a bit young, Domaine Drouhin 2003 pinot noir is a jammy, fruity pinot that should soften up but will take on the myriad of flavors found around the turkey. I’m going to pair that with some Lazy River 2003 pinot noir, also from the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio. This pinot is Burgundian in style, showing restraint and elegance.  To begin the festivities, there’s nothing quite as celebratory as a bit of bubbly. Domaine Merriweather makes “Captain Clark,” which should add both a historic and delicious start to our all-American meal.


With the holiday and social season looming, it seems healthful eating is a lost cause. Any fresh advice on weathering the next few months?

Sarasota now has a wonderful resource for creating healthful, delicious meals that you assemble and then stick in the freezer for seasonally stressed evenings when you might otherwise succumb to the urge to order a pizza. It’s called Thyme for Dinner. 

If you have two hours, you can go into their kitchen and create and assemble either eight or 12 menus. This can be fun, especially since you’re allowed to bring an adult beverage. Better yet, there’s a “grab and go” feature where the helpful staff will assemble your menus (for a surcharge, of course). Kitchen sessions run $195 for 12 entrées, while the grab and go is $230 for 12. The food is delicious and ranges from salmon to pork tenderloin to meatball sandwiches. 

Thyme for Dinner has two locations in

Bradenton and three in Sarasota, on Bee Ridge, State Street and in Osprey. 


Carving through the turkey-day

Sometime on a lazy, late July afternoon or during a mid-August barbecue, it happens: my annual Thanksgiving menu neurosis kicks in. Since I’m a professional chef and entertainment specialist, one might think I have this holiday down to a science, but I don’t. Instead, it’s an ever-changing experiment that gets bigger and noisier every year. What started as a few friends gathered at our dining room table has grown to 25 guests seated at long tables by the pool, sipping cranberry martinis and waiting for the onslaught.

Sure, some items remain the same from year to year, like my beloved green bean casserole, made with canned cream of mushroom soup and canned onion rings (I doubt that they contain any real onions) and the two fresh Amish turkeys. But will two 24-pounders and a 12-pound bone-in breast be enough? And should they be accompanied by a hoisin-glazed pork roast or a grilled porcini-dusted sirloin roast? (In our house, red meat is always a side-dish staple when it is not starring as the entrée.)  More birds means more stuffing, I note in my spinning head. Every year, my neighbor Bobbie brings a wonderful sausage stuffing. But let’s face it, stuffing is a very personal relationship. My mother made it her way, and that is the way I want it. My son prefers a cornbread stuffing. And our vegetarian friends will get a special no-meat stuffing prepared outside of the bird.

The salad course is always baby greens with Maytag bleu cheese and dried cranberries. But for the pasta course, I’m torn between a classic Bolognaise and a pumpkin-sage brown-butter ravioli. And my husband, an Irishman from Massachusetts, must have mashed potatoes at every meal—and I mean every meal. So in addition to the Catskill noodle pudding with raisins and cinnamon from my Jewish childhood, we have his red mashed potatoes with pounds of Irish butter and sour cream. Of course, we need gravy for those spuds, too! That means traditional turkey gravy, sans the giblets (they belong to our greyhound, Chester). It also means non-meat gravy for those vegetarians—maybe we should give them a grilled veggie frittata, too. And you need some au jus for the sirloin roast or pork roast, don’t you? But if it’s a pork roast, perhaps the rich stock gravy is more appropriate. Did I mention the two different types of cranberry sauce?

And, more neuroses—vegetables and fruits! Hmm, let’s do a gingered-sweet potato soufflé with candied pecans and mini marshmallows. And we must have grilled asparagus with balsamic reduction, because that’s the only vegetable that our friend Gary eats. Last year, my son made roasted Bartlett pears with fresh tarragon and gorgonzola cheese. While exquisite, they were a bit too rich for this overloaded menu; he’ll have to create a different Gallagher tradition this year. Will it be the creamed onions au gratin or the leek and mushroom tart?

What about serving plates? Our Thanksgiving is a tableware- and utensil-challenged event. At some point in the meal, we invite our guests to join in a game of tag-team basketball while we rewash plates and silverware and begin to assemble the barrage of side dishes to come (many served in borrowed crockery). And extra dishes aren’t the only thing we need—for years, our friend Tony has arrived with his dining room table attached to the top of his Jeep.

We haven’t even discussed dessert. But let’s not go there yet, shall we? I think I need to take two aspirin and call a therapist in the morning.


Fresh pumpkin gets glamorous in chef Judi Gallagher’s pumpkin cream cheese Napoleon.

Bright-orange fresh pumpkins are as appealing this time of year in tropical Southwest Florida as they are on the front-door step of a New England home. November means this beautiful giant squash (a cousin to watermelon) is ripe for cooking seasonal favorites. Colonists roasted pumpkins, not only for desserts and toasted seeds, but also as a main ingredient in soups and beer. (Check out Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale for a delicious seasonal brew.) Historians say the first pumpkin pie was served at the second Thanksgiving; it remains the No. 1 dessert throughout the holiday season today. Smaller pumpkins are best for cooking, yielding sweeter and more tender flesh than the great big pumpkins.

To cook a pumpkin: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Break off the stem and cut pumpkin in half. Scoop out the seeds and membrane. Bake both halves upside down in a baking pan with about ½ inch of water for at least 30 minutes, depending on the size, until a fork can easily pierce the flesh. After allowing the halves to cool enough to handle, scoop out the pumpkin and place it in either a mixing bowl or food processor and purée. The cooked pumpkin may be substituted in any recipe calling for canned pumpkin. To freeze, put two-cup portions in freezer containers to use later. Remember to dry and toast the seeds, sprinkling them with sea salt; they make a wonderful garnish for pumpkin ravioli or just great snacking.

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Napoleon with Caramelized Ginger

Serves 4-5

This recipe is refreshing even if the temperature on Florida’s Turkey Day is in the 80s. Try the pumpkin filling on top of golden brown cheese blintzes for a decadent holiday brunch dessert

1 sheet puff pastry, thawed and cut into 9 pieceS


* 1- 10 ½ ounce jar pumpkin curd

8 ounces cream cheese

8 ounces whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ cup powdered sugar, plus extra for dusting

½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice, plus extra for garnish

¼ cup pumpkin pie filling

1 teaspoon sugar


* Crystallized ginger

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Chill beaters and medium-sized metal bowl in freezer. Place thawed puff pastry (30-40 minutes to thaw) on floured counter top. Cut into 9 3-inch squares. Place on non-greased cookie sheets and bake at 400 degrees until brown, approximately 12 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

Whip cream until almost peaked. Add vanilla extract and powdered sugar. Whip until peaks form. Set aside 2 ounces of whipped cream for garnish

Whip softened cream cheese and jar of pumpkin curd with pumpkin pie spice and pumpkin filling. Add 1 teaspoon of sugar. Lightly fold this filling into the whipped cream. Chill for 1 hour.

Carefully slice the puff pastry square in half horizontally. Top one layer with filling (about 3 tablespoons), and top with another half of puff pastry. Repeat, top with another half of puff pastry. Garnish with a teaspoon of whipped cream and sift powdered sugar and pumpkin pie seasoning over the top and plate. Garnish with smashed pieces of crystallized ginger. Let sit for 4-6 hours in the refrigerator, uncovered.

* Found in most gourmet stores, including Morton’s. Coconut Bay Trading Company out of Palmetto makes a wonderful cinnamon-ginger candy that’s perfect with this dessert.

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