Insider Tours: Eat, Do & Shop

By: Carol Tisch

Siesta Key The world’s whitest sand isjust one of the many attractions. Sarasota on the Half Shell Taking its name from the briny bivalves, the Siesta Key Oyster Bar serves up the freshest in town. Equally titillating are the fish tacos served with your choice of grilled grouper or shrimp and an irresistible cilantro cream […]


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it.jpgSiesta Key
The world’s whitest sand isjust one of the many attractions.

Sarasota on the
Half Shell Taking its name from the briny bivalves, the Siesta Key Oyster Bar serves up the freshest in town. Equally titillating are the fish tacos served with your choice of grilled grouper or shrimp and an irresistible cilantro cream sauce ($12).  Arrive early for an umbrella-shaded table on the outside deck where local bands serenade from lunchtime ’til late. Siesta Key Oyster Bar, 5238 Ocean Blvd., (941) 346-5443

West Coast Vibe
Blake Parsons captures the essence of both west coasts (California’s and Florida’s) in his CaliFlorida Surf Clothing store. Tucked in a corner of the back yard at Gilligan’s Island Bar & Grill, this tiny beach shack is big on style, with Parsons’ edgy designs for T-shirts, sundresses, board shorts and locally designed Brazilian bikinis. Look for his soon-to-be-launched line of stand-up paddleboards, sure to be a hit on the calm waters of Siesta Key. CaliFlorida Surf Clothing Co., 5253 Ocean Blvd., (941) 544-1649

Pub Crawl in Paradise
Ocean Boulevard is nirvana for party people: It’s barefoot casual, less than a mile long and home to some of the hottest bars in the region. Start at Gilligan’s for a voodoo lounge, a Rhino Room, and DJs so hot they draw crowds from Tampa year-round. Gilligan’s serves a full menu, as does the Daiquiri Deck, where diverse versions of its namesake cocktail come with a great raw bar, live music and Apalachicola oyster shooters—a single Florida oyster, vodka and Bloody Mary mix for $3.99. Celebrate happy hour all day and dance into the wee hours at the Beach Club, which (along with SKOB) rounds out the scene.
Gilligan’s Island Bar & Grill, 5253 Ocean Blvd;  (941) 346-8122; Daiquiri Deck, 5250 Ocean Blvd., (941) 349-8697; Beach Club Siesta Key, 5151 Ocean Blvd., (941) 349-6311

Sunset Stakeouts
Soak in the sunset spectacular on what Dr. Beach (Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University) named the No. 2 beach in America (just after Hawaii’s Hanalei Bay). Leatherman says that if powdery white sand were the only criteria, he’d rank Siesta Key Beach best in the world.  You can park at the public beach or look for a dozen public entrance points (with blue numbered signs). Insiders favor the romantic access paths where Beach Road meets Avenida Navarra (No. 4), Columbus Boulevard (No. 3) and Avenida Messina (No. 2)) a few blocks from the nightlife on Ocean Boulevard. Here, the sun fades from bright orange to pink and purple, with Sarasota’s glorious downtown skyline in full view.

A Different Drum All walks of life flock to Siesta Key Public Beach’s Sunday night ritual: a drum circle right outside the pavilion to hail the approaching sunset. Rub tanned elbows with an eclectic crowd of surf, sand and music lovers, as you sway to the spirited sound of drums, bongos and maracas. The rhythm is African, Latin, Caribbean, dance, rock ’n’ roll—or, if you bring a cowbell, shaker, flute or anything that makes noise, your very own. Siesta Beach, 948 Beach Road, (941) 346-3207

Early Bird Specials
After a power walk on the beach, early risers refuel with breakfast in Siesta Key Village. Two local hot spots are the Broken Egg and Patisserie Café Continental. Known for its egg creations (try an omelet named for Casey, Siesta or Longboat Key), Broken Egg also serves yummy whole wheat pancakes as big as your plate. Despite the French moniker, Patisserie is owned by a British couple; and the menu includes mouth-watering scones and a full English breakfast including bangers and “bubble and squeak” ($8.99). The Broken Egg, 140 Avenida Messina (941) 346-2750; Patisserie Café Continental, 5221 Ocean Blvd., (941) 346-3171

