Viva Italia!

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Recognizing Sarasota’s passion for all restaurants Italian, Paul Mattison has infused his Mattison’s Steakhouse at the Plaza with Tuscan flavor. "Gone Tuscan" is the proclamation on the menu, which outlines some new offerings and some old favorites. The focus on steaks is a natural for this transformation, since bistecca is a foundation of the Tuscan […]


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Recognizing Sarasota’s passion for all restaurants Italian, Paul Mattison has infused his Mattison’s Steakhouse at the Plaza with Tuscan flavor. "Gone Tuscan" is the proclamation on the menu, which outlines some new offerings and some old favorites. The focus on steaks is a natural for this transformation, since bistecca is a foundation of the Tuscan kitchen. Other touches include a bit of accessorizing to bring an Italian design sensibility to the otherwise-elegant dining room, always one of the most tasteful on Florida’s west coast and still displaying a decidedly up-market ambiance.

Mattison says his "Gone Tuscan" focus resulted from his recent withdrawal from a restaurant project on St. Armands Circle. A frequent host of guided culinary trips and cooking classes in Italy, he said he wanted to bring his longtime interest in Italian food to Sarasota, "but the elements weren’t there for us on St. Armands." Instead, Ben Christopher, the chef who was going to lead the St. Armands project, took the reins at the Plaza——and voil‡, a refreshed restaurant. By the contented looks on the patrons’ faces in the packed house the night we visited, I’d call "Gone Tuscan" a hit.

The menu offers some fresh takes on Italian food. An order of ostrica infornata, oysters on the half shell baked with a dollop of spinach (and aren’t we all thrilled spinach is back?), sports a wonderful hint of licorice supplied by fennel and the suggestion of sambuca—sumptuous. The flavors march together in culinary lockstep, and, with the oysters, make for a sensuous dish. Melanzana involtini, eggplant breaded, sautÈed and stuffed with fresh ricotta and smoked tomatoes, sounds divine—and the creative mix of flavors is representative of the selection of primi courses coming out of this kitchen. Not all is Italian, however; if you pine for an American starter, order the crab cakes Americano, which Chef Christopher enlivens with an inventive habaÒero tangerine remoulade. Most items found on the primi menu are in the $10-15 range.

Mattison’s wonderful pasta fagioli heads up the zuppa listing. It’s a headliner at his Siesta Key Grille, too, and always delivers that home-cooked goodness that can transport the diner to a different time or place with the first spoonful. The insalatas bring a varied mix of old and new. The signature salad will be familiar to regulars: a mix of field greens with pine nuts and Gorgonzola cheese in balsamic vinaigrette. The Mediterraneo exhibits a creative mix of cucumbers, red onions, feta cheese and olives tossed with a fresh herb vinaigrette. It’s a toss-up between that and the arugula, or rucola. These "rocket greens" fill the mouth with peppery freshness and the components—shaved fennel, an earthy fresh goat cheese and a hint of citrus—deliver a revitalizing salad that stimulates the appetite for things to come. Tariffs for this course are $8-10, but the portions are huge, so share.

Happily, the bisteccas are just about identical to pre-"Gone Tuscan" times at this restaurant. The Plaza serves a great steak, and the choices are numerous, ranging from a six-ounce filet to a 22-ounce T-bone. Within that array of cuts, more choices emerge as menu items—a 16-ounce rib eye with Gorgonzola cheese and apple-smoked bacon is a bistecca blu. It’s also heavenly. The ribeye’s well-marbled fat merges with the salty richness of the blue cheese and the tart apple flavors in the bacon to produce many levels of tastes and textures. Mashed potatoes dosed with truffle oil accompany this, adding an appreciated starch to balance the plate. The bistecca oscar, new for Tuscany but not Longboat, tops a filet with fresh lobster and crab meat with the requisite BÈarnaise sauce. Molto bene.

Cinghiale, or wild boar chops, arrive in an elegant presentation that denies their backwoods origins. The meat is earthy but certainly not gamey. Served with caramelized onions and an addictive apple polenta, the cinghiale is a much-welcomed addition to our local culinary scene.

