Florida is known as a retirement safe haven and a winter getaway for us snowbirds up north. But what about its food scene? With access to fresh seafood, bordering states that are known for Southern cooking (Georgia, Alabama), and weather that is ideal for growing, it’s a mystery how this area hasn’t prospered into a culinary mecca.
Though there are must-try local favorites, there are also some talented chefs that want to make Florida a food destination. By bringing their own style of cooking to the state, these chefs are elevating the way Floridians eat.
The western area of Florida is home to Naples and Marco Island, aptly named Paradise Coast. While on a mission to eat the best these towns have to offer, I went up one pant size, met three remarkable chefs, and experienced Florida’s renewable food source.
Located in Naples, this restaurant is a pioneer in fresh food. The Local’s fearless leader, chef Jeff Mitchell, has been in the restaurant industry for 20 years. He took great pride in explaining the different produce he serves and why it’s featured on the menu. One of the first courses served was his version of a tomato soup. Included in this small bowl were subtle nuances of orange, basil, pomegranate, and pistachio, and it was topped with a dollop of ricotta. This may seem like a muddle of flavors, but the fruits kept the soup — which otherwise could have been heavy — very light.
But dessert was the real star. Mitchell fried zeppolis, made from a dough using a ricotta-like cheese that he makes himself, and served them on a bed of crème anglaise paired with jam. This fried dough seemed to never fill me up and I ended up eating the whole plate, though I did restrain myself from licking it clean.
One of the main highlights for locals is the whole pig that Mitchell orders weekly from local farmers, truly embracing the concept of nose-to-tail cooking. When I was there, two customers came in looking for the house bacon and were heartbroken that the restaurant was sold out.
The Local is technically a farm-to-table restaurant, but Mitchell expressed how he’s not particularly fond of the term. “This is the way we were meant to eat,” he said.
This place seems to be a well-kept secret among locals, so make a point to stop by if you ever find yourself in Naples.
Florida is lacking in elevated eating establishments. Some chefs are tackling this challenge head on and are looking to transform the big state. Chef Vincenzo Betulia is a Sicilian native who is looking to tap into this area of the market that has long been overlooked.
Dinner at his restaurant, Osteria Tulia, was a slice of heaven. Upon being seated and served bread with an eggplant caponata, you’d think you have died and gone to Italy. Instead of serving his diners butter before the meal, Betulia has opted for this classic topping, a recipe passed down from his grandmother. For those of you who are mourning the loss of your bread and butter ritual, there is a method Betulia’s madness. Butter coats your mouth in fat and in many ways will mask any flavors you eat immediately after. Besides, the caponata is infinitely more delicious. It was meant to be a small bite for customers, but has been received so well that the restaurant now sells the topping by the pound.
Main courses range from classic osso bucco to the chef’s whimsical take on pizzas, like “Mary Had A Little Lamb” (pizza topped with lamb sausage, ricotta, chile, and onions). The pasta is all made fresh in house and Betulia oversees all aspects of his kitchen. While I was eating, the chef personally made rounds in the dining room and offered an addition of shaved white truffle. I chose to dine on a garganelli pasta with a cream sauce and white truffle. The balance of flavors cannot be overlooked. The pasta was cooked to perfection and the truffle, which can be easily overdone, was a welcome addition.
Betulia will be opening a French dining option in downtown Naples as well, something I learned while helping myself to a second helping of tiramisu. And the real surprise? He insists on running both kitchens! Though many chefs choose to appoint a head chef or a trusted sous to their restaurants in their absence, Betulia will be running back and forth up the street of Fifth Avenue to ensure the quality of his food doesn’t falter.
The stone crab claw harvest is highly anticipated in Florida and for good reason. The season is from October to May, but these fishermen aren’t just catching the crabs. In order to harvest the most desirable part, the claw, fishermen detach the claws at the joint and then throw the crustaceans back. Stone crabs have the ability to regenerate their claws every one to two years, making this Florida’s most coveted sustainable food source.
At City Seafood, in Everglade City, an easy 45-minute drive from Naples, they have the cooking process down to a science. The claws are boiled and then chilled rapidly to ensure the delicate white meat doesn’t stick to the shell. The cold crab claws are then served with a creamy mustard on the side, which, when eaten together, is a revelation of flavor. Some locals cook with the crab meat in bisques or tacos, but nothing comes close to eating the crab straight from the shell.
Like a true seafood shack, City Seafood also dishes up mountains of fries drenched in malt vinegar. Maybe not so typical is the alligator basket I also enjoyed here. Deep-fried gator served as a side dish to the cold seafood rounded out the whole meal.
Pazzi’s can be found tucked away at the J.W. Marriott on Marco Island. It’s a more casual dining option for families, but the food is far from “just for kids.” While eagerly awaiting the delivery of the appetizers, I enjoyed a glass of Planeta Noto Nero D’avola. This is just one of the many wines on tap Pazzi’s has to offer, of which the wait staff seemed knowledgeable and offered suggestions.
The starter of focaccia bread with a pesto for dipping had an unusual flavor. Chef Brooke Lawson includes mascarpone cheese in her pesto for added creaminess. Between the pesto and the burrata with tomato, I could have fed myself solely on appetizers. But the pizza that followed had a crust that was one of the better ones I’ve had the pleasure of eating outside of New York. The topping combination of arugula, prosciutto, and goat cheese was wonderful. The aged fig balsamic drizzled on top added a symphony of flavor that begged to have every inch of the crust dipped in it.
Chef Lawson was whisked away from her stay at Trump Towers and serving the president-elect to cook for the new luxury J.W. Marriott. Her menu can best be described as using quality ingredients in dishes that people want to eat. The food is polished and refined, and it’s transformed into dishes like peanut butter cheesecake with brûléed marshmallow. Needless to say, this was a mouthwatering completion to the meal.
It’s not entirely the consumer’s fault that Florida hasn’t had the chance to prosper in the food industry. Chefs flock to main cities to make a name for themselves in famous restaurants like Alinea, The French Laundry, and Per Se. How comforting to know that some chefs are taking it upon themselves to deliver excellent food to a Southern state that’s been snubbed out of being a culinary destination. After seeing what Florida has to offer, there is no doubt in my mind that this state will flourish in the food world.