On the Waterfront At the southern end of Siesta Key, Ophelia’s on the Bay may be Sarasota’s most enchanting alfresco dining experience (you can also dine inside). Lovers come to watch the moon rise over Little Sarasota Bay; boaters moor at Marker 48; and adventurers come by kayak, inches from dolphins gliding by. It’s been named the best restaurant in the U.S. for dock and dining by Power and Motoryacht Magazine; try Chef Dan Olson’s Chilean sea bass with lobster broth reduction or Australian barramundi with spice-charred jumbo shrimp. Ophelia’s On the Bay, 9105 Midnight Pass Road, (941) 349-2212

Beach Wines Siesta Key Tropical Wines is the brainchild of Maureen Rooney, who fell in love with Florida wines after a vineyard tour. Now Rooney does wine tastings in her new shop, converting skeptics to believers with an incredible array of award-winning tropical, citrus and berry wines (most $19.95). In addition to such Florida “beach” wines as kiwi pear sauvignon blanc, there’s a stash of traditional California wines. Siesta Key Tropical Wines, 5138C Ocean Blvd., (941) 552-9105

The Melting Point Diets fall by the wayside at Big Olaf’s Creamery, a local chain that began churning its way to success on Siesta Key Village in 1982. Sarasotans travel far for homemade waffle cones piled high with hand-packed ice cream made at a small creamery in Pinecraft, Sarasota’s Mennonite village on Bahia Vista Street.
Founder Dennis Yoder’s original recipes run the gamut from kahlua krunch to amaretto almond. But many say nothing beats the simple strawberry—until you top it with Olaf’s chocolate sauce. Big Olaf Creamery of Siesta Key, 5208 Ocean Blvd., (941) 349-9392

Foxy Fashionistas Combine shopping with beach time at Foxy Lady. Set in an Old Florida-style cottage across from an entrance to Siesta Key Beach, this boutique combines big city style (think New York, Paris and Milan) with beachy charm. From shoes (Beverly Feldman and David Pliner) to jeans (Paige Denim, Seven, Citizens of Humanity) to evening wear, the store is addictive. During off-season, snowbirds ask salespeople to UPS goodie boxes with items to try on, keep or return. Foxy Lady, 209 Beach Road, (941) 349-6644

Become a Locavore Every Sunday the parking lot at Siesta Village Plaza transforms into the Siesta Key Farmers Market, abuzz with 30 vendors committed to organic, natural and local products. From 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., it’s brimming with fun munchies you can enjoy as you shop, plus heirloom fruits and vegetables, natural foods, organic fish, baked goods and more. This is the place to shop for the best wild mushrooms, bar none. Siesta Key Farmer’s Market, 5124 Ocean Blvd., www.siestafarmersmarket.com

The Right Angler Don’t let that big one get away: Hire one of C.B.’s Saltwater Outfitters’ seasoned guides to take you into shallow water back country to sight-fish (for snook, redfish or speckled trout), or the Gulf’s inshore reefs (for giant tarpon, bonito, cobia and more). Guided fly and spin fishing starts at $350 for a half day, and half-day boat rentals go from $95 for a 17-foot console to $225 for a 23-foot deck boat. C.B.’s Saltwater Outfitters, 1249 Stickney Point Road (at Stickney Point Bridge), (941) 349-4400

 

St. Armands & Lido Key
From natural splendor to sophisticated shopping, our must-do list on these enchanting islands.

Meet a Mangrove
Become Indiana Jones for a day with marine biologist-led tours through the lush mangrove forests of South Lido Key Beach Park. There’s a guided kayak tour ($55 adults; $45 kids) through lazy backwaters, or a sea and land nature safari ($45; $40). Both promise solitude, wonderful wildlife and exotic flora. Sarasota Bay Explorers at Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, City Island, Sarasota, (941) 388-4200

Fashion Hot Spot
Rub shoulders with well-heeled Sarasotans at The Met, a men’s and women’s fashion boutique that gives Barney’s New York a run for its money. Coveted names include Etro, Armani, Zegna, Lacoste and Burberry.  A hip spa upstairs offers face and body treatments (try the sea salt polish, $120) as restorative as a week on the beach. The Met Fashion House Day Spa & Salon, 35 S. Boulevard of Presidents, (941) 388-3991

