Cheap Eats

6 Mighty and Affordable Mediterranean Restaurants

From pizza to gyros, here are our favorite places to score inexpensive Mediterranean meals in Sarasota-Manatee.

By Cooper Levey-Baker May 31, 2016 Published in the June 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Creating the legendary pizza crust at Il Panificio.

Vertoris Pizza House

At this well-loved neighborhood pizza joint, the gem of the menu is its $13 stromboli. The restaurant bundles together several different ingredient packages inside long, eye-shaped parcels of astounding dough. Vegetarians can go wild with the eatery’s Northerner, which packs in fried strips of eggplant, sweet tomato sauce and gooey mozzarella. The eggplant somehow remains crispy even when buried by those other powerful flavors, and the barest essence of sweetness in the dough sets off the cheese’s cream and fat.

El Greco Mediterranean Café

El Greco’s $7.50 gyro has been alleviating the hunger pains of Main Street lunch-breakers for decades. For good reason. The pile of meat is big enough to satisfy Kong, with layers upon layers of long strips of fatty, caramelized lamb decked out with thin slices of white onion, tomato wedges and plenty of tangy tzatziki. The portions are so generous, in fact, you can’t even wrap all that food up with El Greco’s thick pita. Only a masochist would select the $2.50 extra meat option.

Sahara Cafe & Mediterranean Foods

Order any of Sahara’s $7.99 Mediterranean platters. You can’t go wrong. The kibbeh is fried to perfection, the kafta kabab is grilled to the ideal midpoint of black and juicy, the shawarma is fatty and succulent. On the side, Sahara serves a generous dollop of assertive hummus, parsley-forward tabbouleh and some tasty enough pitas. No wonder hungry locals are drawn here despite being forced to navigate one of the most treacherous strip mall entries in the galaxy. We’ll take the risk.

Il Panificio

What puts Il Panificio head and shoulders above Sarasota’s rich and varied collection of crust-creating cafés? For one thing, the plethora of specialty slices, which allows pizza pursuers to cobble together custom lunches that can include everything from the breakfast pizza with egg and bacon to more traditional options like pepperoni and sausage. Panificio’s crackling crust, with a flavor like toasted cereal and a texture like a cat’s tongue, underpins all that variety, and it’s always on point.

Casa Italia

Best known for top-shelf Italian salumi, cheeses and pantry items, Casa Italia secretly constructs some of the city’s most bodacious sandwiches. But don’t expect enormous Italian-American hoagies. Casa Italia’s artfully constructed sandwiches typically highlight one or two ingredients, allowing their full flavor to shine through. A favorite: the $6.99 mortadella and cheese. Even with the provolone, the lettuce, oil and vinegar, the crusty bread, it’s the ultra-porky flavor of the pistachio-flecked mortadella—the pride of Bologna—that shines.

Palermo Pizza

Looking to experiment? Try Palermo’s $15 “mezzo luna,” a half-pizza, half-calzone. Genius? Or insanity? Perhaps both. The hybrid comes out round, with one half a normal flat pie and the other half folded over with dough. The essence of all great pizza can be found in its crust, and Palermo’s is exceptional. Toasted and crispy on the bottom, it still remains puffy, with bubbles of air dotting the interior. Neither the ultra-crunchy, almost cracker-like crust of Il Panificio, nor just a mass of chewy dough, Palermo’s crust occupies a charming middle ground, with bites alternating whimsically between brittle and gooey. The toppings are basic, but generously applied. The anchovies, in particular, punch up any pie with salt and funk.

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