You never know where you will find a true taste of Italy in your travels.
If my friend Bernadette hadn’t insisted on stopping for dinner at Café Gabbiano during a recent trip to Florida’s Gulf coast, we would have been denied an Italian culinary adventure that was one of the highlights of our visit.
Café Gabbiano, located on Siesta Key a few blocks from the beach at Sarasota, transports you to Italy before the first mouthful of food touches your lips. Romantico is the first word that came to my mind as we entered the restaurant and admired the cozy tables that were placed haphazardly among the rows of wine racks and were nestled in the nooks and small private rooms that dotted the restaurant interior. We passed a candle-lit outdoor patio and viewed the smiling faces of a bride and groom as they raised their glasses to their guests in a toast, a vignette that certainly added to the romantic ambiance of the evening.
We were seated at a round table tucked away in the corner, surrounded by a bay window decorated with small white lights that cast a warm and pleasant glow on our surroundings. Our attentive server was on hand immediately and dazzled us throughout the evening with his ability not only to narrate a list of special courses being offered, but also by explaining in great detail exactly how they were prepared—down to the country of origin of many of the ingredients.
My grandmother once said you can always judge an excellent restaurant by the quality of its most simple dish, and I had to think of her commentary as I sampled the first course, a bean soup. Who would have guessed that a rustic soup of cannellini beans in a garlic-laden chicken broth, topped with escarole and freshly-grated parmesan cheese, could taste so heavenly?
Indeed, this was a good sign of things to come. It was just the beginning of our culinary adventure, which went from heavenly to sublime as we journeyed through several courses. As starters, we shared an appetizer of the best plate of escargots this side of Paris; in fact, these moist and tender morsels were far superior to the gummier versions I had eaten while a student in France. Our server told us the secret to their size and tenderness was the result of their strict oatmeal diet, which gave a new meaning to “grain-fed” as it applied to these invertebrates.
Each of us decided to sample a different main course. My selection was Gamberoni di Ischia, jumbo gulf shrimp sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and white wine, served over a bed of spinach and linguine. I especially love the sweet flavor of gulf shrimp, so whenever I visit the Southern states, I opt for this entrée. To clarify, Ischia is an island off the coast of Naples and is the home of restaurant owner Pietro Migliaccio and his extensive family, many of whom work in the restaurant. So while the shrimp hailed from the waters outside of Sarasota, it was their preparation that was definitely "Ischian" in flavor.
On the other hand, my husband Tony’s selection, a sea bass known as “Branzino,” had arrived by plane from the Mediterranean just that morning. Presented on a large tray and filleted in front of us, this fish had a unique and delicate flavor unlike its Atlantic or Pacific cousins. Tony was delighted with his entrée.
Bernadette’s husband Mike enjoyed an immense Maine lobster on a bed of pasta, and Bernadette selected the Costolette di Vitello Luigi, the restaurant’s signature dish of a 14 ounce veal chop topped with a savory mushroom sauce.
We sipped superb dry Tuscan red wine throughout our repast, part of a private collection of labels offered by the restaurant. With a selection that includes more than 500 wines from around the world, and vintages that range from 1829 to the present, Gabbiano’s boasts one of the largest wine cellars in Florida.
When the dessert sampler arrived at our table as a final course, I was hesitant to indulge as I usually don’t like to end my meal with a sweet dessert. However, after hearing my dinner partners sing the praises of the various samples, I did reach out for a taste.
How glad I was that I did! Every item on that plate was light and not overly sweet, from the exquisite tiramisu, made the traditional way with real mascarpone cream and espresso-drenched lady fingers to the “cannoli from heaven,” crispy home-made shells stuffed with impastata crème (which is the top, and best, layer of ricotta produced during the cheese-making process).
Add to that a Limoncello flute, a tangy lemon gelato presented in a champagne glass, and a variety of light Tartufi (chocolate covered gelato), and a truly memorable meal came to its close.
I'm really happy we listened to Bernadette!
Café Gabbiano Restaurant & Café is open seven days a week for dinner and reservations are suggested, especially during high season; www.cafegabbiano.com
ALL PHOTOS © Joanne DiBona