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Home Home decor Kitchen JLB picks the 25 best for 2019

JLB picks the 25 best for 2019

The dining scene in Naples has seen exponential and delicious growth in the last 20 years, and our critic is eternally grateful.

My oh my, how far this town has come.

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There was, just 20 years ago, a culinary void in Naples. Too many of our seasonal diners frequented the Cheesecake Factories, the Red Lobsters, the Carrabba’s of the world, leaving little room and attention for creative chefs to do creative things.

These days the scene looks entirely different.

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In case you missed it: Search JLB’s last three years of restaurant reviews

Look around any major intersection and you’ll find at least three restaurants. Probably five. Maybe eight. In this wealthy, tourist-heavy community, eating out is a way of life. There’s a new focus on inventive restaurants, big-name chefs and local ingredients.

And I’m lucky enough to be a small part of it once again.

If we haven’t already been introduced, let me catch you up. For 40 years I’ve been reviewing Lee and Collier County restaurants for The News-Press under this pseudonymous title. Back then Naples Daily News was the competition. Now we’re sister papers. So the editors in Naples brought me over last year, and I’ve been loving it.

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I’ve had the chances to revisit some old favorites while also checking out the latest newcomers (there are so many in this town). From that, I’ve compiled this list of 25, which represent the best and brightest of this high-brow community. These are the restaurants raising the bar in Naples, further distancing us from that culinary void that I do not miss.

I rank my top 10 below, with the remaining 15 listed in alphabetical order at the bottom.

These lists are a painstaking process (I’ve already compiled ones for Sanibel Island, Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach with more coming soon). I’ve likely missed one of your favorites and, as always, I encourage you to make a case for it. Comment, email, write a letter to the editor. 

As I said, the dining scene in Naples is constantly evolving, constantly bettering itself. Tomorrow this list could change with the opening of a new restaurant or two. Tomorrow my tastes could lean toward an entirely different set of 25.

But for now, these are the ones I feel are at the top of the game.

Beef Hayashi ramen ($14) at Namba Ramen & Sushi in North Naples. (Photo: Dorothy Edwards/Naples Daily News)

10. Namba Ramen & Sushi

While so many of the other Asian restaurants in town hand you a 40-page fusion menu of Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Korean, Namba has simplified things down to really good ramen, really good sushi, and not much else. A Japanese-trained sushi chef, Namba’s Pitak Hermkhunthod takes pride in his work, importing handmade noodles from Japan and brewing a 17-hour broth for his milky-smooth ramen. Since the restaurant opened last year, he’s the only one I’ve ever spotted hand-rolling sushi rolls behind the counter. If Chef is out of town for the weekend, then sushi is off the menu. That’s next-level mastery. 

(8847 U.S. 41 N., North Naples; 239-592-4992; nambanaples.com)

The Charred Octopus dish at Dorona comes with burrata, black truffle, smoked paprika, and caramelized onion jam.  (Photo: Nicole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News, )

9. Dorona

There’s something poetic, I think, about the fact Dorona sits where a TGI Fridays once operated for many years. The two could not be more different. They come from different planets. A different galaxy altogether. Dorona, the modern Italian steakhouse launched a year ago by the nationally recognized Chef Fabrizio Aielli, is doing charred octopus with smoky black truffle; savory tomahawk steaks that are just as show-stopping visually as they are on the taste buds; and delicate ricotta cheesecakes with saffron sauce. Nothing about this new tenant says tired-national-chain. It says wow-look-at-me. 

(2110 U.S. 41 N., Naples; 239-529-2819; doronanaples.com)

My Blueberry Buck, a craft cocktail, at The Continental in Naples on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. (Dorothy Edwards/Staff)

8. The Continental

Sitting at the bar of this chic, bougainvillea-laced patio you could be anywhere: a villa in Milan, say, maybe an exclusive resort in Nice. A bartender comes over with such gracious warmth it makes you wonder if you’ve met before. He talks about the unseasonal humidity, nudging you toward the Blind Tiger, an icy blend of reposado tequila, peach bitters and lime that is the exact right thing for that exact moment. This D’Amico and Partners restaurant isn’t about innovation. Its upscale meat-and-potatoes menu has few surprises. The Continental is about the experience, about escaping from the everyday to a place that makes you feel at home. 

