Bellagio celebrated its first birthday last month. This young Italian restaurant, perched on the fringe of the Towles Court artists' colony, pays culinary homage to an ancient and charming Italian town that sits at the foot of the Alps and at the top of the headland that divides Lake Como in two. Called "the Pearl of Lario," the quiet European resort city is known for spectacular views, silk production, luxury hotels and fine food, including the local Lake Como perch and other fresh-caught seafood. If you order veal or chicken stew or osso buco in Bellagio, Italy, it will come to the table on a pad of polenta. And that's just the way you'll get your chicken cacciatore at Bellagio in Sarasota.
Five years ago polenta wasn't on anybody's plate in Florida. Now this cornmeal mush is ubiquitous. I'd much rather have seen my excellently seasoned and toothsome chicken cacciatore on a petite mound of vermicelli or all by itself with a hunk of bread, but polenta has its advocates. And I can't fault chef Paolo Amiovar for authenticity. Amiovar is from that northern region of Italy and went to culinary school in Bellagio. Thus he cooks like the native he is.
I like the way the Bellagio menu is composed, in courses and with the titles in Italian, but the descriptions in English. So if you're intrigued by medaglioni de bue al pepa rosa, you can read on to discover the meal is two filet mignon medallions with a pink peppercorn, tarragon and cognac demiglace. Served with caramelized Bermuda onions, this hearty meal is $25.95. Chef's piccatine alla Lombarda refers to another city in Italy and is thinly pounded veal sautéed with lemon butter capers in a white wine reduction sauce. The flavors are delicate but bright. At $15.95, it's served with pan-roasted potatoes.
The menu lists a half-dozen pastas and as many fish dishes, which include freshwater trout, Florida grouper, grilled salmon steak and a really tasty gamberoni del golfo, or garlic sautéed shrimp with pine nuts, lemon juice, white wine and brandy. Rich and soul satisfying at $16.95. Besides what's on the menu, expect three or four nightly specials. Additionally, chef is accommodating. If you want pine nuts left out or more put in instead of olives, he'll oblige.
Chef Amiovar used to cook at Uva Rara, where his osso buco had great buzz. In his new trattoria, osso buco isn't listed on the menu, but if you phone a day ahead, he'll be more than glad to make it. The food at Bellagio isn't innovative or flashy, it just tastes good. And over the long haul, that is what keeps people coming back.
Bellagio has both indoor and outdoor (under cover) seating for about 50. It's a storefront trattoria, with the pumpkin faux finish walls complementing the tile floor. The modern chrome and glass sconces, black and white linen layered tables and dark bistro chairs give the place a sophisticated urban atmosphere. Background music is American and jazzy. Two long walls are lined with reproductions of antique hand-colored lithographs of the idyllic city of Bellagio. They're worth close admiration. Some of these drawings are reproduced again on the handsome menu and on both sides of the restaurant business card.
The wine is list is primarily Italian (a couple of beers, too) and well priced, meaning you can easily access a nice selection in the $40 range. Additionally, there are a few wines by the glass for about $5.
Desserts are the usual Italian specialties-tiramisu, cannoli, gelato, sorbets and berries in cream. A cappuccino parfait scented with amaretto liquor stands out. Price for all sweets is $5. And of course there's good strong espresso on the dessert side of the menu and even a cup of cappuccino, which is something a restaurant in Italy would never do. Italians drink cappuccino only in the morning. When it's ordered at night in a restaurant, the servers shake their heads and say to one another, "must be the Americans."
322 S. Washington Blvd. (U.S. 301), Sarasota
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 5:30-10 p.m. Closed Sunday
Parking in rear of building
Brand-new, swanky and with a wine by-the-glass list of 100, Fleming's has come to town. What a splash in the glass. More refined than Outback and less price intimidating than Ruth's Chris, it's upscale, but not haute extreme.
Wine is important at Fleming's; it's used as part of the decor at the bar and displayed in racks in the upper and lounge-level dining rooms. Look for an open kitchen (notice the classy quilted copper awning) and a design scheme that's lighter and more polished than in traditional man-land steakhouses. Relaxed but definitely sophisticated, Fleming's gives chain restaurants a very good name indeed. The place seats about 200 in several sections, some more private and cozy than others, but the noise level is high, well beyond a convivial buzz when the dining rooms are full.
Entrées average $26, and that doesn't include side dishes. Vegetables and other accompaniments are ordered separately and served family style, which means a dish to pass around easily serves three. Sides average $6 and include four kinds of potato dishes, creamed spinach or corn, broccoli, asparagus, sautéed button mushrooms in garlic butter, and onion rings spiced with a chipotle chili mayonnaise. Definitely worth trying. Six different salads are offered, including an iceberg lettuce wedge with tomatoes, red onions and crumbled blue cheese in a creamy blue cheese dressing. It's like something out of the '50s. The restaurant's signature salad is a more modern mélange of seasonal greens, candied walnuts with tomatoes and croutons. Salads average $6.50 and are generous enough to share.
