It’s wonderful to watch old friends defy the odds and only grow more desirable with each passing year. Such is the case of Mediterraneo, which since 1996 has seduced Sarasotans with superb Northern Italian cuisine purveyed with style and wit.
Colette and I have eaten here often over the past 10 years, grazing on everything from a sprightly orange and fennel salad (which, alas, has disappeared from the menu) to wood-fired pizza rustica (tomato, mozzarella, ham, Gorgonzola and onions) to pasta specialties like black linguine (squid ink giving it its unique color) with shrimp in a zingy tomato sauce.
We’ve dined at sidewalk tables, sipping a chilled Gavi di Gavi and people watching as crowds gathered and dispersed at the cineplex across upper Main Street. We’ve joined the folks who prefer eating in the lively and convivial bar, where walk-ins stand a good chance of being seated without reservations even on a busy Saturday night. But our favorite has always been a linen-draped table for two in the cheerfully sophisticated dining room.
On our most recent visit, as we sipped aperitifs in familiar but still fresh surroundings, we studied a gorgeous appetizer list that features not one take on carpaccio but three. That perennial favorite based on paper-thin slices of raw beef may be had here topped in the classic style with arugula and sliced Parmesan, in a tropical twist with avocado, hearts of palm, tomato and Parmesan or, as Colette chose it, with generous scoops of goat cheese around a center mound of fresh watercress liberally mixed with crisp bits of pancetta ($13.95). The raw beef was rosy and delicious, and the cool accompaniments provided pitch-perfect counterpoint.
Across the table I dived into a hot starter, a tower of roasted eggplant on a bed of full-throttle tomato sauce crowned with a near molten medallion of goat cheese and a sprig of fresh basil ($9.50), every component seasoned faultlessly. If there is a more felicitous marriage of flavors in Italian cooking, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of making its acquaintance.
Constant readers will know that Colette is a fiend for lamb prepared in any of its many forms, from a classic herb-and-mustard-crusted rack to lamb and mint sausage. It is no surprise, then, that her eye lighted squarely on Mediterraneo’s braised lamb shank osso buco on a creamy bed of Parmesan risotto ($15.95). Osso buco, which translates as “hole in the bone” and underscores the importance of bone marrow in the dish’s signature richness, may more often feature veal shank, but it’s a brilliant way to treat lamb shank, too. The richness of the slow-cooked meat and marrow is set off perfectly by a braising broth riotous with veggies, white wine and stock.
I, on the other hand, will go for duck over lamb when given the choice. At Mediterraneo, I was bowled over by quartered tender duck breast served in a divinely pungent clear sauce that drew its special savor from cranberries cooked until they popped ($24.50). The hearty duck was buttressed by swoony saffron-scented mashed potatoes and a grilled tomato wedge for color. A lovely dish!
Not surprisingly, the wine list at Mediterraneo is heavy with splendid Italian choices amply augmented by a good sampling of California bottles and a smattering of offerings that come from Chile, Oregon and France.
The restaurant also offers a fine selection of wines by the glass, which is great when you and your dinner companion have chosen entrées with distinctly different flavor profiles.
Colette’s robust lamb osso buco cried out for a big bold red, which made a Super Tuscan just the right pairing. My duck, full-flavored but with a more delicate edge, needed a less forward but equally lively wine partner, making pinot noir the best way to go.
Over dessert, a silky panna cotta topped with red berries and accented with lemony swooshes on the plate ($7), we surveyed the surroundings in deep contentment, our eyes finally focusing on the trompe l’oeil ceiling where puffy clouds float in a flawless blue Mediterranean sky, and reminded ourselves of the truth of the old adage that God is in the details.
1970 Main St., Sarasota
Reservations (recommended): (941) 365-4122
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Cards: All Major
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: On street or nearby garage
Veteran Main Streeter Mediterraneo serves superb Northern Italian cuisine in a setting as chic and as comfortable as your favorite jeans.
Fantastic fish at Duval’s New World Café
Our interest in Duval’s New World Cafe was triggered by a friend’s praise for the restaurant’s po’ boy sandwiches. We decided to give them a try.
Life, however, has a way of throwing us curve balls, and we have yet to sink a tooth into that Big Easy portable feast. Instead, we were diverted by the dinner menu, and that proved to be a good thing. When we drop in for lunch, though, we’ve promised ourselves we’ll sample the fried scallops po’ boy with Napa cabbage, chipotle mayo and tomatoes, hoping it will be as big and sloppy as it should be.
Duval’s is housed in another of the welcome renovations along Main Street that have added to the street’s culinary richness and variety. The space is longer than it is wide, as are many of the traditional cafes and restaurants in New Orleans, and is done up in a spare and pleasing modern style. Inviting banquettes line the long walls, and well-spaced freestanding tables march down the center. There also are sidewalk tables, which happily is the Main Street norm. The back wall displays not only a gleaming espresso machine but a flat screen showing the kitchen in real-time action, definitely a confidence builder.
Seafood is the keynote of a varied menu that offers lunch, dinner and all-day dining options. And boy, does this place know what to do with fish!
Calamari, too. Duval’s version ($9.95) offers feather-light flash-fried squid rings with a trio of savory dipping sauces: red cocktail with freshly grated horseradish and two cream sauces, one spiked with chipotle and the other with Dijon. We couldn’t pick a clear favorite among the three, but agreed that the cocktail sauce was a superior example of its kind.
Duval’s gumbo ($4), the Creole variety common to New Orleans, was declared by Colette to be the real deal: zesty andouille sausage, okra, corn, peppers, celery, onions and tomatoes in a rich stock thickened and flavored with filé (dried and ground sassafras leaves).
When it came to the main course we couldn’t resist the day’s fresh catches, which are, after all, a fish house’s main stock in trade.
The kitchen offers 11 different sauces and a number of cooking styles ranging from broiled to blackened. Both of us chose broiled.
My amberjack ($24) plated a purely gorgeous piece of the mild local white fish subtly accented by the familiar garlic, capers, lemon and butter of sauce picatta, while Colette’s equally beautiful Scottish salmon ($21) rocked under a surprisingly light sauce compounded of mushroom, spinach, Dijon mustard and cream. Both were first-rate.
Finally, let us praise Duval’s signature dessert, an uncommon bread pudding ($7.95) that knocked our socks off. It’s made with fruit Danish pastries mashed up into a nicely gooey, sugary amalgam that caramelizes as it bakes and develops a light golden crust. Duval’s leaves off the standard rum sauce because this particular lily requires no gilding at all.
Duval’s New World Cafe
1435 Main St., Sarasota
Reservations: (941) 312-4001
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; until 9 p.m. Sunday, with brunch served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Cards: All Major
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: On street or nearby lots or garages