A Wave Away
Shore is where Palm Springs meets South Beach, winning the hipness sweepstakes with constant new arrivals from names like Billabong, Roxy and Juicy Couture. Look for adorable new True Religion bikinis and an exclusive selection of men’s swimsuits by Sundeck. There’s a wall covered with flip flops, skim boards, sunglasses—all just a wave away from Lido and Longboat keys’ shores. Shore, 465 John Ringling Blvd., Sarasota, (941) 388-3535

Midnight Munchies?
Wood oven pizzas are served until 2 a.m. at 15 South’s Straight Up Martini Bar, a local hangout where you’ll pass for a regular if you order a Cosmo or Appletini.  A balcony provides sunset-viewing, a DJ spins on Saturday nights, you can dance to Latin bands, and they have the latest closing time on the Circle. 15 South Ristorante Enoteca, 15 S. Boulevard of Presidents, (941) 388-1555

Rhythm and a RastaRaunt
There’s a special island vibe at Cha Cha Coconuts, where the best-sellers are coconut shrimp ($12.95), a half-pound burger ($6.95) and a tropical rum drink called Jamaica Me Crazy ($6.95). The beat goes on until midnight with everything from steel drums to local musicians. Cha Cha Coconuts, 417 St. Armands Circle, (941) 388-3300

Culinary Scene
Build a foodies’ tour around St. Armands Circle’s culinary delights. Start with the freshest-ever farm eggs and fabulous bread for breakfast at the friendly little Blue Dolphin. After a delicious low-cal steak salad at Tommy Bahama, reward yourself with their mind-numbing butterscotch pudding (even better with chocolate sauce). Be dazzled by the wine list at Lynches Pub & Grub: Most are $7.50 a glass, but local aficionados go for the gold—Kendall Jackson’s Grand Reserve Chandelle ($9.50).

Footwear Fetish?
Hop over to Addison Craig, where local fashionistas come for a fix of the newest styles and hottest brands. This store brings international trends to Sarasota before they become mainstream, with brands like Tory Burch, Christian Lacroix, Jean-Michel Cazabat and more. Look for
a newly expanded handbag department, and grab an eco-friendly Big Buddha bag (from $80); when new styles arrive there are lines out the door.  Addison Craig, 28 S. Boulevard of Presidents, (941) 388-3400

Forage for Fossils Introduce the kids to marine archaeology at Mote Aquarium’s new Fossil Creek,  a mini waterway built for sand-sifting. Buy a bucketful of sand for $6, and they‘ll uncover hidden fossils from stingray tails to shark’s teeth. Mote also has a cool new habitat for sea turtles you won’t want to miss. Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, (941) 388-4441

Shopping in Paradise You could shop ’til you drop on St. Armands Circle. But before you do, check out local favorites like FantaSea Home (it’s brimming with classy sea shell decorative accessories), Lilly Pulitzer (preppy Palm Beach style for the entire family), Foxy Lady for head to toe dressing for women and Taffy’s Men’s Apparel for everything from raspberry-hued blazers to those retro chic psychedelic golf pants favored by the world’s most outrageous golf pro, John Daly.

Something Fishy Ever notice that stone crab season (Oct. 15 to May 15) coincides with the arrival and departure of Sarasota’s snowbirds? While they’re gone, Crab & Fin cooks up catches like Northern sand red king crab, available only in July and August. Connoisseurs feast on Charley’s Mediterranean-style fish chowder ($5.25) and the freshest fish year-round, while Ed Williams plays pop ballads and show tunes outside on a crowd-stopping upright piano. Crab & Fin, 420 St. Armands Circle, (941) 388-3964   

Viva La Difference Don’t be fooled by the name: Le Macaron is Sarasota’s newest pastry shop—and the treat they sell isn’t a coconut macaroon. The petite café’s namesake is a Parisian delicacy, handmade on the premises in 13 yummy flavors from Madagascar black vanilla to passion chocolate and fresh mint. A box of five macarons is $8.50. Le Macaron, 382 St. Armands Circle, (941) 522-8872

Cool Runnings  When the sun gets hot, Sarasota heads to Kilwin’s to stock up on delectable peach ice cream. Sample a bit of homemade fudge and any of the myriad ice cream flavors—the line is worth the wait. Equally popular is Big Olaf’s (tucked away across the street and around the corner). Scoop Daddy’s and Ben & Jerry’s complete the taste tour.

