The new way to dine out is to eat in, as many Whole Foods Market take-out aficionados are discovering. You brave Sarasota's downtown construction traffic, negotiate the market's parking garage (or opt for valet), wind your way through the food-and-healthful-living-related aisles in this 36,000-square-foot store and brace yourself for a crush at the checkout counters. It's worth all that to shop this self-service restaurant that offers international dining adventures galore. The best part is you get to take it all home and dine in barefoot comfort on your high-rise condo terrace or on the coffee table in front of the TV while watching the nightly news or a rented film. No one is saying this is eating chic or even eating cheap, but it's a way of eating well that's working for a lot of Sarasotans these days.
Whole Foods is smart about how it organizes the take-home dining experience and how it charges for the different courses. At the cold salad bar, where I counted 44 options for composing a regal salad indeed, you're charged $6.99 a pound. Use several different small clear plastic containers or mix as you go in one big one. Management has figured out what we know-these containers usually pop their lids-so there's an ample supply of rubber bands in a cup near the containers. Things to delight and confound you at this station include Mississippi caviar (black-eyed peas with seasonings), Pritikin black beans, green lentils, wheatberries with chilies and Moroccan carrot salad spiced with cumin, as well as the usual components for a tossed field greens salad.
Nearby is the hot international station of specialties at $6.99 a pound. A lot of these selections contain tofu, various legumes, cilantro and cumin. A vegetarian can roam happily here; I even found a vegan sag panneer, which is spinach, tofu and garam masala. More familiar are the double dumpling stew, baked macaroni and cheese, pork vindaloo, turkey meatloaf, Israeli couscous (the beads of grain are bigger), and a turkey hash that's like a sharp sloppy Joe mixture. The hot soup bar is here, too, with about 10 selections to take home in three different-sized containers. The smallest is $2.49. The menu changes daily; but you're likely to discover roasted carrot, Creole bean, New England clam chowder, chicken noodle and some that are really spicy.
The salad and international stations are self-serve. But when you move to the deli and pizza counter, you are waited on and can ask for a sample taste of anything you consider buying. There are about 20 sandwiches (about $7) as well as hot entrées such as Thai beef steak ($14.99), honey-mustard wild salmon, jambalaya, roast beef, chicken satay, stuffed potatoes and various rice dishes, all of which are individually priced. Additionally, there are whole pizzas (large and petite) sold already cooked as well as those you take home and pop into the oven.
Desserts include fancy whole cakes and pies, cream and custard fantasies, fruit tarts and the more traditional cupcakes, muffins ($1.29), brownies, gourmet chocolates, scones and a nice assortment of breakfast pastries. Best deal is a small butter raisin Danish, flaky and flavorful at just 39 cents. It's just enough for a cup of coffee without a crumb to spare. But actually, there are no bad deals at the take-out sections of Whole Foods. When you factor in the quality, freshness and variety of what this market offers, a stroll through the take-out aisles will end in a satisfying meal, especially if you're up for trying something you'd never cook at home.
Whole Foods Market
1451 First St., Sarasota
Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
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Drawing upon 15 years in Sarasota running a downtown Italian-American trattoria, the locally famous five Caragiulo brothers have now opened a Caragiulo's in Bradenton. The new place seems roomier and the menu offers a few more options than the original Palm Avenue location, but the friendly service, comfortable surroundings, good wines and engaging movie posters on the wall are all the same.
The biggest difference is that this building (in a strip mall) came with a wood-burning pizza oven. The brothers were quick to capitalize on such an embarrassment of riches, and the pizza makers adjusted their technique to the luxury of the flame of wood. The wood oven produces a slightly smoky and quite crispy pizza on the top as well as bottom that cooks fast, in about four minutes. The Caragiulo style is to add a little semolina flour to the pizza dough, which means the pizza can stand up to the "tough" fire of wood. A traditional oven cooks pizza at 550 degrees. A wood-burning oven is roaring at 700 degrees. The resulting pizza pie is as good as it gets. Although the kitchen offers half a dozen pizzas with unusual combinations, such as Fredo's white clam concoction, guests are welcome to compose their own weird pizzas from a list of ingredients including feta cheese, broccoli, caramelized onions, even artichokes. Individual pizzas are $9, and you can add a house salad for an additional $3.
The brothers in charge, from oldest to youngest, are John, Mark, Robert, Anthony and Paul (the opera singer and bridegroom-elect). They've expanded the menu for the new location with the input of Bradenton general manager Randal Roulette, who's been an honorary brother for over a decade. But at the new trattoria women have a prominent place in the open kitchen. Kelly Pool is the chef de cuisine and Perette Cannady is the pastry chef. The desserts at this big-portion restaurant are well worth having, especially the bread pudding.
