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Dinner at Olio in Naples, Fl. 2/29/08

Italian food in Florida? Please...I know better than that....Or so I thought I did...
After five hours of laying my ghost-white body out in the brutally strong Floridian sun, I knew that all I needed was Aloe-Vera gel, aspirin, a shower and a great meal. My travel companion, Meghan, and I made plans to check out Olio
, the hot new Italian in the one-week-old Naples Bay Resort. Since we were vacationing in the laidback "Sunshine State," we decided against making reservations for dinner and would just head to the restaurant at our leisure, or, gasp, when we felt hungry (a trait very unlike Meghan and I, two New Yorkers who follow a stringent time clock). "When in Rome...," right??

We arrived at Olio
around 8:30 p.m., post a two-hour sun-induced coma in our hotel room. The spacious restaurant had a vast open kitchen that took center stage in the dining room. The white leather banquette seating was roomy, modern and had an overall clean and chic appearance. The warm atmosphere evoked tones of aqua's, whites and bright oranges, which I found to be calming and "airy." I truly felt transported to "vacation-mode."

Meghan and I were greeted with two dinner menus, a wine list, and ice waters. We chose to drink a bottle of Italian red that tasted vaguely like Pinot Noir; crisp and bold yet not full of tannins. While perusing the dinner menu, a basket with two thin one-inch-long bread "fingers" arrived. Accompanying the bread basket was a plate amply filled with mixed olives marinated in oil and orange zest, chunks of fresh Parmigiano cheese, and a small dipping bowl containing olive oil infused with chopped basil. While I loved the olives, cheese and oil, I felt that the bread was a bit too crispy/crunchy when I was really hoping for it to be soft and doughy. It was much too dense to soak up all of the delicious basil-infused olive oil. Bummer!

After going back and forth in deciding what to order, Meghan and I were finally ready to tell our great waiter what we'd like to eat. To start, we chose to split the Baked, Braised and Fried Artichokes and the Caramelized Onion, Imported Prosciutto and Truffled Robiola Cheese Pizzette. For her entree, Meghan ordered the Barolo Braised Short Ribs, and I chose the Hand-Cut Fettuccine with Veal Ragu.

About seven-minutes after ordering, our picturesque pizzette arrived. Approximately ten-inches long and three-inches wide, the fresh-out-of-the-wood-burning-oven card-board thin pie came pre-sliced with a prosciutto "dollop" on each individual piece. My first bite of this non-traditional pizza reminded me of the indescribable high I felt when learning of the promotion I received at work. A couple of words come to mind such as, "Wow! Hot damn! I think I'm in love...Again!" It's amazing how different a crust baked in a regular oven verses a wood-burning-oven can taste! The dough was thin, but not cracker-like, with a subtle grill/burnt taste from the oven. This gave way to a slippery layer of baked garlic bulb and caramelized onion. The pie was topped with shredded Robiola cheese and freshly ground black pepper. The flavor trinity of the crisp crust, the subtly sweet onion and garlic and the salty prosciutto was truly mind-blowing. Meghan and I didn't leave a single crumb uneaten!

The Baked, Braised and Fried Artichokes was the next dish to arrive. Each of the three preparations were served on the same plate, which made deciphering between the different cooking methods easier. The fried version both looked and tasted like a mound of golden kettle-cooked potato chips with shavings of parmesan cheese. Since both elements were fatty (the fried chokes and the cheese), there really wasn't much of a flavor distinction or overall excitement. I fancied the baked artichoke heart topped with (what tasted like) panko-bread-crumbs more than the previous preparation, however, the outer leaves of the choke were quite tough, thus requiring the use of fork and knife. Thankfully, the braised artichoke made up for the "blah" previous two. The delicate vegetable's heart tasted as if it had been marinated all day in Paul Newman's "Newman's Own Italian Salad Dressing," which is chock-full of delicious spices, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. My only recommendation to the kitchen would be to pat the choke down with a napkin prior to service, as there was a bit too much oil for my taste.

Midway through discussing our itinerary for the next day, our entrees arrived! Plated in a large, shallow bowl were tangled ribbons of homemade fettuccine noodles topped with a generous ladling of tomato-red veal ragu (like a Bolognese sauce) and shreds of fresh parmesan cheese. The pasta was cooked perfectly al-dente and the rich ragu tasted as though it had been slow-simmering for hours. The sauce was laced with ground veal (which could have been a bit more tender, in my opinion), chunks of stewed tomato, a hint of red wine, parmesan cheese, fresh thyme, garlic and just the perfect amount of salt and pepper. The different textures of the soft pasta and the meaty sauce worked beautifully together. Was this the best bowl of noodles I've had? No, but had the veal been more tender and if the pasta had a bit more sauce, this dish easily could have been a "best of" contender.

For dessert, Meghan and I decided to treat ourselves to yet another course of gluttony by ordering not one, but three plates! We chose the lemon souffle, chocolate "budino" cake and the milk-chocolate semifredo. I only had room in my stomach for no more than one bite of each, and will concur that the lemon souffle was definitely my favorite. Perched atop a spoonful of caramel, stood a large and thick cookie-like mound of pale yellow goodness. The "souffle" itself tasted like a sweet and tart not-all-the-way-cooked lemony sugar cookie made better with the use of a spoon, a dip of caramel sauce, and a piece of a plump red raspberry. The semifreddo was basically cookies n'cream ice cream which had been frozen in a pie mold and served in a wedge over creme anglaise. I hope that the word "semifreddo" means "ice cream pie" in Italian, because that's literally all it was. Finally, the chocolate budino was a richly dense and moist cake that sat atop creme anglaise and fudge sauce....Nothing out-of-this-world or unique, by any means.

If you ever find yourself in Naples, Florida, I recommend paying a visit to Olio for a delicious Italian meal served in a gorgeous setting. I found the service, prices and food to be very delightful especially considering that the restaurant wasn't more than a couple of days old when I dined there. I hope to return to both Naples and Olio in the near future.

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