Eye Candy A destination sunglass store, Sunglass Express guarantees ship-to-shore beachside glamour with frames from hundreds of world-renowned designers.  Here eyewear doubles as face jewelry, and the shades out-sparkle le soleil with names like Judith Leiber, Bulgari, Cartier, Chanel and more. New styles and coveted names just keep coming, the latest from Ed Hardy and Christian Audigier. Sunglass Express is among the first in the region to carry just-launched lines from Tiffany (tortoise shell, $340) and David Yurman (from $325, replete with the jewelry designer’s famous silver cable encrusted with semi-precious stones). Sunglass Express Optical, 343 St. Armands Circle, (941) 388-5115

Art to Wear Dream Weaver was conceived as a gallery—but this “art” hangs in the closet, not on the wall. Everything in this unique fashion emporium is designed and handcrafted by a top fiber, leather, textile or jewelry artist, and the collection is among the most extensive and elegant in the country.  The look is refined opulence rather than crafty, and the fashions run the gamut from Maria Pinto (a Michelle Obama favorite) to ultra-chic handbags by Susan Reidweg in washed Italian leather. Dream Weaver Collection, 364 St.  Armands Circle, (941) 388-1974

Time Out Everyone takes the requisite beach break to shop for jewelry and watches while vacationing in the Caribbean, but few realize the values and selection on St. Armands Circle  are equally eye-popping.  Among the most elegant choices are Tilden-Ross (coveted names include Judith Ripka, Todd Reed and Rodney Rayner), Queens’ Wreath at The Met (Mimi Bijoux, Michael Beaudry and Steven Webster), and McCarver and Moser (the source for European-made jewelry and an incredible selection of luxury watches—think Patek Philippe, Chopard and Baume & Mercier). Don’t miss McCarver and Moser’s amazing estate jewelry upstairs—the prices are better than wholesale.

 

Downtown
Highlights and hot spots in the heart of Sarasota.

Southern Comfort
Golden Spoon winner Derek Barnes takes comfort food to sublime new heights in Sarasota’s warehouse-style Rosemary District, the perfect setting for his creative Golden Spoon-winning fare.  At lunch, fish and chips ($11) are actually corvina beignets with artichoke aioli; the molé braised pulled pork sandwich comes on chorizo cornbread with a fried pickle. Derek’s Culinary Casual, 514 Central Ave., (941) 366-6565

A Novel Idea
Browse through stacks of gently used tomes plus antique books, maps and prints at Book Bazaar/A. Parker’s Books, a world-class emporium. It’s also a haven for hard-to-find early works by John D. MacDonald, the late Siesta Key mystery writer best known for his Travis McGee series. Expect to pay up to $300 for MacDonald’s rarest books—they’re true local treasures.
Book Bazaar/A. Parker’s Books, 1488 Main St., (941) 366-1373

Historic Burns Court Decades away
from the busy Tamiami Trail, the pastel
cottages and tiny alleys of Burns Court haven’t changed much since the 1920s. Look for chic fashions, great antiques and sophisticated foreign films at the raspberry-colored Burns Court Cinemas. Burns Court Cinemas, 506 Burns Lane, (941) 955-3456, www.filmsociety.org

Ciao Bella!
Belle Gente, that is. Say hello to Barbara and Claudio Ronchi’s new downtown eatery, featuring the same great imported charcuterie, authentic Tigella sandwiches ($3.50) and house-made buffalo mozzarella that’s made their Bologna Café a hit on Tamiami Trail. Bella Gente, 32 S. Osprey Ave., (941) 312-5111

C’est La Vie
That’s what early birds say when you arrive too late for a sidewalk table at this delightful French bakery and café (lines are especially long after the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market).  After lunch or breakfast, don’t forget to take home a crusty baguette ($2) baked fresh on site in a French Pavailler oven. C’est La Vie, 1553 Main St., (941) 906-9575

Fond of Fronds?
Then you’ll love Palm Avenue, Sarasota’s upscale shopping promenade lined with boutiques and art galleries.  Don’t miss the new Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade retailer of home decor, accessories and gifts made by 130 artisan groups in 38 impoverished countries. Check out Marianne E, Sarasota’s shell decorating artist par excellence—she’s now creating gorgeous objects with pine cones, too. Ten Thousand Villages, 45 S. Palm Ave., (941) 316-0120; Marianne E, 60 S. Palm Ave., (941) 373-1260

