Two Dutch sisters with a love for food and hospitality, Ismini and Nicky Van Gurp, married two Italian men, Andrea Bozzolo and Giovanni Cristofoli, with similar passions. The quartet recently ended up in Sarasota on Main Street, where they have opened a 98-seat metropolitan Mediterranean bistro called Divino. It's fresh, young and full of great international vibes, just like the multicultural music that plays in the background.
The inviting postcard-size oil paintings on the walls are courtesy of the sisters' mother, Elly Van Gurp, who also helped decorate the two cozy eating areas. The décor includes a handsome polished wood bar, fountain, cool stone floors and smart bistro tables-just enough ambience to make you feel transported from the construction and traffic noise on one of Sarasota's busiest streets into a shady European courtyard. No one hurries you, and you're bound to run into friends, because the buzz about Divino has spread like lightning.
While Ismini, Nicky and her husband Cristofoli see to the front of the house and business matters, 32-year-old Bozzolo (married to Ismini) is blissfully content to stay in his spacious and meticulously organized kitchen, from which he turns out fresh pasta and fresh Tuscan bread every day. He even makes his own croutons for the salads. In another area of the kitchen (he'll give you a tour if you ask), he braises his meats in rich, dark, aromatic wine sauces. When he lifts the lids, you want to beg for a fork. Or you can just order the Brasato Piedmontese, served with potatoes (on the dinner menu for $13.95). This chef loves doing jazzy riffs on old recipes or just inventing new dishes. His sformatino (an appetizer at $5.95) is a purée of fresh vegetables under a crispy pancetta hat in a light cheesy sauce. And his Blue Divino (a house specialty) is salmon marinated in lime served on greens with shrimp bruschetta. His gnocchi (homemade potato dumplings) are feather-light and gently bathed in a mélange of Italian cheeses. Tortino, chef's own invention, is an eggplant torte embellished with Parmesan, mozzarella and tomato. It's delicious. In fact, everything on Bozzolo's menu excels, from a simple fettuccine with clams and mussels in garlic to the coda de rospo, which is fresh monkfish, pan-roasted in a saffron blossom sauce and served with rice pilaf ($14.95).
The Divino menu features nine appetizers, six soups and salads, eight pasta dishes, and a half dozen fish and meat dishes in each category. The average price at night is $16. Sides of pasta or vegetables are extra at $2.95. There are always two or three daily specials. At lunchtime, paninis (hot pressed sandwiches) are served with a side salad, along with frittatas, pastas, soups and salads. Lunch is about $8.
Bozzolo loves wine, and uses Robert Parker's tips and ratings of obscure wines from small producers as his starting point. Consequently, he's building an interesting-and reasonably priced-cellar of Italian, Spanish and California wines. None of his 13 different house wines can be picked up in a supermarket. The price range per bottle is $19-$120 with the majority hovering around $30.
The ambitious young chef grew up in Italy near Switzerland, and his culinary training was in both countries and aboard the Princess Cruise Line. He and Ismini met aboard ship and married a year ago. She graduated first in her class at hotel management school, perfect for her position at Divino.
Chef Bozzolo's English is delightfully fractured, so he and Ismini speak Italian to each another. She speaks five languages. Whatever dialect you choose to converse in, you'll soon discover the mother tongue at this restaurant is modernist Mediterranean cooking and unexpected wines. The first word out of your mouth may simply be. "Divino!"
1766 Main St., Sarasota
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m.
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Both the beguiling woman pictured in the logo and the romantic name imply that dinner at Ophelia's on the Bay should be a grown-up gourmet adventure. And that expectation continues to be expertly fulfilled at this long-running Sarasota classic. Ophelia's seats 150, and the inside dining areas has windows overlooking Little Sarasota Bay. Outside, a covered terrace and a stone patio offer even closer proximity to the pretty view, while a weathered wooden deck almost puts diners in the water near the outcroppings of mangroves. Arrive by car or by boat (marker 48).
Tourists usually want the outdoor areas, as do smokers. Locals often select a table inside in one of the climate-controlled dining rooms to settle in for an intimate, unhurried meal while gazing at stars reflected as liquid silver on the surface of water.
The low-ceilinged burgundy and cream main dining room is cozy with its double-cloaked tables, comfortable armchairs and candle lamps of gold beading. The experienced serving staff in semi-formal attire is well versed in the menu and wine list. When you're seated, a basket of dense, chewy, warm bread arrives with a ramekin of plain butter and one containing fragrant roasted garlic.
The menu, which underwent major changes when 44-year-old executive chef Mitch Rosenbaum arrived in 1999, is California-inspired (for example, almond, fig and goat cheese strudel) with a respectful nod to regional seafood favorites, fusion fantasies and a few classics such as duck and veal chops. Entrées average about $27, and your plate will include crunchy fresh vegetables and a starch-sometimes a delightfully unexpected one, such as jasmine rice, vanilla-whipped sweet potato, baked acorn squash topped with pear, or creamy tomato risotto studded with mushrooms. Soba noodles accompany one of the tuna dishes. Here's a chef who can see beyond garlic mashed potatoes!
Other unusual items should excite even the most jaded foodie. Consider a black truffle, three-cheese ravioli, braised Swiss chard, maple-roasted duck with mulled cider, or medallions of antelope sirloin arranged on the plate with venison bratwurst and finished with a sun-dried cherry glaze and cognac. The Maine lobster is stuffed with acorn squash. A full Jamaican jerk treatment is bestowed on the pork tenderloin, for carnivores who want a little kick to their meat.