(1205 Third St. S., downtown Naples; 239-659-0007; damicoscontinental.com)

Ginger apricot shrimp sauteed with garlic, carrots, plums and apricots at Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro in downtown Naples. (Photo: Special to the Naples Daily News)

7. Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro

For 22 years I’ve been tantalized by the Persian flavors of Bha! Bha! In the fall I went back to check in on the place, to see if my memory was still serving me correctly. Oh, it was. Chef-owner Michael Mir launched the restaurant inspired by his Iranian roots in 1997 in North Naples, but relocated it downtown in 2012. Here I think Bha! Bha! has hit its stride. Those tomato sauces rich with saffron and zest; bone-in meats braised long and slow; dried fruits for a sweet, chewy bite — it all becomes so much more romantic on the palm tree-lined Fifth Avenue South. Though it remains as tantalizing as ever.

(865 Fifth Ave. S., downtown Naples; 239-594-5557; bhabhabistro.com)

More: Bha! Bha! in downtown Naples fascinates with bold Persian flavors

Bay House sits on a quiet cove of the Cocohatchee River in North Naples. (Photo: Contributed)

6. The Bay House

A recent brunch reminded me of this restaurant’s magic. It’s in the charmingly attentive servers and the bracing cocktails. It’s in the chef-inspired, Southern-infused and locally focused menu. It’s in the stunning, mangrove-trimmed views of the Cocohatchee as it flows quietly by. Owner Peter Tierney now has a trio of excellent restaurants under his belt — The Claw Bar and The Turtle Club are his others. But the 25-some-year-old Bay House remains a Collier landmark, one that keeps getting more magical year after year. 

(799 Walkerbilt Road, North Naples; 239-591-3837; bayhousenaples.com)

Ruben Ramos places a piece of paper that designates the oyster varieties for dinner guests at Sea Salt in downtown Naples on Thursday, August 2, 2018.  (Photo: Nicole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News, )

5. Sea Salt

The flagship for chef-restaurateur Fabrizio Aielli, Sea Salt showcases his incredible eye for detail. It’s in the crisply seared skin of his branzino, and the touch of sweetness grapes bring to a silky parsnip puree. It’s the fuchsia tint of beets against pale-orange persimmon, and the lithe bite of gnocchi as it mingles with blue crab, white truffle and nutty Parmesan. It’s in the 130 salts from around the world that infuse various dishes, and in the adept servers able to explain this all as you soak in this comfortable dining room. Sea Salt lives for the details, and it nails them all so deliciously well. 

(1186 Third St. S., downtown Naples; 239-434-7258; seasaltnaples.com)

Balsamic-glazed short ribs at Campiello in Naples are earthen and wild. (Photo: Special to the Naples Daily News)

4. Campiello Ristorante & Bar

Campiello is classically Naples. It’s the place I take out-of-town visitors to introduce them to this high-brow town that I love so dearly. It’s an exquisite space, located in the heart of Third Street South in the historic Naples Mercantile Building, with lush gardens and dramatic architecture. The food is always equally striking. Its menu is inspired by the traditional cooking of Tuscan country: balsamic-glazed short ribs that tug from the bone, scratch-made pastas with a delicate chew and spicy fried calamari that I’m constantly craving. Wealth surrounds you at Campiello, another D’Amico and Partners restaurant. It’s classically good, classically Naples.

(1177 Third St. S., downtown Naples; 239-435-1166; campiellonaples.com)

A plate of parsley linguine prepared by Vincenzo Betulia on Friday, November 9, 2018, at The French in Naples.  (Photo: Alex Driehaus/Naples Daily News)

3. The French

The French is as much a great restaurant as it as a state of mind. While so many other restaurants compete to stay on top of the latest food trends, The French goes back to the basics. Naples is lucky to have Vincenzo Betulia. The chef-owner behind three successful downtown Naples restaurants (Osteria Tulia and Bar Tulia his others) is working to unclutter the American palate. He takes three to five simple ingredients — a tender duck leg, locally grown kale and tart cherry tomatoes — and turns them into a simply delicious roasted duck leg confit that slows me down, even if just for a moment. To admire the 19th century Parisian decor to which The French pays homage. To sip a cocktail mixed with gin, hibiscus syrup and Champagne. To soak up the breezes flowing through this open-air Fifth Avenue restaurant. I think I’ll stay here for a while.

(365 Fifth Ave. S., downtown Naples; 239-315-4019; thefrenchnaples.com)

Behind the Dish: Chef Vincenzo  Betulia’s dining empire grounded by simple, honest cooking

Executive chef Asif R. Syed tops his Gold Leaf Shahi Tukda dessert with 23 KT gold leaf in his restaurant 21 Spices on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. (Photo: Nicole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News)

2. 21 Spices

Now’s the time to dine at 21 Spices. Chef-owner Asif Syed is at the top of his game after beating celebrity chef Bobby Flay last year with a fiery-red tandoori chicken on Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay.” Fame aside, Syed is a master of flavor and technique. A native of India, his menu gives us a tasting tour of his home country: a goat biryani flavored with saffron and rose water; samosas filled with spiced potato and peas with a tamarind-date chutney; deep-fried desserts adorned with 23-carat gold. 21 Spices has opulence in spades. It’s in the chic furnishings and plush, modern seating, the worldly menus and pedigreed kitchen. There’s no other restaurant in town quite like 21 Spices. So go, go now. 