Inside Scoop
The delicious new wave in natural frozen yogurt has hit Sarasota with Whiteberry. Try nonfat original, green tea or raspberry at 90 calories per four-ounce serving (chocolate weighs in at 100). Order a cup and test your will power with extra toppings:  Will it be healthy fruit and nuts, or myriad choices of diet-busting candy? Whiteberry, 1473 Main St., (941) 366-5050

Required Reading
Our beloved Sarasota News & Books is gone, but its replacement promises delights of its own. Ralph Perna and Tony Driscoll have created a
multi-media center that offers international newspapers and magazines, the top 10 best sellers, and an upstairs computer center where you can take classes from Facebook to I-apps. Look for a sleek coffee bar and freshly made crepes ($4-$7); passers-by and patrons can scan six monitors that beam up every Sarasota art and cultural activity to be found.Mac on Main Street News and Books Café, 1341 Main St.., (941) 350-0699  

First Things First Almost hidden from tourists (around the corner from Main Street at Five Points) is a shopping treasure trove called First Street.  The fashion scene starts with Sarasota’s trendiest Italian shoe store, T. Georgiano’s, with its colorful python boots and drivers. Simply Spoiled is a one-of-a-kind cosmetics emporium, and Europeans love the decorative gifts and accessories at Envie—check out the back case filled with Lori Bonn jewelry and Kenny Ma bags. T. Georgiano’s Shoe Salon, 1409-B First  St.,
(941) 870-3727;  Simply Spoiled, 1417 First  St., (941) 364-3337; Envie, 1411 First St.,
(941) 366-7027

Secret Steakout Everyone knows Chef Thomas Harvey prepares sublime pasta dishes at Galileo. But local foodies say his Bistecca di Toscana (marinated rib-eye, $27.95) is better than you’d find in the best Chicago steak house. It’s no CIA secret that Harvey served as executive chef at the U.S. House of Representatives during Clinton’s second term. Galileo Ristorante, 443 Burns Court, (941) 927-9600

Urban Waterworld Bayfront Park conjures images of every city park USA, but ours combines two spectacular vistas—Sarasota’s skyline and its azure bay. Locals and visitors love the loop trail along the water for walking, biking and rollerblading.  Check out the yachts; dine or toast the sunset at Marina Jack. Grab a drink at O’Leary’s under the tiki bar, or sign up for a fishing trip—perhaps a dinner cruise.

Green with Envy At the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, guests toast the sunset with a Green Flash cocktail, invented by Peter Whitely, the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota’s über-creative bartender and mixologist, in celebration of the elusive streak of green light seen (but rarely) just as the sun disappears from view. Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, 1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, (941) 309-2000

Find your Key The vocal range on Pineapple Avenue is so near but octaves apart.  At the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre (the longest-running, continually operating, professional dinner theater in America), you’ll tap your toes to Broadway favorites.  Now in its 51st season, the Sarasota Opera is hitting high notes with its beautifully restored historic 1926 theater. Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, 25 N. Pineapple Ave., (941) 366-5454; Sarasota Opera, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., (941) 366-8450

Earthly Delights Imagine what Sarasota looked like 100 years ago as you wander the grounds of the historic Selby estate, home to one of the world’s most acclaimed botanical gardens. The 9.5-acre bayfront property is an open-air and under-glass museum of more than 20,000 colorful plants, best known for its collection of 6,000 orchids.  Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave., (941) 366-5731

Wake-up Call Yes, you can stay up late in sleepy Sarasota, and three new nightspots let you do it without leaving downtown. At the sleek new Ivory Lounge, DJs and artists from around the globe create a progressive urban sound (happy hour small plates are $5.95).  For a hot Latin vibe in an ultra-cool setting, try Selva Grill’s new Pisco Lounge. There’s live entertainment and a late night menu every Friday and Saturday with owner Darwin Santa Maria’s Piqueos (Peruvian for small bites like sea bass croquettes, $7 or a duck sandwich, $5). At the other end of Main, popular restaurant and nightspot Esca has reinvented itself as Urban Reef, with an island vibe late at night and French-Floridian bar food,  like a jumbo lump crabcake with avocado-tomato relish and orange coriander beurre blanc ($11). Ivory Lounge, 1413 Main St., (941) 388-7869;  Selva Grill/Pisco Bar & Lounge, 1345 Main St., (941) 362-4427, www.selvagrill.com; Urban Reef, 1888 Main St., (941) 365-3722, www.urbanreefsrq.com

 

Venice
From shark’s teeth to stylish shopping, this beachy little town is a treasure.