Rosenbaum has also introduced a game rotation, which includes antelope, pheasant, bison, venison and more. He searches for small farms cultivating free-range animals. With an affection for Asian and Indian cuisines, the chef is constantly experimenting with unexpected ways to serve game. But Rosenbaum also takes pride in his cornmeal-coated Key West yellow snapper served with refried beans, fried plantains and lump crabmeat guacamole. He calls this plate high-tech Mexican. And the sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna is a consistent winner. Rosenbaum has owned two restaurants in Cape Cod and has been cooking professionally for 26 years. He has special expertise with French Moroccan dishes and American seafood favorites.
The extensive wine menu ranks among the half-dozen best in Sarasota. It's balanced primarily between American and French offerings with a fair number of other nations, including Italy, Spain, and Germany. The restaurant offers 17 wines by the glass ($7-$11). Our choice with our antelope and veal entrées was a '98 Villa Mount Eden Grand Reserve Syrah ($49). The list also offers some lush, potent reds for all-game meals.
Happily, Ophelia's is a restaurant that believes in a big finish. Pastry chef Christine Nordstrom creates lavish goodies and changes the lineup seasonally. Still, some favorites remain, like the chiffon key lime pie so many tourists love. Another crowd-pleaser is the hazelnut white chocolate mouse pillowed in a dark, chocolate-lined pastry cup that rests in a pond of fresh berries and coulis. It looks as brilliant as it tastes. Comfort-food lovers need look no further than the warm, walnut bread pudding.
Ophelia's On The Bay was established in 1989 by Stanley Ferro. By local standards, this place is positively historic; a fine-dining restaurant that consistently satisfies whether you are scouting an unusual meal expertly prepared or celebrating a special occasion. Excellent food, wine, service, setting-Ophelia's On The Bay continues to furnish it all.
Ophelia's On The Bay
9105 Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key
Daily: 5-10 p.m.
Valet parking (you have no choice)
Wheelchair accessible for dining rooms, covered terrace stone patio, not deck
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SWEET'S DREAM. Sweet's is the creation of husband-and-wife painter Kathleen Carrillo and sculptor Andy Marcus. The two own a home/studio/gallery in Towles Court and are always looking for creative ways to increase the neighborhood's appeal to tourists and locals. Their newest venture is a cozy coffeehouse that seats about 50 inside and a few more on the plump wicker sofas and chairs on the screened porch and in the garden. Sweet's is gentle is on the wallet while heavy on charm and flavor.
Carrillo and Marcus bought the 1925 Florida vernacular cottage last January and spent three months revamping the interior. They left the beautiful hardwood floor and painted the outside green and purple with a welcoming red door-an auspicious color, says feng shui believer Carrillo. The inside walls are her signature shade of pistachio. In front of the original coral stone fireplace, Alexandra Holkamp, an artist and barresta (coffee expert), has set up a Kaldi coffee bar with all the proper accessories. About half the house is eatery, and the rest is a rambling gallery for a half-dozen artists to display their paintings and ceramic creations. Carrillo's large and vibrantly hued paintings hang on the walls near the coffee bar.
The coffeehouse tables are showstoppers. Carrillo and Marcus took 24-inch round tables and applied mosaics in a pattern of steaming mugs of coffee. They match the real mugs you drink from. The table tops are attached to vintage black iron bases that the couple found in a St. Petersburg warehouse.
Ricky St. Rockitt mans the kitchen, turning out house salads, sandwiches, paninis, pizzas, quiche and hearty finger food. Because Sweet's does not enjoy a full kitchen, baked goods and soups are not made here, but they come from good local sources and all are up to standards. Lunches are about $7. One of the kitchen's most popular salads is especially for those on a high-protein diet and is full of nuts and cheeses. Veggie burgers are available, too.
Now that the season is here, Sweet's owners are experimenting with later hours and open-mike evenings for poetry readings and music. They'd appreciate your input about entertainment. You'll appreciate their output, because Sweet's is exactly what Towles Court needed. I can't think of a more pleasant place to read the newspaper or to converse with a friend than the enclosed front porch at Sweet's-unless it's at one of those mosaic tables in a room filled to the rafters with art. How sweet it is.
Sweet's Coffee House & Gallery
238 S. Links Ave., Sarasota
Breakfast and lunch: Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-3 p.m. (Saturday, not until 9 a.m.)
Dinner and snacks: Thursday and Friday only, 5-10 p.m.
Parking on the street or in the Towles Court public lot
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Q. It doesn't matter if I have a pizza delivered or I go to pick one up, it's never quite hot enough or crisp enough when I sit down to eat it. Is there a way to enjoy a hot, non-soggy pizza at home?
A. There is, and Griff Coomer, the clever chef and co-owner of Honey Crust Pizzeria, has figured it out. Here's what you do. Call the restaurant and order your pizza ($7 to $18). Next, preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Drive to the restaurant and pick up your pizza. It will be fully composed, but not yet cooked. You bring the pizza home and pop in into the hot oven for 18-20 minutes. (Check the pizza after 15 minutes, because ovens vary.) While the pizza prepares itself, open a bottle of wine, get out the plates, turn on the TV or CD player and just when you're ready to sit down, the pizza will be done-hot and as crisp as you like it. There's no place like home on pizza night, is there? Honey Crust Restaurant and Pizzeria, 3251 17th St., Sarasota. 957-3919.