(4270 U.S. 41 E., Suite 21, East Naples; 239-919-8830; 21spicesdining.com)

More: The tandoori chicken recipe that beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay


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1. Sails Restaurant

It’s only been a year since Sails opened its doors on Fifth Avenue South, yet owners Veljko Pavicevic and Corinne Ryan have taken Naples by storm. They’ve captured our hearts with Parisian gnocchi tossed with lobster, crab, spring peas and grinnell caviar; with scallops in a lusciously creamy citrus-butter sauce; and with a chocolate souffle that’s the stuff of dreams.

Sails takes the upscale dining for which Naples is so well known, and then ups it 10-fold. It’s in the place settings of French Laguiole flatware, the marble-lined bar, the leather-topped stools for women to rest their purses. Service is impeccable, with plates arriving and disappearing in perfect timing.

In the kitchen, Sails’ executive chef Jacob Jasinski, who was brought down from the acclaimed Ocean House in Westerly, Rhode Island, oversees this seafood-laden menu. Jasinksi and his team turn the fresh dorade and prawns that rest on a fanciful display of ice into equally fanciful meals with equally hefty price tags. 

Minus the small heart attack that comes with the bill, Sails is worth every penny.

There is no grander restaurant in town at the moment — and it’s only been a year.

(301 Fifth Ave. South, downtown Naples; 239-360-2000; sailsrestaurants.com)

More: Naples restaurants: Sails glides into rarefied waters

The best of the rest

7th Avenue Social: This unique restaurant is something of a conundrum. It has the feel of a hipster coffee shop but the menu of a seasonal, chef-driven kitchen. Think fried green tomatoes with poblano creme fraiche, or diver scallops with a Meyer-lemon-Thai-basil aioli and chorizo-sweet-potato hash. It is not cheap, but my is it good. (7thavenuesocial.com)

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Barbatella: Just a few weeks ago Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s national championship football coach, raved (for FOUR minutes) about this Third Street South gem. I feel him. A sister restaurant to Sea Salt and Dorona, at Barbatella Chef Fabrizio Aielli turns his eye for detail to mozzarellas, salumi, antipasti and pastas — all of which are made in house. It’s so much work, but it’s got everyone raving. (barbatellanaples.com)

Barbatella is already becoming known for its signature pizzas, thin with hearty toppings artfully arranged. (Photo: Kelly Merritt)

The Bevy: The Bevy is as much a destination as it is a restaurant. It’s a place for the well-heeled to sip drinks at the bar as the cool evening air drifts through the retractable doors and windows. Its food menu is good, but still finding its way. What I enjoy most are The Bevy’s cocktails. It’s a pricey menu; signature cocktails start at $14 and top off at $25. Eek. But if what you want is a cool atmosphere and a cedar fire Old Fashioned (yes, please), then this is your destination. (naplesbevy.com)

The Italian 75 at The Bevy is made with prosecco, making it a bubbly, refreshing New Year’s Eve drink. (Photo: Cam Thomas/Submitted)

Chez Boet: For 16 years, this 12th Avenue S. restaurant has offered classic French bistro fare with Floridian twists. Wild Gulf snapper en papillote, bouillabaisse with Gulf pink shrimp. There is French onion soup capped with gooey Gruyere and steak frites made with Wagyu beef and hand-cut fries. It’s simple, unpretentious and soulfully good. (chezboetnaples.com)

The Grill at Ritz-Carlton: I try to stay away from country club and hotel restaurants for lists like these (they’re a league all their own), but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t recognize The Grill. The Ritz-Carlton restaurant drips with decadence. Its decor is all muted grays and dignified armchairs. Its menu is Prime dry-aged steaks, fresh seafood, and a richly seared foie gras from LaBelle with pear purée, black-garlic cake and pickled mustard seed. I have no doubt The Grill belongs here. (ritzcarlton.com)

Jimmy P’s Charred: When the area’s best butcher shop opened an adjoining steakhouse, I took notice. Jimmy P’s has long had a reputation for sourcing top-notch steaks from around the world. Charred is no different. These are some of the best cuts of beef you can get in Southwest Florida, including Wagyu so finely marbled with fat it’s soft pink. Add on a kitchen that knows exactly how to handle these steaks and some wonderfully classic sides and, well, yum. (jimmypscharred.com)

Wagyu #7 New York strip steak for dinner at Jimmy P’s Charred. (Photo: Michael Caronchi/Caronchi Photography)