Chief among the entrées, of course, is steak, which is USDA Prime, corn-fed and aged up to a month. It's hand-cut daily and broiled at 1600-degrees. Choose an eight-ounce filet mignon or one that weighs in at 12. There's a 16-ounce and a 22-ounce rib-eye, as well as a 16-ounce and 20-ounce New York strip. Peppercorn sauce and Bernaise are served with all the steaks upon request. Additionally, the kitchen serves a half-dozen seafood specialties (the tuna mignon is especially pleasant, with its poppyseed au poivre and sherry vinaigrette) and a mixed grill as well as veal, pork and lamb chops and a chicken breast baked in white wine. Desserts include a rich and creamy-fudgy chocolate torte and a superior, individually prepared berry cobbler crowned by vanilla ice cream. Served warm, this is also plenty generous enough to share, if you can bear to. Everything we sampled at Fleming's was first rate. The steaks are as fine as those prepared in the finest establishments in town.
But a successful steakhouse can't succeed on elegant beef alone-the meat is too expensive to begin with. So a fabulous money-making bar is essential; and Fleming's has one. Besides mixed drinks served from a handsome polished wood oasis, the wine list is a standout; and it's so brilliantly organized that a novice can navigate it. It's divided into sparklings, whites and reds, with the offerings listed progressively from light to full-bodied.
Corporate wine director Marian Jansen op de Haar is the mastermind of the Fleming's wine list nationally; and she personally trains all the servers in all the Fleming's restaurants to ensure a basic level of knowledge. There is no sommelier. The wine bar serves special two-ounce tastings (in flights of three), and there are 100 wines by the glass, averaging $8, with many heading far north of that. A single glass of Duckhorn, sauvignon blanc, 2001, is $15.25; and a pour of Freemark Abbey, Bosche Estate Napa Valley, 1998 will set you back $23.95. It's tempting to allow your spirits bill at Fleming's to outstrip your New York strip steak dinner. But whatever the final balance, the total experience at this upmarket chain delivers satisfaction and value.
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
2002 Siesta Drive, Sarasota
Dinner: daily, Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9 p.m.
Parking: off-street in restaurant lot
If you've got to travel that miserable I-4 up to the Orlando area this summer, you can take some of the tedium out of the trip by experiencing a new concept restaurant called Seasons 52. A chain restaurant owned by the Darden Group (Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze, Smokey Bones), it's located near Universal Studio in a strip mall that runs on two sides of a highway and includes other restaurants such as Roy's, Ruth's Chris, Cedars, Gran Cru, and lots more.
The menu at Seasons 52 changes weekly and is based on the availability of fresh local ingredients. The concept is healthy food prepared in imaginative ways (i.e., mostly grilled) and served with flair. No entrée is more than 475 calories. Signature desserts ($1.95) are served in double shot glasses and consist of a mousse-like substance crowned with berries, crunchy nut topping, or flavored coulis. Entrées are about $18 and come with two or three vegetables and little or no starch. Don't expect a basket of bread-but the flatbread appetizers are well worth trying.
The restaurant backs onto a man-made lake, so you can sit outside under a big awning and enjoy some laid-back Florida atmosphere. Inside, under the high ceiling of dark beams, the decor is a stylistic combination of Arts & Crafts architecture with strong Japanese influences. There's a full bar to one side of the dining room and the open kitchen to the other. This pleasant restaurant makes eating smart a delicious adventure. Seasons 52 would do well in the Sarasota area, but it's not coming yet. The second Seasons 52 is set to open in Fort Lauderdale later this year.
7700 Sand Lake Road, Orlando
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 4:30-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight.
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Q. For me the classic BLT is a complete meal, and I frequently enjoy one for breakfast, lunch or supper. I'm always looking for a new twist on this classic when I study restaurant menus. Seen a good one lately?
A. Not only have I seen it but I ate it, and you should, too. It's the St. Bart's Shrimp BLT at Tommy Bahama's on St. Armands Circle. The big sourdough toasted sandwich is composed of lemon grilled shrimp, smoked bacon, lettuce and tomato smeared with garlic aioli and served with a snappy Asian shredded salad and skinny French fries. $14. Enjoy this one for lunch or dinner (probably not breakfast) when you want something full flavored and filling. Tommy Bahama's, 300 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands Circle, Sarasota. 388-2888.