Better than Buffett
For Hawaiian shirts a notch above, the choices at Captain’s Landing are better than a cheeseburger in paradise. Brothers Trent and Troy Young offer head-to-toe dressing with exceptional resort menswear, including Florida’s largest selection of tropical shirts from Hawaii’s couture brand, Tori Richard. Try one in their special cotton lawn fabric that’s as cool and crisp as an ocean breeze ($79.50). Captain’s Landing, 319 W.  Venice Ave., (941) 485-2329  

Oh the Shark, Babe
Pick up a long-handled sieve (“Florida snow shovel,” from $11.99), and head to Caspersen Beach for some serious shark tooth hunting. But first, check out Sea Pleasures’ jaw-dropping “museum” cases brimming with fossilized shark teeth. Venice is the undisputed shark tooth capital of the world, and manager Shelly Fox says the store’s been curating the displays since 1958.  “Grownups who visited as children now come back to share the fun with their own kids,” says Shelly. Bring in your youngster’s finds and she’ll ID them; or pick up a two-ounce package for $3.99. Sea Pleasures & Treasures, 225 W.  Venice Ave., (941) 488-3510

The Chic Contessa
It seems some busy women are more amenable to clothes shopping while on vacation, and the Barefoot Contessa is happy to oblige. The mix runs from Simon Chang’s high-fashion jackets and sophisticated dresses to hip evening wear (by Sue Wong and Diane Freis) that looks as great at a charity ball as it does (in ivory) on a bride at a destination beach wedding. It’s all about slinky mermaid fit and classic glamour. Barefoot Contessa, 305A W.  Venice Ave., (941) 484-1898

Jumpin’ Jetties
Head for the action at the South Venice Jetty: incredible fishing from the rocks, a hidden beach for sunbathing, and (would you believe) surfing when the winds kick up. Families watch for dancing dolphins and manatees; couples come at dusk for people-watching as spectacular as the sunsets. Toast the view at the Crow’s Nest restaurant, right at the point where the Intracoastal Waterway opens to the Gulf of Mexico. South Jetty, Humphris Park in Venice, at the end of Tarpon Center Drive; Crow’s Nest, 1968 Tarpon Center Drive, (941) 484-9551

Fish Stories
Walk out on the fishing pier at Sharky’s and you’ll almost feel as if you’re sailing.  A Venice landmark for fresh fish, sunsets and live bands, Sharky’s guarantees the ultimate beach bum experience—dining with the sunset in full view on a deck (the place to be) with a tiki bar steps away.  After munching on the best-ever Gulf shrimp bruschetta ($12), rent a rod and reel from the bait and tackle shop on the pier and let the fish tales begin. Sharky’s on the Pier, 1600 Harbor Drive S., (941) 488-1456

Smile Marker 33 Whether you arrive by land or by sea, the dockside dining at Aqua will make you smile. Chef Matthew Passalacqua’s cuisine rivals the most sophisticated downtown: The fish here is celebrated. In fact, everything on the menu shines, as does his Sunset Special (at $23.95 the best deal in town). This is not your grandmother’s early bird dinner. Between 5 and 6 p.m., you get a glass of wine and three courses. The fare is straight from the evening menu—just slightly smaller
portions that benefit you and your wallet. Aqua Restaurant & The Little Wet Bar, 576 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey, (941) 918-8041

Venice Alfresco The owners combined their names to create Cassariano, and their restaurant is the perfect amalgam of Antonio Pariano’s culinary talents and Luca Cassani’s polished service. Both in the mid-30s and natives of Northern Italy, they’ve got Venice abuzz with fabulous prices and impeccable meals. Order a bowl of the best pasta Bolognese this side of the Grand Canal and imagine you’re dining alfresco in St. Mark’s Square. Cassariano, 305 W.  Venice Ave., (941) 485-0507

Curtain Call After winning more awards than any other community theater in Florida for more than a decade, Venice Theatre is not about to slack off in 2010—its 60th anniversary.  With a MainStage, a Stage II, and 1,500 volunteers producing at least 25 shows this year, the year-long celebration includes hosting the AACT International 2010 in late June with shows from 14 theater troupes representing five continents. Venice Theatre, 140 W.  Tampa Ave., (941) 488-1115

