Ciao bella!

On my trip to Florida a few weeks ago, my friends Kim and Mike took me out for an Italian dinner that was so good, it merits its own blog entry.

Cassariano Italian Eatery is located on the adorable downtown Venice main strip, tucked in among a string of cute boutiques and cafes. My pals said they happened upon it by chance several years ago, and are now regulars. Then again, it seems the staff and managers treat everyone here like famiglia, which is a good thing.

The interior and vibe somehow manage to pull off casual and sophisticated at the same time. Definitely date night or special occasion-worthy.

old fashioned.jpgMike swears that Cassariano’s makes the best Old Fashioneds. EVER. Now, I’m a bourbon girl, so anytime someone throws out a bold statement like that, it immediately piques my interest. I’m not sure I can 100 percent agree with him after my many trips and repeated sampling in Kentucky, Chicago, Indy and well, everywhere… but the one I enjoyed here was pretty damn good.

panzanella.jpgI think my friends have tried almost everything on the menu, and immediately steered me toward the panzanella di granchio appetizer, tender pieces of soft marinated bread atop sliced cucumber; studded with bits of red onion, avocado and tomato; molded into a round and topped with fresh crab meat. No arm-twisting needed here! I’m a slut for anything with avocado to begin with, and when you throw crab in there, too… holy moly. Fresh and refreshing. The perfect summer appetizer. (I didn’t get a pic, but should mention that the bread basket arrives not with the expected garlic butter or marinara for dipping, but with super-smooth hummus. Well played, Cassariano’s. Well played.)

The Flintstones-esque tomahawk veal chop was impressive and hard to pass up, but we each ordered a different pasta to share and sample.

spaghetti.jpgForget what you think you know about spaghetti and meatballs drenched in Jersey Shore red sauce. First of all, Cassariano’s makes all its own pasta fresh in house, so there’s that. The meatballs are made with ground lamb (!) and the whole thing arrives at the table artfully plated with roasted grape tomatoes, a dollop of goat cheese and a drizzle of basil oil.


The housemade pappardelle with savory sausage and mushrooms in a velvety robe of ricotta was equally fantastic, although I think it’s something I would probably enjoy more on a chillier fall or winter evening, in front of a fireplace with a hefty glass of red, than in the dead of summer.

ravioli.jpgThe pasta I ordered, though, was my fave. I’ve had gnocchi with creamy gorzonzola and walnuts in Milan, but Cassariano’s took this idea one step further, filling tender ravioli with a toothsome blend of crushed walnuts and ricotta, draping the squares with a light cheese sauce and garnishing with slices of poached pear. O.M.G. Heavenly, and so unique.

chocolate mousse.jpgI didn’t think I had room left, but then a classic crème brulee and a parfait-like chocolate mousse arrived. Bellissima, indeed.

This place is definitely on my radar for a return visit next time I’m in the Sunshine State. Molto grazie, Cassariano’s. Mi piace.

Life’s a beach, and then you eat…

With the exception of a visit to Panama City Beach last fall, my impressions of beach cuisine through the years haven’t been great. Fried fish, fries, burgers, fries, fried cheese, maybe a taco, more fries… Now I like fries and fried food as much as the next person, but I can’t imagine eating this stuff on a regular basis and still trying to rock a bikini.

I’m just back from a week’s vacation eating and beaching my way through southwest Florida from Fort Myers Beach to St. Pete. Seafood was a given, of course, but I was happy to make a few other interesting (and delicious) discoveries along the way.

rum runner.jpgFirst up – beachy cocktails. I’m not a big rum drinker, but hey, when in Rome… Sweltering July in Florida can’t get much steamier, which makes frozen drinks my beverages of choice. My go-to during Sunshine State vacations is the rum runner, a boozy Hawaiian Punch of sorts with hints of banana and blackberry. Adults-only enjoyment for sure, I can suck down these babies like Kool Aid. And I did, until a brain freeze forced me to slow my roll and pace myself. I enjoyed rum runners at Cabana’s Beach Bar and Grille (the hotel bar at DiamondHead Beach Resort on Fort Myers Beach where I stayed) and at the kitschy little Hoosiers in Paradise sports bar across the street (although I felt sorta out of place since all the other visiting Indy residents were drinking cans of Miller Lite).

pina colada.jpgAlso at Cabana’s, I sampled the frozen pina colada, which I would never order anywhere but Florida. Ok, ok… Truth be told. I DO like pina coladas, but I can do without getting caught in the rain.

Cuban.jpgIn any case, this was the perfect way to wash down a damn fine Cuban sandwich grilled to cracker-crisp perfection around the edges and a pile of sweet potato fries.

sea bass.jpgFor a “splurge” dinner in Fort Myers Beach, I headed to Fresh Catch Bistro, a friendly upscale eatery that specializes in seafood — obviously — and stocks a stellar raw bar. The bartender took good care of me, steering me toward a lovely pinot grigio that went perfectly with my blackened sea bass, citrus rice and asparagus. I seriously could have tipped back the accompanying ramekin of luscious lemon butter and sipped it like a shot. In fact, I might have. So? No one saw me.

Sharkys grouper.jpgOther notable meals during my southern sojourn include a perfectly respectable blackened grouper sandwich (and ANOTHER rum runner) for lunch at Sharky’s on the Pier in Venice. I skipped the fries here in lieu of an unexpectedly good quinoa/edamame salad.

scone.jpgFor breakfast, the adorable antique-chic Upper Crust Café and Bakery in Venice bakes up a slew of incredible scones daily in half a dozen or so different flavors. My white chocolate cherry version (served warm – natch) was delectably light and tender, and the thick Devonshire cream served alongside took it over the top into decadent territory. The ham and cheese quiche we sampled, likewise, was light as air and laced with an intriguing flavor we couldn’t quite put our finger on. Blue cheese, perhaps?

sangria.jpgIn Englewood, my foodie friends in the know steered us toward dinner at Mango Bistro, and it was easy to see why. After a couple margaritas, two baskets of chips and some extremely disappointing guacamole down the street, Mango more than made up for our misstep with a carafe of mango and orange garnished white sangria. Ah, sweet salvation.

lobster dip.jpgThe lobster dip appetizer with pita wedges and pineapple bread — wait… what??? — was a fantastic way to get the meal rolling. We grilled the server about the crusty chewy pineapple/coconut rolls, but all she could tell us was that they were sourced from somewhere in Tampa. I think she may have been holding out on us, preferring to keep us coming back here for our next fix instead of seeking out another outlet. Anyway, imagine scooping the filling out of a New England-style lobster roll, putting it in a bowl and then spreading it on this bread. O.M.G. So. Good.

crepe.jpgAlso good — the spoonful of the lobster bisque I bogarted from my friend Kim’s cup, but I wanted to save some room for my entrée, and I was glad I did. The square black and bleu crepe arrived stuffed with just the right amount of shredded beef, bacon and onion; drizzled with a horseradish cream that woke up my sinuses in just the right way and topped with blue cheese crumbles, sitting pretty alongside a simple salad. Fantastic summery fare, although I only managed to eat half. I took the rest home, fully intending to polish off the leftovers for breakfast the following morning. Sadly, when I woke up at 6:30 a.m., I decided I couldn’t face horseradish before coffee and left it behind for my friends to enjoy at lunchtime. I hope they did.