Hidden in a pocket of side streets, Gulf Gate has become something of a culinary hot bed these days. Sure, there are probably more bar stools per capita than people, but Gulf Gate has a new city vibe. Where a longtime gas station stood now stand Il Panificio and Piatti. There are homemade sausage stores, new bakeries, and yes, still a heavenly ham to be had. Here are my top picks for a day in Gulf Gate. Think of this as your culinary tour map.
Vizen A small, quaint Japanese restaurant that has San Francisco quality. Two dining rooms with a contemporary Asian feel. Look on the daily blackboard for specials and immerse yourself in the succulent soft shell crab roll with wasabi foam. So good, in fact, famed Iron Chef Marimoto was here about six months ago trying to hire the sushi chef. 6559 Gateway Ave., (941) 926-0830.
Word Of Mouth Quaint and homey with a very country theme, Word of Mouth has wonderful muffins and superb huevos rancheros, with a good dollop of sour cream served with a smile. Order a side of ham steak, and if they have coffee cake, get a few slices for the next day. 6604 Gateway Ave., (941) 925-2400.
Veg The remake of several other restaurants previous, this mostly vegetarian spot is simple in décor but wholesome and hearty. Believe it or not, this carnivore actually craves the veggie burger at appropriately named Veg. It’s loaded with goodness from the black beans and whole grains and has a thick, intense flavor. Ask for extra sauce to smear on the freshly baked roll and order an all-natural sparkling soda to wash it down with. 2164 Gulf Gate Drive, (941) 312-6424.
Oh Mamma Mia A narrow strip mall Italian eatery becomes theater, with the chef cooking and sometimes singing while the counter guests join in. The lasagna has a béchamel sauce worthy of every calorie-laden bite. It’s a bit of a shtick, but if they keep making lasagna like this, they can sing all they want. 2324 Gulf Gate Drive, (941) 706-2821.
Chocolate Bark Company It used to be Chocolate, Nuts and More, but the bark certainly set the pace in their chocolate department. It’s a great place for gourmet gifts. Dark chocolate, caramel sea salt bark, sinfully and seductively melting in your mouth at the same time, is sweet, bitter and salty. Ahhh–too good to bring as the hostess gift you intended. Save this one for yourself. 2114 Gulf Gate Drive, (941) 925-1111.
Oriental Food and Gifts In this cluttered shop of everything Asian and Indian, head to the back of the store where the refrigerator cases are mounted. Homemade kimchee and Korean sushi on Saturdays are specialties. 2234 Gulf Gate Drive, (941) 924-8066.
Piccolo Italian Market You could be anywhere in Little Italy or Jersey. Mortadella and salamis are hanging while older gentlemen sip espresso. The meatball grinder is the hero here. Ask for it well done with the cheese melting a light bubbly brown over the straight-from-Jersey bread. 2128 Gulf Gate Drive, (941) 923-2202.
Gas station turned Manhattan-style Italian deli and pizza shop, with an espresso bar and the same New Jersey pizza as the original downtown. A personal favorite: the goat cheese and fresh arugula. Follow it with a cannolo to enhance the real Little Italy experience. 6630 Gateway Ave., (941) 921-5570.
Transatlantic Sausage Company A truly secret find. Their smoked kielbasa is out of sight, loaded with Hungarian seasoning and hot-smoked over apple wood chips. Order online if you wish; three-pound minimum. 6620 Gateway Ave., (941) 921-BAKE (2253) and (941) 378-1515.