For too long, great Italian restaurants were scarce in Sarasota. In a city that has ranked fifth in eating out, closely behind New York and D.C., it was shameful. That has changed. A quick drive around town and you can select from a plethora of good Italian restaurants that would be quite at home in more metropolitan locales.
Esca occupies a space on Main Street that started out as a pasta joint, Gastronomia, and has morphed through several iterations. Esca is also the name of a trendy new Italian eatery in New York, the creation of impresarios Mario Batali, Joseph Bastianich and David Pasternack. Our Esca bears no relation; it's presided over by Luigi Doleatto, most recently of Uva Rara.
The interior at Esca, however, does look somewhat like the Esca in New York, which isn't a bad thing. It's open, but provides private nooks and offers an organic feel with elements of rock, slate and wood. The enterprise occupies two stories-the top half a bar and the lower half the restaurant. We entered through the second-story bar and captured a glimpse of the sun setting over Main Street through a large window. Neil Young was the Muzak, and I immediately relaxed and felt, well, hip.
That feeling remained. There's something comforting about an open kitchen, and Luigi leads this one with a casual air. No one seemed uptight, and there weren't a lot of flames shooting toward the second story; mostly a steady stream of waitstaff picking up dishes and professionally conversing.
The food follows suit. Appetizers are good enough to make a meal. I loved the trio of zucchini turbans ($7). The strips of zucchini are crisp, but not raw-no weak-wristed strips of squash here. Each surrounds various fillings-a dollop of veal pâté in one, a bit of salty and rich prosciutto in another, earthy tapenade in the third-and they all nest on a puddle of a sweet, sticky nirvana of reduced balsamic vinegar. Fabulous, but not so carefully crafted as to be unapproachable.
The same attitude surrounds the tuna tartare appetizer ($10). Not quite Italian, but in the essence of the cuisine, the tuna is composed of fresh, fresh ingredients of raw ahi tuna, lightly dressed with a fruity sweet olive oil and fresh lemon juice and festooned with strips of lightly fried leeks.
A lobster salad comes stuffed inside an artichoke ($12), but the crisp, clean salad calls for more acid to give the dish a voice. Skip this one in favor of the mélange of roasted red pepper, grilled eggplant and arugula ($8). Of course, the aged Parmesan cheese adds a distinctive element to the balsamic reduction.
But the veal and porcini ravioli in a rich, earthy demiglace ($18) was my favorite. The little pockets of pasta balance the sweet and savory combination of veal and porcini. A demiglace of veal stock, reduced to pure essence of that meat, completes the plate; then the entire dish is treated to an occasional toasted walnut, which adds another element of rich, nutty character. Extraordinary.
There are a half-dozen seafood selections, including the elusive wild salmon. Some of these speak to an Italian ancestry-a Dover sole gratin with prosciutto. Others are more eclectic-sea scallops St. Jacques in a cream sauce, for example.
Meats are more focused, and I loved the salty character of an impressively tender chicken breast teamed with proscuitto and stuffed with veal pâté. Apparently you can't go wrong with anything incorporating veal or proscuitto at Esca.
Dessert is an afterthought, with the flourless chocolate and almond tart the substantial offering. It's an obscenely rich slab of decadence, but we managed to nibble our way through. A well-made cappuccino helped.
The wine list is a pleasant surprise. About a dozen different and interesting wines are offered by the glass and taste great with the food. Whoever put that together gets my salute.
1888 Main St., Sarasota
Reservations recommended on weekends
11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday (closed Sunday)
THE REAL THING Blink and you could miss Café Bologna. It's in an nondescript strip off Tamiami Trail, just south of Phillippi Creek Park. There's nothing to catch the eye; I owe my discovery to Marcella Hazan, doyenne of Italian cooking, cookbook author and Longboat Key resident (see "The Essence of Italian" in our April Food & Wine annual). When she invited me to lunch, the clincher was Hazan, with her uniquely gravelly voice, confiding that she almost cried when she first ate at this restaurant, so reminiscent was the food of her native Bologna. We made arrangements to meet, with the caveat that I must understand that this café is a café in the truest Italian sense.
At first glace, the café looks to be more a deli, with a huge cold case dominating one wall. Marcella explained that in Italy, especially in Bologna, the exquisite-looking meats and cheeses would be made into sandwiches or platters of antipasto for on-premise consumption, or taken home. Bufala mozzarella, the fresh version, floats in large vats. Pristinely white, the fist-sized balls of cheese are waiting to be sliced and partnered with tomato and basil for a salad caprese ($9.90). The bufala is also rolled with slices of speck, a smoked bacon, and rucola, or arugula, and heated. This is called involtini ($15.90). Don't miss it.
We put down roots at the table by the front window, and owners Barbara and Claudio Ronchi appeared, unleashing a stream of Italian at Hazan. Soon the most beautiful platter of antipasto ($14.90) materialized. It included several kinds of cured meats-prosciuttos, hams, speck and an equal complement of cheeses. I was thrilled to see perfect-looking Parmigiano-reggiano, aged golden and hard, yet crumbly at the same time. Fontina, both fresh and aged, and pecorino, a sharp sheep's milk cheese, and a wonderfully biting Gorgonzola completed the selection. Small piles of bright green olives dotted the landscape.