The entrÈes, which are priced from $22 to $60, include a nice selection of seafood, including a fresh sea bass that’s roasted and served whole in the Italian style. (The staff will filet the fish tableside if you’re not up to another set of eyes joining the group.) The bass—sans head—is gently unassuming, the perfect foil for a pile of exquisitely roasted chanterelle mushrooms, their sweet and lush flavors complemented by the earthy flavors of a roasted artichoke. Another home run for Chef Christopher.

You may be way too satiated for any dolce, but that would be your loss. The pastry chef has created a menu of fabulous desserts. Topping the list is the honey Parmesan flan. The traditional milk custard is transformed with the addition of honey in concert with the salty, savory character of Parmesan cheese. The competing tastes are absolutely delightful, and our flan quickly disappeared. The chocolate bruschetta is an interesting concept that will appeal to the chocolate lover. Lovely housemade chocolate-hazelnut biscotti are topped with a layer of mascarpone mousse, fresh strawberries and then drizzled with chocolate. I would have been just as satisfied with the biscotti, which were rich and nutty and fabulous on their own.

The cannoli are delectable, too. The ricotta cream is so sumptuous, with its bits of dark and white chocolate, that the cookie shell seems superfluous. And finally, the cheesecake: Baked with mascarpone cheese, it has an intriguingly different character from the typical offering. I loved it.

The international wine list provides a number of options in all price ranges. With the advent of the "Gone Tuscan" theme, I hope to see more Tuscan wines—especially more "super Tuscan" reds and a greater variety of Chianti classicos to complement the excellent bistecca.

MATTISON’S STEAKHOUSE AT THE PLAZA
525 Bay Isles Parkway, Longboat Key
(Located behind Publix)
(
941) 387-2700
5-10p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
5-9 p.m. Sunday
Closed Monday
Valet parking available
Off-street parking available
Handicap accessible
All credit cards

Bellagio Beckons

Lower in profile but more authentically Italian in its menu is Bellagio Ristorante. Located on a neat and unassuming strip of retail and office space across from Payne Park on Washington Boulevard, the restaurant has attracted loyal regulars eager to indulge in chef-owner Dante Tassotti’s wonderfully prepared Italian cuisine.

This restaurant is deceptive. It looks small from the street, where an outdoor dining section dominates. But the room extends back towards a bar at the far end of the space. It’s comfortable rather than stylish, the kind of place where you know the minute that you walk in that it could be mediocre or a real find. It’s the latter, and with the help of our waiter, Antonio, dining at Bellagio developed into the quintessential dining experience—a relaxing evening of good food, wine and company.

A great way to begin at Bellagio is with an antipasti platter. Ours included aged cheese (Parmesan Reggiano), fresh cheese (buffalo mozzarella) and meats like sopressata and prosciutto di Parma. Center stage were pickled eggplant and peppers, a specialty of the house. Tell them to make it small so you can enjoy the bruschetta. Chef Dante uses the herbs from his garden (you can visit it adjacent to the back parking lot), and besides the requisite garlic and tomatoes, you’ll detect the refreshing addition of mint as well as basil. Appetizers range from $7-$14.

A long list of includes several traditional dishes not to be missed. Dante delights in using shrimp, and his fra diavolo is a classic. The shrimp are sauteed in olive oil with garlic and hot peppers into a white wine sauce, then tossed in capellini, the classic angel hair pasta. For those desiring a little less heat, the panzerotti al porcini offers an earthy, mouth-filling richness. Ravioli are stuffed with porcini mushrooms and a touch of ricotta cheese. The sauce is cream-based, flavored with truffle oil and enough tomato sauce to turn it a pretty pink.

There is also a fruitti di mare. The fruits of the sea at Bellagio are mussels, clams, shrimp and calamari, sautÈed in garlic with fresh herbs from the garden. Specify red or white sauce—either will be tossed with linguine.

In keeping with the traditional Italian repertoire, Chef Dante works with veal in several different ways. The customary piccatta, the veal pounded into a more malleable scaloppine then sautÈed with white wine, lemon and capers with lots of butter, is available. This simple dish always tastes refreshing thanks to the piquant combination of the lemon and capers. Scalloppine Bellagio enhances that basic preparation with the dense and rich flavors of champignon mushrooms and cognac for a more luxuriant entrÈe. My vote goes to the veal chop, vitello marsala, cooked to order with the slightly sweet and always opulent Marsala sauce.