Lamoraga: This sleek stunner is so wonderfully Spanish, I could weep. It’s the pinchos topped with braised short rib or manchego with quince paste. It’s the gazpachos, the croquettes and the wisps of Iberico ham layered over humble pan con tomate. There are Asian and Middle Eastern influences on this menu, too. But Lamoraga remains my go-to place for a great tapas fix. (lamoragarestaurant.com)

The Local: For a restaurant that relies so heavily on so many outside factors, The Local consistently accomplishes wondrous things. Chef-owner Jeff Mitchell was one of the first in Naples to dedicate a complete menu to locally harvested ingredients. That was five years ago, but it still feels wondrous to me. (thelocalnaples.com)

More: 5 years later and The Local restaurant continues its mission of farm-to-table creations

LowBrow Pizza & Beer: This isn’t a white-table-cloth, make-a-reservation-days-in-advance kind of restaurant like so many of the others on this list. LowBrow is the opposite. Its owners are former country-club chefs who left that world to create their own laid-back vibe, and it’s doing some deliciously creative things with food. The wings are dry-rubbed with dehydrated Buffalo sauce. Its pizzas are strewn with roasted potato and sweet corn; smoked brisket and garlic mushrooms; pickles and pimento cheese. It’s all dangerously good, and so badly needed in this high-brown town. (lowbrowpizzaandbeer.com)

More: LowBrow Pizza & Beer knows how to do pizza and beer (and wings)


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Ocean Prime: Beyond Ocean Prime’s delightfully juicy filet mignon, beyond the towering 10-layer carrot cake stacked atop a smear of pineapple syrup, I’ve always found the service here exceptional. The staff waits for a lull in conversation to interject. A waitress refolds a napkin while a diner heads to the restroom. Ocean Prime has a flair for luxury, and I’ve always been impressed. (ocean-prime.com)

A 10-layer carrot cake at Ocean Prime is stacked on top of creamy pineapple syrup. (Photo: Special to the Naples Daily News)

Osteria Tulia: This downtown Naples restaurant — another of Chef Vincenzo Betulia’s — feels like I’ve stepped into another time. Opening in 2013, Osteria Tulia is inspired by the centuries-old tradition of Italian osterie, informal village taverns serving regional wines and house-made cheese, sausage and pasta. The menu is grounded in Betulia’s family history, all the way down to the warm caponata that comes to the table on rustic bread. Osteria Tulia transports you, and I’m happy to go there. (osteriatulia.com)

Ridgway Bar & Grill: During the worst of Naples’ culinary void 20-plus years ago, Tony Ridgway emerged from the ashes. He was one of the lone locally owned restaurants in town, and he helped pave the way for so many others that followed. I put Ridgway on this list not for its menu, which has few surprises, but for what it stands for: Naples independence. (ridgwaybarandgrill.com)

Timeless: The food here is always satisfying (that apple pie pizza — holy cow), but I like Timeless more for its stunning architecture. It’s no wonder once you learn that its owner is an actual architect. Matthew Kragh of MHK Architecture and Planning opened the place in 2017 and brought on David Nelson as executive chef. Together they’ve built a modern menu of American classics — pork and grits, Buffalo-fried oysters, coal-fired pizza — surrounded by good views. (timelesseatery.com)

Timeless, an MHK Eatery, opened Aug. 7 at 90 U.S. 41 N., Naples. (Photo: Michael Owen Photography)

Truluck’s Seafood Steak & Crab House: I’ve never been privy to a membership at an exclusive country club, but I have been privy to a few stunning meals at Truluck’s and I imagine that’s close to the same thing. Simply and sleekly decorated, Truluck’s serves seafood from its own Gulf fisheries. Its wait staff has mastered their craft, as has its chefs. It adds up to a comfortable and wonderful night, one where your only worry is the check. (trulucks.com) 

USS Nemo: It may sound like a kitschy, Disney-style theme joint but USS Nemo is anything but. For 19 years this place has created some of the freshest takes on seafood of any restaurant in Southwest Florida: wild halibut in saffron-chamomile sauce, day-boat scallops with forbidden rice and pine-nut tabbouleh, tandoori fish with cumin-infused yogurt and fresh dill. The land entrees are equally stunning and, while the dining room may have a few portholes, USS Nemo’s feet are firmly (and deliciously) planted in Naples. (ussnemorestaurant.com)

Jean Le Boeuf is the pseudonym used by a local food lover who dines at restaurants anonymously and without warning, with meals paid for by Naples Daily News. Follow the critic at facebook.com/jeanleboeufswfl or @JeanLeBoeuf on Twitter and Instagram. 

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