Voyage to Italy
Main Street’s Café Amici offers a cook’s tour of Italy, plus casual fare at Blu Smoke, pastries at Le Macaron and more.
Sarasota’s Main Street is so liberally studded with culinary gems it’s no wonder that one occasionally is overlooked. Take, for example, Cafe Amici. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked by on my way somewhere else, glancing in the windows and thinking I really should drop in soon. Lucky for me, I finally managed to open the door and walk in at the dinner hour.
Cafe Amici is a symphony of traditional regional Italian cooking served in a cozily unpretentious space. There’s a roomy bar toward the back, and off to the side is a dining room dominated by tables dressed in black and white linens. A banquet room is adjacent. Three tables offer sidewalk dining. Waiters are dressed in black and know their menu inside out.
In three printed pages the restaurant offers a cook’s tour of Italy from Puglia to Tuscany and beyond.
The antipasti list kicks off with mozzarella Lucullus, a baked starter of rosemary ham wrapped around housemade cheese, and works its way through carpaccio, bruschetta, slow-cooked calamari with capers and olives and several others to finish with salmon marinated in vinegar, olive oil and lemon.
As if that weren’t enough, a long and varied list of soups and salads follows.
Pasta is the next category, of course, with most but not all of the pastas homemade. Capellini, fettucine, penne, linguine, lasagna and gnocchi are bathed in everything from meaty ragu Bolognese to pink vodka sauce to ultra-creamy Gorgonzola and paired with the likes of squid, shrimp, chicken, eggplant, mushrooms and more. Secondi run the gamut from duck confit with Tuscan herbs to chicken pounded paper-thin in the Milanese style to rack of lamb in a Montepulciano wine sauce.
I suggest you sip the peachy prosecco cocktail called a Bellini and wallow in this printed plenitude. Choosing will be tough, but don’t decide until your waiter has recited the day’s specials.
For our starters, Colette and I went to the standing list. From the antipasti choices I selected an old favorite, eggplant rollatini ($7.95), plated with a fresh salad in a mustardy balsamic dressing. The portion and the combination were just right. The rolled eggplant stuffed with rich homemade mozzarella and ricotta cheeses spiked with basil and topped with a delicate marinara at Cafe Amici ranks with the best I’ve tasted in a long career at table.
From the list of salads Colette chose a stunner, as pretty on the plate as it was delicious. Portobello Zola ($6.95) stuffs a generous mushroom cap with mild, young Gorgonzola dolce, then drizzles it with a fragrant spiral of balsamic vinegar and serves it atop a salad of chopped organic greens. Delightful.
Many of the pasta and main dishes tempted us, but our waiter swayed us with his recitation of two specials that, while not on the menu, are prepared as close to every day as market availability allows.
Colette fell for the ossobuco Milanese ($33.95), that celestial dish of veal shank sprinkled with gremolata (a mixture of parsley, garlic and lemon peel), drizzled with olive oil and braised a couple of hours to fork tenderness on its marrow bone in wine and herbs. When done right, few dishes are more succulent and satisfying. Cafe Amici, which substitutes yummy homemade wide fettucine for risotto as a sauce-absorbing base layer for the meat, does ossobuco absolutely right.
I chose the grouper Livornese ($28.95), which the kitchen sometimes does with snapper if Gulf Coast Florida’s signature firm white fish is unavailable. Cafe Amici starts with a gorgeous piece of grouper, sautés it and sauces it in a chunky tomato-based ambrosia of a wine sauce spiked with black Kalamata olives, tangy capers, plenty of garlic, some parsley and red pepper flakes—sort of a putanesca without the anchovies but every bit as savory. On the evening we visited, the kitchen served this delectable prep atop a nice mix of cubed potatoes, julienned carrots and green peppers.
For dessert (come on, you know us!) I caved for cannoli Siciliani ($6.95), the real creamy crunchy deal topped with a strawberry rose, and washed it down with a modest tawny port.
Colette, always more temperate, chose an excellent espresso to accompany a toothsome, cool and equally creamy strawberry zabaione ($6.95), that apotheosis of custards.
1371 Main St., Sarasota
Reservations: (941) 951-6896
Bar: wine list weighted to Italian reds plus full bar Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday- Thursday, until 10:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, and 4-10 p.m. Sunday
Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: on street or nearby city garage
What I'm Drinking
Drum Circle Distilling’s Siesta Key Rum.
Sarasota’s only distillery produces small-batch, hand-bottled, hand-labeled rum made with molasses from Florida-grown organic sugar cane and a yeast custom blended by distiller Troy Roberts, founder and co-owner of Drum Circle Distilling.
The first bottle of Siesta Key white rum went on sale March 18 at Siesta Spirits in the Village and quickly found other outlets. By the time you read this, an oak-aged Siesta Key golden rum will have joined the white on retailers’ shelves and in bartenders’ arsenals.
When we visited—and tasted—the white rum went down wonderfully smoothly, and a barrel sample of the golden, still weighing in at an overmuscled 65 percent alcohol by volume, packed a powerful punch. When bottled for sale it will have been gentled to 40 percent ABV, producing an 80 proof rum.
Cut half and half with water, the golden, which still needed another month in its 10-gallon new American oak barrel on the date of our visit, revealed something of the complexity and polish that it will boast when ready for market.