Hazan competed for my attention with those exquisite olives and won, when she explained that the restaurant's tigella was what had prompted her tears. Tigella is an ancient bread that Barbara bakes at Café Bologna. It's disk shaped, hard on the surface and yeasty soft inside. Tigella can be served solo or as the repository of many wonderful ingredients as a sandwich.
Tigella is indigenous to Bologna, Hazan explained, and because regions in Italy have such distinct cuisines, it's unknown even a few miles away. Hazan ran a cooking school in Bologna for 12 years and always took students on field trips to the countryside to see the sources of their ingredients. The foodstuffs at Café Bologna clearly passed muster with her, and if Hazan's approval weren't convincing enough, the flow of customers-most of them speaking Italian and looking urbanely nonchalant in that Italian sort of way-made me a believer. She painstakingly explained how Barbara makes the bufala-from curds-but dismissed the bufala on the plate as "too young. It must sit for a time."
Salads appeared, bowls of bright green with the sweetness characteristic of very fresh lettuces. Dressed with olive oil and vinegar, they were the perfect finale for the antipasto. Then the lasagna appeared. This was Bolognese lasagna ($14.90), explained Hazan, and it's only pasta and sauce Bolognese, a meat sauce void of tomato. Indeed, the lasagna is a compact stack of meat and pasta-I counted seven layers of pasta. No tomato, no mozzarella, no ricotta. All Bologna.
The lasagna is pretty much the only hot dish on the menu, both for lunch and dinner. This is the café style, Hazan was explaining, when we were interrupted by some customers who recognized the cookbook author and requested an impromptu photo shoot featuring Claudio and Barbara's food with Hazan. I was the food stylist and photographer, too.
This called for a round of espresso, the best I've experienced this side of the Adriatic. Claudio serves it with a small glass of mineral water-so authentically Italian, I was almost crying.
Before you go, remember there's a limited menu of this wonderful food. But with Claudio and Barbara's assistance, a feast will magically appear. Or take the food home. The first time I ordered two portions of lasagna and a half-pound of the Parmigiano-reggiano, Claudio described the process of adding the cheese to the lasagna "on top, after the lasagna is warmed thoroughly, not before." I listened so intently he rewarded me with one of his heavenly thimbles of espresso, which I consumed standing at the bar, displaying my best Italian nonchalance.
5770 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
11 a.m.-'10 p.m., Monday-Saturday
Beer and wine
Q: At The Colony, I recently saw wild salmon on the menu. I know it's tastier, but is it really healthier than farm-raised salmon?
According to Adena Osika, director of food and nutrition hospitality services at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, salmon has become the fatty fish of choice, but in farm-raised salmon, that fat is a two-edged sword.
"Salmon fat contains the good-for-you fish oil [omega-3s] and also has the tendency to store toxins [or PCBs]," explains Osika. PCBs are mixtures of more than 200 individual chlorinated compounds that build up in the environment and can have harmful effects. Fish absorb PCBs from contaminated sediment and, especially in the case of farm-raised salmon, from their food. "There are differences of opinion on the severity, but there is enough there to be cause for concern. I would recommend limiting your intake of farm-raised salmon to eight ounces a month," says Osika. Ouch!
Bottom line: Salmon does offer benefits in heart health, so don't consider giving it up. Just try to eat wild salmon. You can often find it in local grocery stores, and many restaurants include it on their menus.
WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING?
Peter Garza, manager of the Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, grew up in Mexico City, went to Columbia University and in the intervening 25 years has lived around the globe.
"I love [Sarasota's] international flair," he says. "It's a small city with the complement of the arts and a wonderful diversity of people."
When it comes to wine, "what interests me is to find different wines from around the world," he says, especially rosés. "Having lived in Spain, where the large meal is in the middle of the day, I find rosés are just right at midday-not too acidic and much lighter than a red," he says. Among his favorites: rosé from the Rhône region of France, specifically from the producer Guigal.
"I also love the wines from the Priorat [a region in northern Spain]," says Garza. "These wines are becoming very popular and very expensive. It's a rocky area, and that stresses the vines, and consequently each grape is like a precious gem. The wines primarily come from the Grenache grape, and that makes wines that are very earthy-Etim from Mas Igneus is my current favorite."
He also enjoys Tuscan wines, lately favoring Etrusco from Cennatoio del L'uva. He drinks whites with "spicy dishes, like Indian food that has a complexity of flavors," and especially prefers viognier.
What I'm drinking this month: Stanley Lambert Thoroughbred cabernet sauvignon 2001 Barossa Valley, around $22. This is a start-up winery that I predict will win a huge following. Great wines at fabulous prices, and a local angle, too. Susan Lambert-Kopstad has been successful on the Gulf coast with her Sea Breeze Coffee & Tea Company, so it was a natural extension into distributing her family's Stanley-Lambert wines, which are made in Australia. The Thoroughbred cabernet is luscious, with an underlying hint of chocolate. Very soft tannins make it extremely drinkable.
I first experienced it paired with a goat cheese tart on a confit of tomato made by freelance chef Chris Covelli. The berry quality and soft tannins brought out the sweetness in the tomato and that wonderful earthy quality in the goat cheese. The rest of the wines in the line-a sprightly chardonnay, sensuous semillon and the "Black Sheep" blend of shiraz, malbec and merlot are keepers, too. For more information, call (941) 758-1249 or go online to www.seabreezewines.com.