Designing Mind Though Janice Riordan has been designing interiors for 20 years, the new Seaside Chic is her first retail venture. She’s assembled everything you need for the coastal look, from furniture to area rugs and throw pillows. Exquisite tabletop accessories and gifts (think magnifying glasses and bookmarks) are surprisingly affordable. The tropical, sheer-curtained poster bed is dream-inducing. Seaside Chic, 217 W.  Venice Ave., (941) 483-1177

Magical Mermaid Creating their own upscale version of not-so-shabby chic, artists and co-owners Ashley DeLeon and Valerie Doss will capture your heart with hand-crafted shell accessories, organic soaps, candles, pillows and the magic of mermaids. Clients have dubbed Sirene (French for mermaid) Coastal Interiors the “Mermaid House,” and when you see the beautiful art prints here ($12 to $50) you’ll know why. Sirene Coastal Interiors, 237 W.  Venice Ave., (941) 488-3830

 

Anna Maria
Things we love on this  seven-mile sliver of Florida’s barefoot past.

Greener Pastures
Islanders are proud as punch of eco-efforts that transformed overgrown farmland into a playground/sanctuary known as Robinson Preserve. Now tourists and residents shake off civilization with 400-plus acres of open marshlands and water once blocked off for farming, and nature trails for hiking, biking and bird-watching. Experience the view from a “sit-on-top” ocean kayak (half day, $29). Shawn Dutschayer of Native Rentals is the go-to guy for self-guided tours through the Preserve’s maze of water trails connecting to Perico Bayou and Palma Sola Bay. Native Rentals, 5416 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-7757, Shawn’s cell (941) 527-6355;  Robinson Preserve Main Gate, 1704 99th St. NW, Bradenton, (Natural Resources Department, (941) 748-4501 ext. 4602)

The Play’s the Thing
Support Anna Maria’s homegrown talent with a fun night out at the local community theater. Now in its 61st season, the Island Players theater offers a five-show subscription for $65 (single tickets, $15). Headliners this year are two hits by Neil Simon. Pick up a script at the Island Branch Public Library and go for an audition. Island Players, 10009 Gulf Drive, Anna Maria, (941) 778-5755

Burger Wars
The Hatfields and the McCoys had nothing over Duffy’s and Skinny’s, two burger joints whose feud is legendary on Anna Maria Island. Have some fun and ask patrons at both bars to give you the back story. But when it comes to a burger-and-cold beer throw down, Duffy’s was named one of the top 10 hamburger heavens in the country by USA Today readers in 1989 (even though French fries aren’t on the menu). Our advice: Try them both to see who’s ahead today.  
Duffy’s Tavern, 5808 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-2501; Skinny’s Place, 3901 Gulf Drive N., Holmes Beach, (941) 778-7769

Art and Soul
Artist AnnMarie Nicholas will heat up your passion for Old Florida beach decor the second you step inside her enchanting studio/boutique. Bring in a piece of vintage furniture, and she’ll customize it with painting or decoupage, creating the ultimate souvenir.  You’ll find adorable tropical handbags, original Florida scenes painted on salvaged wood and whimsical beach shack signs ($25) with witticisms like No Shell Phones. A Room with a Hue, 12518 Cortez Road W., Cortez, (941) 798-9034

Sweet Spots
It’s a family affair at Sign of the Mermaid, a quaint eatery set in a 1912 cottage where chef Ed Spring works magic with fish (try the blue crab cakes, $24.95). Known to insiders as The Baker, wife Andrea whips up award-winning pies, including Gulf Coast Key lime, chocolate espresso explosion and Key West crunch.  Andrea’s blue ribbons led to a spot on the Food Network Challenge. Sign of the Mermaid, 9707 Gulf Drive,  Anna Maria, (941) 778-9399

It Takes a Village
Cross the Cortez Bridge for a hidden architectural treasure: Historic Cortez Village, the only surviving commercial fishing village in Florida. Download a walking tour of this charming community of 110-year-old Cracker cottages and fish houses (at cortezvillage.org), all in a navigable 10-block radius. The Cortez Community Center (4523 123rd St. Court W.) houses a workshop where a master boat builder and volunteers restore and craft vessels (Thursday to Saturday year-round) under the auspices of the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez, (941) 708-6120.  And
don’t miss the catch of the day at the Star Fish Company dockside restaurant—the faithful queue up early for a fresh grouper sandwich ($9.95) with cornmeal hush puppies. Star Fish Company, 12306 46th Ave. W., (941) 794-1243