"Lobsta" pasta is one of the house specialties. A velvety basil-sherry cream sauce lightly hugs angel hair pasta and nuzzles lobster chunks, shitake mushrooms and bits of Roma tomatoes for a dish that's rich and toothsome for $18. Other entrées dressed for success include the piccata-style halibut with a risotto cake ($19), red snapper with garlic spinach, or the balsamic glazed pork tenderloin with mascarpone sweet potatoes for $17. Fine comfort food. There are about a dozen pasta dishes ($12-$18), including a nightly vegetarian preparation. All entrées and pasta dishes are served with a house salad.
Don't look for fusion experiments or "new" Italian cuisine at the Caragiulo table. The brothers' restaurant kitchen excels at traditional Italian-American favorites with a few seafood specialties that take advantage of the local catch and tourists' hunger for fish and shellfish.
Expect about a dozen wines by the glass from the Cal-Italia list that features bottles from about $29 to $70. Caragiulo's has a full-service bar separated from the dining room by a half wall, and live entertainment most nights. Like the Sarasota restaurant, this new enterprise is a lively place that promotes good food and good times at reasonable prices in a casual atmosphere. While the Sarasota place is usually bustling with young and middle-aged people, the Bradenton place appears to attract a wider generational sampling. We saw a fair amount of families with children at the newer Caragiulo's, all of them looking like they'd found just the place they wanted to be.
4726 Cortez Road W., Bradenton
Dinner: nightly, from 4:30 p.m.
Reservations for parties of six and more
Parking in mall lot
Q. My culinary hobby is scouting out small, genuine Mexican and Cuban restaurants that are chef owned and unpretentious. More often than not, I eat pretty well, and on a budget, too. Is there such an eatery you've come across recently that you want to tell me about?
A. I'm happy to tell you and everybody else about Cabo Café, a tiny strip mall place in Sarasota Commons that seats 32 in a room that will remind you of a friend's eat-in kitchen. Blue chairs pull up to laminate tables that hug walls brightly ornamented with posters, pottery and some faux plants. There's Hispanic background music, paper napkins and paper placemats that tell the story of how young chef Galdino Gomez, born and raised in Mexico City, learned to cook from his Oaxacan mother. He and wife Patricia (a Johnson & Wales grad) opened the place last October.
The food is basically Mexican everyday comfort food. Gomez uses authentic ingredients, such as the creamier, less watery Haas avocados, for his guacamole; and he roasts tomatillos for his salsa. His daily taco buffet, which includes two soups and several entrées at $6.96 for all you can eat, is becoming a local legend, especially with those who work out at the health club just a few doors down. But you'll also want to experience his ceviche, street-style quesadillas, roasted veggie wrap or chef's fish tacos, which consist of beer-battered grouper in soft corn shells with a spicy chipotle sauce. Nothing on the menu tops $17, and that's for a huge combination platter. You can drink beer, soft drinks, sangria, Margarita, even Oaxaca-style hot cocoa. Lunch and dinner. Buen provecho (enjoy it). 935 Beneva Road. 373-0502.
Damon Presswood's Ooh La La bouillabaise.
Chef-owner Damon Presswood decided on Ooh La La for the name of his Holmes Beach restaurant when it opened in 1999 because "That's what I wanted people to say when they saw a plate of my food arriving at their table." The 35-year-old Presswood apprenticed during summer vacations at Harry Continental Kitchens on Longboat Key and at Ivo's when it was at the Four Winds Resort. Later he moved on to St. Armands' Café L'Europe. Although his menu changes seasonally, there are about eight dishes that Presswood claims his regulars would never permit him to remove. Among them is the house bouillabaisse. "It adapts to whatever fish and shellfish you have locally fresh and readily available," he says. "You can have fun with it."
Ooh La La Bistro
5406 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach
Ooh La La Bouillabaisse
1 quart lobster/shrimp/fish stock
1 cup each of the following:
chopped stewed tomato
chopped Spanish onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon saffron
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
6 middleneck clams
1 lobster tail, split
4 large scallops
4 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 pound grouper pieces
Sauté onions, celery, carrots, leeks and fennel in olive oil on high heat for two minutes. Add garlic, squash, zucchini and bay leaves and sauté on medium high heat for two minutes. Add puréed and stewed tomatoes, saffron and stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside.
On high heat in a large sauté pan, brown the butter and add clams, lobster tail, scallops, shrimp and grouper. Stirring/tossing constantly, lightly brown the seafood. Add bouillabaisse stock, cover and simmer for two minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve in large casserole dish. Garnish with buttered French bread toast points.