Cafe Society

By staff November 1, 2003

Chef Keith Daum is the master of two kitchens, one at chi-chi Cafe L'Europe on St. Armands Circle and the other at its shy sister, Cafe On The Bay on Longboat Key. Titus Letschert has owned Cafe L'Europe for 30 years and took over Cafe On The Bay in 1994 when it was a private dining room at The Moorings.

To get to Cafe On The Bay, you pass through a guardhouse at Harbourside, a gated community. The guard will direct you to drive through the enclave until you come upon a Spanish hacienda that's nearly hidden by tropical foliage and overlooks Sarasota Bay. (Docking facilities allow guests to arrive by water as well.) The vine-covered restaurant forms part of an enclosed courtyard with a pretty fountain in the middle. Flanking the opposite side of this European arrangement is a collection of boutiques. It's a setting suitable for vacation picture-taking as well as fine dining.

Inside, the dining room (which seats 100 with space for an additional 50 outside) is organized with round and square tables set comfortably far apart and draped with cream linens and snappy blue cloth napkins. There's candlelight once the sun sets, and French sconces on the stucco walls add a gentle atmospheric glow.

Artful modern presentations enliven the menu's familiar ingredients. For instance, a beef filet is served atop a portobello mushroom and crowned with a colorful tangle of fried sweet potato. This is a popular dish, especially with men. I'm partial to the pork tenderloin, which is rolled in chopped pecans, stuffed with mission figs and coated with an apple glaze. It arrives tableside with a mound of fluffy white mashed potatoes (plain) and a ruffle of julienne vegetables. But the favorite with regulars is the Captain's Choice, a three-tier tower of crab cake, diver scallops and shrimp. And the lobster fritters are a house specialty.

Entrées range from $18-$28 and come with a house salad. The wine list, domestic and imported, is compatible with the menu. But the crowd that frequents Cafe On The Bay looks like a martini-ordering one -not those designer faux martinis, but the real ones with vermouth, gin and a green olive. Desserts and appetizers are old-time favorites that have been eliminated from many New Age menus. What a treat to be served wonderful oysters Bienville again!

The service is formal and discreet, the kind of you'd expect in a fine old hotel. I suspect that Cafe On The Bay is one of those restaurants that seasonal and year-round Longboat Key residents like to keep to themselves, using it as a club where they can entertain visiting relatives or enjoy a quiet evening on their own. It's definitely a restaurant that more mainlanders should explore for casually elegant dining with a water view and food that supports its refined setting.

Cafe On The Bay

2630 Harbourside Drive, Longboat Key


Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.

Sunday brunch: 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

Credit cards

Reservations suggested

Parking lot

Wheelchair accessible

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Restaurateur James Mazzola was confident enough about his fourth foray into the business (his other three restaurants were in New Jersey) to open Marion's Ristorante, his 65-seat Sarasota storefront establishment, in the summer, and with hardly any advertising at that. It worked.

The 53-year-old chef/owner calls his cuisine "peasant Italian" fare, but you'll agree it's a lot more sophisticated than that, starting with pistachio-encrusted salmon that's wrapped around generous lumps of crabmeat and moving on to ravioli stuffed with four kinds of wild mushroom or the rack of lamb, a house specialty. Marion's signature salad is made with mixed greens, toasted walnuts, strawberry slices and a rich homemade dressing. Sides of pasta (with a light tart pomodoro sauce), roasted potatoes, and peas with caramelized onions are brought to the table in bowls, family style. Entrées average about $19, appetizers about $7. The chicken livers sautéed in garlic and oil with caramelized onions are well worth trying, as is the calamari stuffed with anchovies and black olives.

The breadbasket is a showstopper, featuring pecan, olive and warm sesame-seed-topped Italian varieties. But the treasure is a little clutch of warm cinnamon bites made with puff pastry dough from chef Mazzola's original recipe. I have a friend who asked if he could phone Marion's a day in advance and order a dozen to take home after dinner. Chef Mazzola said yes, in case you're tempted to do the same.

The comfortably sophisticated decor showcases colorful Venetian-type pendant lights, one over each table. The maitre d' and server, a polished young Czechoslovakian gentleman, replenishes silverware between courses, refills water goblets at the right time and is knowledgeable about the menu and the bar.

Marion's wine list is the work of a seasoned professional. Mostly Italian with a sprinkling of Californian, Spanish and Australian labels, these wines are food-friendly with enough variety in price and labels to satisfy a discriminating oenophile. Nice selection of ports and dessert wines, too. And you can order wines by the glass ($5) and half bottle. The list covers a wide Italian terrain, bringing us seldom-seen vintages from Lombardy, Veneto, Piedmont, Tuscany, Umbria and other regions. There are many bottles in the $20-$30 range, making Marion's a place for an Italian wine adventure.

There are usually five desserts on the menu, all of them made by chef Mazzola, and they range from tiramisu and cannoli to a slumpy and rich pudding cake with whipped cream that is definitely in the category of a comfort food. Many of the recipes on chef Mazzola's menu come from three generations of family cooks. Some of the best belonged to the chef's mother. and the restaurant bears her name-a loving gesture from a son who does the family proud.

Marion's Ristorante

6518 Gateway Ave., Sarasota


Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Closed Sunday

Credit cards

Reservations suggested

Strip mall angle parking

Not wheelchair friendly curbside. Inside is manageable.