Other entrÈes—the range in prices spans $18-s$25—include a delicious New York strip steak, which Dante serves with a heavily garlic-infused herbal sauce, and several chicken creations.

Desserts run the usual gamut of tiramisu, cannoli and gelato, although we weren’t able to generate the energy to eat one more thing.

BELLAGIO RISTORANTE
322 S. Washington Blvd., Sarasota
(941) 330-1300
5:30 p.m.-close, Monday-Saturday
Closed Sunday
All major credit cards
Parking in rear of restaurant or street
Handicap accessible

What We’re Drinking

New SPARCC executive director Olivia Thomas and her husband, attorney Patrick Frye, are enthusiastic travelers and cooks who enjoy matching wines with their culinary creations and discoveries. They lean toward California wines for both every day and special occasions. Their house red is Liberty School cabernet sauvignon, which Pat says has the structure to stand up to most meats and partners especially well with cheese. "I like a big cab, but Olivia is not always into a lot of tannin," he says. So he keeps a good supply of what he laughingly calls his "chick red"—a Marietta Cellars cabernet. "I haven’t met a woman who doesn’t like this red," he claims. "Big fruit, not a lot of tannin." When the ladies aren’t around, however, Pat can be found nursing any number of zinfandels, with Fife a current favorite.

A recent stay on Italy’s Lake Como introduced them to the world of pinot grigio. "The pinot grigios in Italy were so wonderful. Absolutely refreshing," says Olivia. Since their return, they’ve searched for that same refreshing character in imported and domestic pinot grigios. "We’ve discarded quite a few," says Pat. "The one we keep coming back to is Bianco, from Coppola. Great price, and it brings back that sense of carefree time and place."

As for me, I can’t think of a wine I like better for spring than the 2005 Viognier from Zaca Mesa. This Santa Barbara County winery has been making viognier, the white wine grape most associated with the Rhone Valley of France, for 12 years. Aromas of honeysuckle and orange citrus hint at a sweetness in the wine. But in the mouth the wine is dry, with tastes of melon and a hint of peach. The finish is long with a bit of a mineral character, which you’ll find in many of Zaca Mesa’s whites. This wine has enough weight to stand up to barbecued fish or fowl, especially those enhanced with Asian flavors.

APRIL MEANS WINEFEST

If you haven’t procured your tickets for the many Florida Winefest & Auction events April 26-29, rev up the Blackberry, because time is running out. The kick-off event—or should I say events?—are the winemaker dinners on Thursday evening. Held around town in various venues, the dinners provide superlative opportunities to chat up your favorite winemakers and sample some of outstanding wines. Prices start at $125 per person. The gala is the next evening, and at last year’s event, the food was nothing short of fabulous. The talented chefs were flown in from across the globe. I stole away from dinner through the labyrinth of the kitchens to track them down in my painfully high heels and congratulate them, but to my consternation, no one spoke English! Despite my sore feet, it was a food night I’ll savor for many years to come. And at $300, this meal’s a deal. The next day is the brunch and auction, beginning at 11 a.m. It’s a fun afternoon, especially if you enjoy watching a lot of people throw a lot of money around—all for a great cause, as the auction has raised many millions for area children’s charities over the years. And Sunday brings the Sip & Shop to St. Armands Circle, when all of the wine not consumed as yet is poured for the modest sum of $15. For a full schedule and ticket info, go to www.floridawinefest.org or call (941) 952-1109.

Picnicking with Flair
April is the perfect month to feast outside.

By Judi Gallagher

If there were such a thing as Miss Picnic U.S.A., I would walk the runway with my bamboo picnic basket and matching wine carrier, waving my turned hand. I love planning the perfect menu for the picnic destination, packing the dishes (no plastic here, folks) and selecting the appropriate cheese and wine. When I was a child, my parents would pack a thermos of iced coffee, homemade salami, provolone grinders and assorted sides for a day trip to the beach. Everything matched. The tablecloth, thermos and napkins were all red-and-white checked. It was a production, a pageant of culinary arts.

After my son, Eric, was born, I made it a point to have a picnic almost weekly, and when the weather did not cooperate—which was often in Massachusetts—we picnicked on the living-room floor. Other mothers at the beach marveled at my toddler consuming broccoli salad and havarti with dill and smoked salmon pate while their children were hard-pressed to eat a lukewarm Happy Meal they’d picked up at McDonald’s.

