Trying to keep up with new Italian restaurants inSouthwest Florida is virtually impossible, as it seems every month brings new pizzerias, osterias and trattorias to an already crowded Italiano scene. Inevitably, marinara fatigue sets in and you find yourself avoiding dishes ending with the words parmigiana, piccata and puttanesca.
The cure for the Italian overdose is to be found in an oasis like Osteria Celli in Fort Myers. Its classically trained executive chefowner, Marco Corricelli, was born and raised in Milan, where he worked in fine hotels and restaurants before branching out across Europe and acquiring a broader, Mediterranean-spanning approach to food.
You will find no Italian- American crowd-pleasers like eggplant parm or baked ziti on his menu. What you will find is pasta made fresh every day and so tender you wonder why anybody cooks with dried. You’ll choose from dishes that reflect regional ingredients and cooking methods fromLombardy south to Tuscany and on down to Campania — a and even wines from the remote isle ofSardinia. a
An “osteria” traditionally is an establishment that serves wine and simple food, a place more casual and rustic than a trattoria or ristorante. Chef Corricelli does keep his menu brief — about 10 appetizers and 10 entrees — but there’s nothing “simple” about his food. It abounds with vivid and layered flavors that can shake an indifferent diner out of Italian apathy.
The 60-seat restaurant opened late last year in a Publix-anchored plaza at Summerlin and Winkler roads, a space formerly occupied by The Cookout, a barbecue joint. Some furnishings remain, including the terrazzo floor and furniture. There’s a lack of attention to table setting that’s at odds with the refined quality of Osteria Celli’s; there are no tablecloths, flowers or candles, and flatware is simply placed on top of a cloth napkin. There was nice piano music playing in the background when we were seated, but as the dimly lit dining room filled on
We sat for about 10 minutes before she arrived to offer drinks. The dinner shift appeared to be understaffed with servers, so be prepared to relax and be patient between courses — your forbearance will be rewarded.
Like the menu, the wine list is short and Italian. We enjoyed glasses of Valle Reale OrganicMontepulciano d’Abruzzo ($8) and Argiolas Perdera Monica Sarda ($9). The latter, from Sardinia, was new to me; the primary varietal, Monica, has qualities of a Merlot — round, berry tastes, not too much structure, versatile for food. On tap for beer fans: Cigar City Brewing’s Jai Alai IPA.
Bread and tapenade eventually arrived with our appetizers. For a taste of the Italian countryside, we chose the fegatini ($11), a rustic chicken liver paté. The lush, earthy puree was spread on sliced bread and topped sparingly with caramelized onions that added a touch of sweetness. Drops of saba, a syrup made by reducing grape musts, dotted the platter but were too scant to add any flavor when dabbed with the bread.
Our other appetizer, polipo ($14), represented seafood-loving coastalItaly. The grilled octopus tentacle was about 6 inches long and remarkably tender. It sat on a salad of kale and garbanzo beans laced with a lemony, garlicky dressing. For such a small number of ingredients, this dish really packed a flavor punch.
Considering the relative scarcity of restaurants serving handmade pasta, we decided to stick with that part of the menu for the main course but still found good, contrasting choices with different sauces. Non-pasta options include a hanger steak, chicken “under a brick” and grilled lamb chops.
The ravioli di melanzane ($16) were wallet-sized pockets of thin pasta stuffed with creamy eggplant and ricotta cheese. They were draped in a bright pomodoro sauce containing crushed fresh tomatoes and garlic and threads of fresh basil. Again, not a lot ingredients, but tons of flavor.
A bit more complex and assertive, the gnocchi Lombardi ($17) were blanketed in a rich, piquant gorgonzola cream sauce strewn with strips of speck, the salty cured Italian ham. The generous serving contained about 15 tubular potato dumplings, thick but so light on the tongue. A decadent dish, for sure, some of which you can save for another meal.
After all, you might want to indulge in a scratch-made dessert. Try the creamy and tart lemon panna cotta ($6) served in a parfait glass and topped with cookie crumbles. Chocolate lovers will be more than sated by the rich chocolate mousse ($6) with a lid of chocolate fondant and raspberry coulis.
Tired of the same old offerings at your neighborhood pizza and pasta joint? Head to Osteria Celli for a refreshing taste of authentic Italy. ¦