Everything about Drum Circle Distilling is small-scale and hands-on. Roberts and his father assembled the gleaming stainless steel mixing and fermentation tanks and the copper still and rectifying column. They scraped and painted the floors and walls of the warehouse-turned-distillery, and they’re the ones who mop up after the messy business of loading the mixing tanks and transferring the sticky mix of molasses and water to the fermentation tanks, where that custom blend of two yeasts is introduced into the process prior to distilling. Likewise for moving the raw rum into aerating tanks and, for the golden, into barrels for aging. The bottles are filled by hand and labeled and corked by hand, and then the batch number is entered by hand on each label, which bears an evocative island illustration by Ringling College of Art and Design grad Ron Borrensen.
The result of all that coddling is a white rum rich with deep and complex flavors, aromatic on the nose and smooth but with just enough agreeable edge on the palate. While, as Roberts observed, it would make a killer mojito, it is a true sipping rum, as satisfying on its own as in a cocktail. The aged golden ramps up the deep flavors and smoothness to an appreciable degree and adds the pleasure of a pale golden hue unaided by artificial coloring or the addition of straight molasses, its color and enhanced savor owing entirely to its time in the lightly charred interior of its barrel.
Siesta Key White Rum retails around town at about $21.99, and the golden is expected to go for under $25. Coming up: flavored rums!
An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, Web sites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.
Blu Smoke Island Grill serves up beachy bites.
Let’s say you’ve spent a fine afternoon at the beach on Siesta Key. All that strolling, swimming, basking and stooping for shells has worked up a robust appetite and a powerful thirst. Luckily, right in the middle of the Village you’ll find Blu Smoke Island Grill, a way casual beachy sort of place with a hearty menu and bars indoors and out. Salvation.
More seating at Blu Smoke is alfresco than air conditioned, but, hey, you’re not really dressed for someplace swanky. So relax, order up some cold beer and a rack of ribs and kick back.
Big Aaron’s baby back ribs ($18 for a full slab) are the way to go. They’re smoked over hardwoods without basting, a technique that brings out the pig meat’s full savor rather than covering it up. When it comes to saucing, you have your choice of three housemade concoctions—classic tomatoey BBQ, Southwestern chipotle or Carolina-style mustard—and the option of having the sauce applied for you or served on the side. This is a fine way to treat ribs.
The menu offers a few pasta dishes and a nod to the nearby sea, but meat is king. If ribs aren’t your dish, you could opt for Texas-style beef brisket or maybe a marinated smoked half chicken, but a choice of five different steaks shows you where the kitchen comes down on the issue.
A good choice is the 12-ounce New York strip ($24), lightly marbled and with just enough resistance to the tooth. Ours was expertly grilled to the requested medium rare.
There’s a whole raft of side dishes, from cheese grits to fries to braised red cabbage. A standout is the extra creamy “blu” cheese slaw.
There are even more starters and salads to choose from at the front end of the meal, from the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce wedge to smoked chicken wings served sauced or naked. We sampled the fried baby artichokes ($8) with an aioli dipping sauce and were very happy that we did. The tiny ’chokes were tender and succulent inside their jackets of breading. Great finger food!
Choices are fewer at the other end of the meal, but Blu Smoke makes up for skimpier options with mammoth portions of whatever you choose. Ours was a bourbon bread pudding ($5) as big as my head.
Blu Smoke Island Grill
149 Avenida Messina, Siesta Key
Reservations: (941) 346-0738
Bar: beer, wine and full bar
Hours: open from 11 a.m. until the dinner rush clears up 7 days Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: complimentary valet
Chef Judi Gallagher salutes summer with fresh, juicy cantaloupe.
If I had just one fruit to select for summer eating, it would be the Athena cantaloupe. What other fruit can be simply wrapped in imported prosciutto and fresh basil for a divine appetizer or filled with ambrosia and fruit sorbet for a cooling dessert?
Originally from Persia and believed to have found the New World by way of Christopher Columbus, the melon was named after Cantalupo near Tivoli, Italy, where the Pope spent his summers. While high in natural sugars, cantaloupes are also antioxidants with anti-cancer agents.
Athena cantaloupes are a Florida summer favorite, growing 5 to 7 pounds at full ripeness. Melons become aromatic as they ripen. You can smell the fragrance at the stem end of the fruit. They may also start to shrivel slightly. This ripening process may be shown by indentations on the surface of the fruit.
Never refrigerate whole, uncut melons. Keep ripening melons away from onions, garlic, potatoes or other fruits. Wash the melon(s) before cutting; the skin is often contaminated with salmonella, which can be transferred to the flesh of the fruit as you cut it open. Once cut, be sure to cover and refrigerate the melon.
This is an old favorite recipe that I adapted from Bon Appetit years ago when we first moved to Florida.
Cantaloupe and Mint Salad with Grilled Shrimp
1 cantaloupe, halved, seeded, peeled
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 teaspoons grated lime peel
2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons grated peeled
2 teaspoons honey
For the shrimp:
8 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined, brushed with olive oil
Pinch crushed red pepper
Sea salt to taste
½ cup chopped cashews
Heat the grill to medium high. Skewer shrimp to keep them from curling; season and grill about 2-2 ½ minutes on each side
Cut cantaloupe into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes (about 5 cups) and place in large bowl. Add lime juice, mint and lime peel; toss to blend. Mix in sugar, ginger, and honey. Refrigerate salad until ready to serve, stirring occasionally, up to 3 hours. Top with grilled shrimp and chopped cashews.