I perfected my picnicking skills each summer on the manicured lawns at the Tanglewood music festival in the Berkshires. Our pre-concert spreads would include chipotle-apricot-glazed chicken and Korean flank steak along with Asian chopped salad, various types of sushi and cold noodle salads. Double chocolate mousse brownies rounded out the evening. And here in Sarasota, we love watching the sunset on Siesta Beach while enjoying a salad tossed with slices of ahi tuna.

Sarasota has lots of other fabulous places for a spring picnic, whether it’s a concert at the Phillippi mansion or an outdoor screening at the Film Festival’s family movie night. Make sure to throw some sea salt and black pepper grinders in your cooler; if you’re packing a salad, bring along a mini set of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dress it on the spot. And if you don’t feel like preparing the picnic yourself, here are a few places where I sometimes grab picnic fixings.

Southside Deli on Hillview (330-9302) has outstanding chicken salad, and you can either order sandwiches or call ahead for a small platter with lettuce, tomato and sliced breads on the side. Casa Italia on Constitution (924-1179) is a must for setting a perfect antipasto platter—be sure to include the house-made sun- dried tomatoes and baby roasted artichokes. Just across the Trail, The Wine Warehouse (922-8216) has a wonderful selection of wines and champagnes, and the nearby Bread Store (STILL LOOKING) can provide rustic rye, multi-grain and cranberry-nut breads for sandwiches or to pair with cheeses. Publix does fried chicken that even food snobs will gobble down, and I often stop into The Granary (365-3700 or 924-4754) for delicious broccoli salad and orzo pasta with fresh chopped spinach and feta cheese. Whole Foods (955-8500) also has a world of fabulous main and side dishes to take out. If you plan to picnic on the sands of Longboat Key, The Market at Whitney Beach Plaza (383-7180) has a dreamy curried cream-cheese torte, and if you’re grilling, call ahead to reserve some of their tender marinated beef kabobs and jumbo shrimp. I also love owner Dawn Di Lorenzo’s Hawaiian ribs and rice pudding. And Midwestern Meats in Venice (488-0600) makes a peach pie that will be the grand finale of any outdoor meal.

For more from Judi Gallagher about Sarasota food and dining, go to her blog, Foodie’s Notebook, on our Web site: sarasotamagazine.com.

In Season
Chef Judi Gallagher welcomes spring with a Vidalia onion pie.

Although farmers have recently managed to extend the growing season, every April I used to anxiously anticipate the arrival of Georgia’s sweet Vidalia onions. I refrigerate the onions, wrapped separately in paper towels or newspaper. You can also freeze them, but freezing changes their texture and the defrosted onions should only be used in cooking. The best use of a Vidalia onion, however, is in its raw state. To bring out the freshest flavor and sweetness, refrigerate an unpeeled onion for one hour before serving.

I make crispy Vidalia onion rings to top grilled cheeseburgers or flatiron steak. Cut thick slices and soak them in buttermilk with a few splashes of hot sauce. Toss in seasoned flour and fry in clean vegetable oil. Or serve a simple Vidalia onion sandwich. The chill from refrigerating the onion will add to its sweetness. Layer sliced onion with crisp iceberg lettuce and a thick slice from a beefsteak tomato, season with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper and top with a small amount of Russian dressing or mayonnaise. (This may be the one time that white bread works best.) Looking for a notch up? Try adding a few slices of crisp applewood-smoked bacon and sliced, hard-boiled egg.

VIDALIA ONION PIE (serves 6)

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups finely crushed buttery crackers (such as Ritz crackers)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups thinly sliced Vidalia onions
3/4 cups half and half (do not use low-fat or nonfat)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
3/4 cup packed grated Gruyere cheese
Paprika
Fresh chopped chives

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix crackers and 4 tablespoons butter in bowl until well blended. Press mixture on bottom and 1 inch up sides of 8-inch pie plate.

Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Add onions and saute until tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and ground pepper. Arrange onions in cracker crust. Beat milk, eggs and salt in medium bowl until blended. Pour egg mixture over onions in crust. Sprinkle cheese over filling. Top with a sprinkle of paprika.

Bake pie until knife inserted into center comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes. Garnish with chopped chives and serve.