CUISINE REVIEW - karenFELDMAN - [email protected]
So many restaurants have cropped up in Naples over the past decade — and so many have withered and died over that same period. The restaurant business is a tough one that requires a divergent blend of strengths: a creative chef, business acumen that enables said chef to hold the line on costs without sacrificing quality, a well-trained staff and an appealing ambience.
Achieving any one of those standards is tough; trying to balance all of them is so difficult that more restaurants fail than succeed in their first few years of operation.
But some do manage to make all those moving parts work well together. Sam-Bucco Bistro is one of them.
The brainchild of Chef Sam Tadros and then-business partner Adel Khalil, the restaurant tucked into a corner of a strip shopping center just north of Mercedes Benz of Bonita Springs, oozed elegance and charm, providing an ideal showcase for Mr. Tadros’ inspired Mediterranean cuisine.
Mr. Tadros left a few years ago to open his current Bonita Springs restaurant, Figs Grill, and the charming Mr. Khalil has departed as well. In their place is Brian Angelo, who has kept the chef and staff and done an admirable job of preserving the restaurant’s unique charm.
I will confess to being a tad worried on a recent Saturday night when we arrived a bit early and there were only two tables occupied. Yes, it’s June and it was a rainy night at that, but people still eat out, especially on Saturdays. I need not have worried. By the time we were tucking into our entrees, a large party had taken possession of the entire back of the dining room and smaller parties were filling in the front.
The staff was gracious and competent, and Mr. Angelo seemed to be everywhere — greeting new arrivals, checking tables and introducing himself, even clearing tables as needed. At one point, I spotted him behind the bar serving drinks, demonstrating the same hands-on attention to detail that so impressed me when Mr. Khalil handled the front of the house.
The dining room is unchanged. Long sheer curtains grace the large windows, and lush taupe and brown hues create a comforting oasis even on a hot, muggy night. The bar at the entrance beckons passersby to stop in and relax. It remains a wholly inviting place to dine.
I’m happy to report that while the focus of the menu has shifted somewhat from the global approach of Mr. Tadros to a more predictable continental style, what emerges from the kitchen is well executed.
The wine list, a good-sized book, is a bit light on whites but has plenty of nice reds from which to choose. We were pleased with the Speri Valpolicelli Classico Superiore Ripasso ($62), sometimes referred to as a baby Amarone, with its deep garnet hue, plum and cherry notes balanced by smooth tannins.
A fairly lengthy list of nightly specials included gazpacho ($7.75) and toasted spinach ravioli ($8). While gazpacho can be somewhat acidic, this one wasn’t, mellowed by a dollop of sour cream that worked well with the chilled tomato-based broth studded with crunchy bits of celery, green pepper, onion and tender baby shrimp. It was the perfect starter on a steamy summer night.
The toasted spinach ravioli consisted of three large pillows stuffed with ricotta and spinach topped with greens, chopped tomatoes and a light application of marinara. The ravioli were breaded and crisp but were a little dry. A touch more sauce might have solved that problem. Nonetheless, it was a generous portion that could be shared by two.
My companion chose another special for his entrée, the miso-marinated haddock in peach cream sauce ($31.50). The fish was flaky and moist, topped with shrimp and a light cream sauce, accompanied by pickled ginger, risotto and a mix of tender-crisp broccoli and carrots. It was a lovely and bountiful dish.
After assurances by our server that the duck was crisp as described on the menu, I selected the duck Grand Marnier ($26.50). The half duck possessed crisp, delicious skin and moist flesh with a sauce that was lightly sweet, just enough to brighten the flavor of the duck. It came with a square of scalloped potatoes and the same vegetables as the haddock. Although many restaurants offer duck, few get it right. The kitchen here did a great job.
From the dessert offerings, we tried the mini cannoli ($5.50) and lava cake ($9). The cannoli filling was creamy and tasted good, but the shells were hard and shattered into a million pieces when we cut into them. We left them and turned our attention to the lava cake, a small round of dark chocolate cake with a molten chocolate center served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was an excellent rendition of this ubiquitous dessert. We left not a crumb.
Service was excellent throughout our meal, even after things got busy. Mr. Angelo came by to describe the desserts and to ensure that we were happy with our meal. Our server and the server assistant were friendly and efficient, making sure that dishes arrived and departed on time and that water and wine glasses remained filled.
I so rarely get the chance to return to places I’ve enjoyed before. It was refreshing to find Sam-Bucco changed but still the same in all the ways that count. (P.S.: Check the restaurant’s website for special discounts and sign up for emails. On the night we were there, all meals were discounted 30 percent with the coupon we received by email).