Gulfshore Life Restaurant Reviews by Natalie Moore

Reviewed October 2006 by Natalie Moore

Sam-Bucco Bistro has achieved the yin and yang of the ideal Gulfshore restaurant, melding stylish surroundings and gracious service with a relaxed attitude that affords those who don't feel like getting dressed up the opportunity to still wine and dine well. Make that very, very well.

The restaurant takes its name from the chef/owner, who formerly ran the kitchen at La Fontanella in Bonita Springs. Sam-Bucco joins a growing corps of noteworthy Mediterranean eateries cropping up around the area, places such as Cin-Cin and Mille Sapore in Fort Myers. Sam-Bucco distinguishes itself through chef Bucco's surprising combinations of ingredients that turn out to be right on target.

Like so many restaurants these days, the bistro is situated within a shopping center, but you lose that sensibility immediately after stepping inside. A handsome and well-stocked bar sits right next to the door, adjoining a wine cellar. Plush banquettes line caramel-hued walls on three sides of the dining room. Three sets of double glass doors along the back wall open onto a lovely covered alfresco dining area.

Italian music plays soothingly in the background. Lighting is sufficient to read a menu but subtle enough to avoid irksome glare. The staff move about calmly and efficiently. The chef, a slender man with short, cropped salt-and-pepper hair, works his way through the room, glancing at table tops before lifting his eyes to greet customers at each table.

The menu covers a lot of ground-from Middle Eastern favorites such as hummus and baba ghanoush, to French onion soup, to Turkish grilled calamari, to Italian classics such as fettuccine Bolognese and bruschetta to the ubiquitous kebab.

Prices are moderate, with appetizers and salads ranging from $5 to $10 and entrees running $16 to $27 (specials may be higher). Another pleasant departure from the norm is that portion sizes are just right, not so small that they are dwarfed by the plates on which they are served. Meals start with a loaf of Italian bread served with a dip of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, a refreshing change from the herbs-and-cheese version.

It would be easy to make a meal out of three or four of the 19 appetizers listed or a couple of appetizers and a salad. Vegetarians have lots of choices here. Both the portobello à la Lyonnaise and the clams and mussels nicqilies are satisfying starters, the former consisting of lightly grilled mushrooms topped with creamy goat cheese and roasted red peppers finished with a roasted tomato basil oil; the latter a mélange of clams, mussels, capers and tomatoes in a delicate saffron cream sauce.

It's hard to go wrong with the salads, either. Fresh baby greens, sweet roasted pears, pine nuts and sharp Roquefort cheese with red-wine lemon vinaigrette make for an excellent Roquefort salad.

The evening's Chilean sea bass special had a crisp potato crust, a touch of Dijon mustard and a delicate shrimp and white-wine sauce, all of which worked well together.

Far simpler in style but rich in Mediterranean flavor is the Sam-Bucco mixed grill, a combination of filet mignon and chicken kebabs, red onion, red pepper and tomatoes all carefully arranged around a mound of basmati rice. All of the vegetables were just right, too.

The filet mignon Napoleon is an inspired mix of filet mignon tips, baby shrimp, wild mushrooms, grape tomatoes and rosemary in garlic demi-glace topped with pine nuts and Gorgonzola cheese served over fettuccine. The ingredients proved an excellent combination and a perfect compromise for someone torn between steak and pasta.

Over frothy, hot cups of cappuccino, we marveled at a chocolate marquise and a tiramisu, both beautiful and artfully plated, which tasted as good as they looked.

As for wine, there are a reasonable number of selections by the glass. However, as is usually the case, offerings by the bottle are far more intriguing. A 2001 Tignanello Antinori delivered lots of coffee and blackberry, velvety tannins and a long, smooth finish.

This meal was as consistently good as a previous one I'd had there. It's been a little too warm and too buggy to attempt dining alfresco, but it won't be long before the weather will be just right for it. I can't think of a better place for a breath of fresh air than Sam-Bucco Bistro.

Sam-Bucco Bistro, Tamiami Square, 14700 Tamiami Trail N., Naples. (239) 592-6050 or www.sambuccobistro.com. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. daily (closed Mondays through mid-October). Reservations recommended. Credit cards. Wheelchair accessible. Free parking in lot.

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