Key West Kitsch The funk is non-stop on Anna Maria Island, from Historic Bridge Street‘s kitschy beach shops and Key West architecture to a string of big-personality eateries along Gulf Drive. Don’t miss the steel drums and reggae beat at Jamrocks Jamaican Grill—the spicy jerk wings are killer ($7 for 10). Carnivores swear by the hickory smoked ribs ($14.99) at Mr. Bones, where you grab your cold beer at the door from a coffin-cum-cooler. No salt, pepper or condiments allowed—don’t even ask.  Jamrocks Jamaican Grill, 1701 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach, (866) 575-7184; Mr. Bones, 3007 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-6614

Sunset Zones Sunset casts an equal-opportunity glow on Anna Maria: Fabulous views come with dinner regardless of budget. The grouper sandwich ($8.50) is as good as the fishing and the sunset at the Rod & Reel, a bar and restaurant at the end of an old pier jetting out into Tampa Bay.  Watch the pink and lavender sky with a cocktail and the Sandbar’s fabled conch fritters ($8.99). Out on the daiquiri deck, your best guess on the time the sun will set may win your table a bottle of champagne.  At the top of the gastronomic ladder, the Beach Bistro serves up celestial bouillabaisse ($46) with a sauce that matches the sunset’s brilliance. Rod & Reel, 875 North Shore Drive, Anna Maria (941) 778-1885; Sandbar, 100 Spring Ave., (941) 778-0444; Beach Bistro, 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach (941) 778-6444

Soul Food “People come in hungry and feed their souls,” says Rachael Schaefer, new owner of Ginny and Jane E’s, a local landmark for breakfast, gossip, gifts and more. It’s part cafe, part funky boutique brimming with vintage painted furniture, antiques and clothes—even a library and Internet cafe. It’s also the place to meet friends while enjoying great soups, sandwiches and a divine slice of chocolate cake ($4); leave with a vintage painted console with original glass pulls ($324). Ginny’s and Jane E’s at the Old IGA, 9807 Gulf Drive, Anna Maria (941) 778-3170  

Coastal Living Forget indistinguishable white-on-white interiors and let Barb Jaeger color your life with coastal style.  Her trilogy of stores (White Egret, Egret’s Nest and Egret’s Landing) covers everything from exquisite hostess gifts to hard-to-find Spartina handbags ($99) from Daufuskie Island, S.C., and vibrantly hued island-style bedding. Egret’s Nest, 10010 Gulf Drive,  Anna Maria (941) 778-8406; White Egret, 10006 Gulf Drive,  Anna Maria (941) 778-3782; The Egret’s Landing, 5602 Marina Drive, Homes Beach (941) 778-2878

Shipwreck Central For some real marine intelligence, head over to Sea Trek Divers—a dive shop, tour operator and instruction facility literally across the street/beach from the Regina Wreck Underwater Preserve (one of only 10 state underwater archaeological parks in Florida).  Known to locals as the Sugar Barge, 247-foot Regina was built in Ireland for Cuban molasses trade in 1904 and sunk off Bradenton Beach in 1940 during a storm. It’s an easy shore dive for beginners; you’ll see sand dollars, sea horses, jellyfish, spade fish and more. Sea Trek Divers offers both PADI and National Geographic diving instruction and certification—including a four-day program for tourists.  Choose from two-tank dive charters ($80) or one-tank shallow water excursions to local man-made reefs ($40). They also teach kids as young as five to snorkel with scuba gear and those eight-11 to scuba dive in a six-foot pool. Sea Trek Divers, 105 Seventh St. N., Bradenton Beach, (941) 779-1506

Fashion Find Fashionistas from Fort Myers to Tampa make regular runs (or should we say pilgrimages) to Irene’s, a little boutique that’s big on style. Owner Nanette Almeter offers prices that make even the most hardened competitive shoppers swoon. Look for Tribal jeans, Brighton and Vera Bradley accessories, and sophisticated resort fashions for day and evening by Canadian designers Frank Lyman and Joseph Ribkoff. Irene’s Resort Wear, 5308 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-1161 z

 

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This article appears in the December 2009 issue of Sarasota Magazine.

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Limelight People & Parties

Limelight People & Parties

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