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Molto Italian

We can now satisfy our insatiable hunger for casual Italian eateries at another new destination, Johnny Carino's Country Italian, a franchise establishment on University Parkway convenient enough (and big enough) to satisfy the cravings of two counties. Its menu and prices classify Johnny Carino's with Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, and Carrabbas, but Carino's decor elevates it above those franchises.

The design scheme is meant to transport guests to a rustic but prosperous Umbrian farm house with handsome iron chandeliers, cheerful ceramic plates on the wall, lace curtains, and comfortable furniture. The chairs that pull up to bare wood tables are selectively mismatched for a residential feel. Red booths are deep and comfy and the room is lined with private alcoves partially concealed behind dark luxurious drapes. These cozy areas have their own art works, and I like them a lot.

The lunch/dinner menu displays a wide sampling of Southern Italian recipes that have been adjusted for American tastes, such as chicken scaloppini salad, pepperoni bread or Italian nachos. You won't find these dishes in Italy. Besides plenty of appetizers and salad choices, the open kitchen turns out pizzas, calzones and several specialties, such as jalapeño garlic tilapia ($10.95) or Johnny's skilletini, which combines sausage and shrimp with peppers, onions and spaghetti in a spicy red sauce for $10.49. All meals are served with warm fresh bread that comes to the table in a white paper bag. Service is prompt and pleasant.

Choose from a dozen pasta dishes (some with an icon that signifies "spicy') or meat and seafood preparations that include lamb marsala, grilled pork chops, or the usual chicken piccata, veal parmigiana and seafood fettuccine. An unusual feature of the menu is that most appetizers and entrées are offered in a one-person size or grandioso, which is a platter that serves three adults family-style. A plate of homemade lasagna for one is $8.99, but it you choose to have lasagna for the table, it's $16.89. Three cheesecakes, tiramisu and an apple torte make up the desserts at about $4.50 each.

A separate children's menu is surprisingly diverse and includes kid-size pizzas, baked cheese tortelloni, ravioli and a half dozen pasta options with five different sauces. The menu also includes games and things to color.

Expect a full bar including designer martinis that cost $7. Inglenook is the house wine, but a full Cal-Italia wine list offers familiar bottles ranging from about $17-$36. Wine by the glass is about $5.

With a no reservations policy, Johnny Carino's supplies benches outside as well as a waiting area inside. Or have a drink at the bar until your table is ready.

Carino's is becoming a popular choice worldwide. The restaurant is owned by Fired Up Inc., a Texas-based company that also owns Gumbo Louisiana Style Cafe and The Brown Bar establishments. Johnny Carino's will be in 15 states and 12 foreign nations within the next decade. By this winter, four Carino's will be sprinkled like grated cheese throughout Florida.

Johnny Carino's

3005 University Parkway, Sarasota


Lunch and dinner: Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m; Friday and Saturday nights until 11 p.m.

Credit cards

No reservations

Catering and curbside to go

Wheelchair access

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Hope for Australian Wines

Americans drink more Australian wines than Australians. It's not for lack of devotion to home products on the Aussies' part; there are simply more of us. Australia is the size of the United States with the population of Texas, and most of its citizens live on the east and west coasts. This geography lesson was supplied by Michael Hope, a 43-year- old Aussie vintner who is criss-crossing this country holding wine tastings for his estate wines, produced in the Hunter Valley region of Australia.

Over a recent sipping session at Michael's On East, we learned that Hope Vineyards produces only about 45,000 cases a year and that most of it ends up in restaurants and small emporiums. To sample Hope wines in Sarasota, dine at Michael's On East, Chutney's, Lavanda, Greer's Grill, or Ophelia's. Additionally, Michael's Wine Cellar carries Hope wines.

Hope was well-prepared when he entered the wine business in 1994. As the owner of a string of successful pharmacies, he knew his chemistry. And he had sufficient start-up capital. Hope appreciates the adage that if you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large one.

He's worked backward from the price point at which his wines would help to sell themselves- less than $15 for estate bottled wines. The first we sampled was a 2002 Hope Estate Verdelho, a relatively uncommon wine in the States. This white, made from a grape employed in Portugal in fortified wines, yields a minerally and tropical beverage that would pair well with seafood. The other white we tried was his 2001 Hope Estate Chardonnay. Whole bunch pressing, wild yeast fermentation, and 100 percent French oak barrels help produce this well-balanced and relatively complex wine.

Hope's reds begin with a 2000 Hope Estate Merlot, one of only six reds that Cathay Airlines serves in first class. It offers cherry and blackberry notes with a hint of tobacco and earth. His 2000 Hope Estate Shiraz is an attempt to compromise between the Rhone style and the new world style. It's well worth sampling.

Overall, Hope's wines offer just what wine drinkers love, a pleasant surprise at an affordable price. That's called a good deal, mate!

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Q. What is panna cotta? I see it on dessert menus lately when I travel.

A. In Italian it means "cooked cream." Panna cotta is a molded custard (with a little gelatin added for structure) that's often served with fresh fruit or even a drizzle of thin chocolate. It's popping up as a replacement for zabaglione (or sabayon on a French menu), flan, or crême brulée (which means "burnt cream"), all of which are looking a bit tired. These bland creamy custardy confections are all right, I suppose, if you're allergic to chocolate, pastry, nuts and fruits, all of which constitute true dessert as far as I'm concerned. I see puddings and custards as just so much nursery mush, desserts that proper English nannies would treat their little charges to after they've eaten all their peas. There are better things to order for dessert than custard, although Nigella Lawson would disagree.

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