2015-04-23 / Cuisine


Foodie walking tour takes a bite out of Punta Gorda

LaVerne Roberts of Punta Gorda had a “eureka” moment two years ago after researching an upcoming trip to Nassau.

“There was a walking culinary and historical tour and I thought it was such a great idea,” she says. “I realized it could work in Punta Gorda and Southwest Florida.”

Mrs. Roberts, a self-proclaimed foodie (she and husband Rick tasted their way around the U.S. during a six-year RVing adventure), launched Southwest Florida Food Tours last October and currently offers the seasonal Bites of Punta Gorda Culinary Walking. The three-hour journeys explore the cultural past and culinary today in downtown. The 1.5-mile tours are scheduled every Wednesday and Friday through May, covering at least five restaurants and food-related businesses.

For those of you accustomed to cruising Punta Gorda in a car, this sneakers-onthe ground experience provides an anything but-pedestrian view of downtown’s landmarks and blink-or-you’ll-miss-them attractions, including the old-fashioned gas pumps at Steve’s Auto, the former artesian well at Marion and Taylor, and an historical account of many of the city’s murals.

Southwest Florida Food Tours owner LaVerne Roberts reviews the route of her downtown Punta Gorda culinary and history tour. 
NANCI THEORET / FLORIDA WEEKLY Southwest Florida Food Tours owner LaVerne Roberts reviews the route of her downtown Punta Gorda culinary and history tour. NANCI THEORET / FLORIDA WEEKLY Most participants learn about Bites of Punta Gorda through TripAdvisor and return to the website afterward to praise Mrs. Roberts and the restaurants.

“This is a MUST DO for anyone visiting or locals,” noted one reviewer.

“We tasted food and restaurants that we will definitely plan to visit again,” wrote another.

The food, of course, is the highlight (at least for this column). Mrs. Roberts has partnered with several restaurants and food vendors so tours aren’t always the same. Participants also have the opportunity to talk to restaurateurs and chefs. For the sake of research I eagerly accompanied Mrs. Roberts and two local couples recently to take a bite out of Punta Gorda. Lynne and Bill Martin of Harbor Heights and friends Dan and Theresa Douglas of North Port were my companions.

Icehouse’s bangers and mash benefits from a Guinness gravy and links made by a Scottish butcher. Pairs well with Tampa-based Jai Alai’s white-oak barrel-aged IPA. Icehouse’s bangers and mash benefits from a Guinness gravy and links made by a Scottish butcher. Pairs well with Tampa-based Jai Alai’s white-oak barrel-aged IPA. Our tour started on just the right note with dessert at Deena’s Delectables, where owner Rhonda Milliken was testing a new, less-sweet lemon bar recipe. Ms. Milliken is scaling back the café’s full bakery introduced by the previous owner, but will keep the popular lemon bars (which we all declared a winner) and the sour cream coffee cake.

Antipasto salad and garlic knots from Manatees Pizza were next on the agenda. The mom-and-daughter parlor operates in a building that in its past has been a dry cleaner, mattress purveyor and formal wear shop and church. Owners Laura Fields and Jamie Ess make the restaurant’s dressings, pizza dough and marinara sauces, and also offer brunch. Our generous servings of garlic knots were quickly devoured and we experimented with three dressings on the salad. The ranch was my favorite, a nice complement to the roll of Italian meat and cheeses.

Two older ladies were eying my Jai Alai white-oak barrel-aged IPA during our visit to the adjoining Icehouse, where I was first exposed to the rapidly expanding world of craft beer five years ago. They asked if the tulip shape of my glass meant the brew had a higher alcohol content (not true: I asked) and I noticed they ordered the Tampa-made beer for their next round.

Sticking with the beer theme, we were served bangers and mash with rich and buttery Guinness gravy. I suppose it was really a banger as each dish presented just one light-tasting sausage link (made by a Scottish butcher in Cape Coral) and a heap of mashed potatoes. The food was quite lovely, as the Brits would say, although I suspect they’d also include a generous helping of Coleman’s mustard with horseradish on the table.

We welcomed our visit to Big Cheese. Many locals thought the cheesemonger closed with the opening of Carmelo’s at its former location. It simply moved just around the corner into the Sunart Gallery on Taylor Street. There, Jerry Presseller introduced us to cow’s milk gruyère, Midnight Moon chèvre goat cheese and ossauiraty, French sheep’s milk. Mr. Presseller also talked about the many cheeses he carries, including a 40-year-old cheddar and a truffle tremor, which at $36 a pound is the most expensive offered.

Our last stop came a little too soon but featured a Caprese salad amuse-bouche from Trabue, prepared with the waning harvest of heirloom tomatoes supplied by Don Harrington. Although chef Keith Meyers declared them not as tasty as their inseason forbearers, the tomatoes were still superior to any supermarket find and the perfect complement to imported buffalo mozzarella.

The starring attraction at Trabue was the restaurant’s signature escargot crostini. I’ve had it before and it’s always amazing. The chef revealed his secret: cold butter. By adding butter after carefully poaching the morsels in shrimp stock and tossing them with sautéed shallots, garlic, capers and grape tomatoes, the escargot “is creamy rather than greasy,” he says. “The difference is in knowing the proper technique.”

I was so tempted to order dessert — a version of cobbler with a southern-style biscuit and macerated peaches — but a check of my Fitbit told me my available calories were maxing out compared to the energy I burned walking. Drat. We will meet again someday, my little cobbler friend.

Mrs. Roberts says her food and history tours have attracted locals from Fort Myers and Pine Island as well as visitors from across the country. While she’ll offer tours for just two people, Mrs. Roberts says eight to 12 participants are ideal.

“I just want the tours to be nice — and fun,” she says. “That’s why I do them.”

Tours begin at 11 a.m.; Mrs. Roberts hopes to eventually offer late-afternoon and even bring-your-dog food tours as many Punta Gorda restaurants offer pet-friendly patios. Fishermen’s Village is also on her list.

Find out more at swffoodtours.com.

‘Rising from the ashes’

I visited Two Brothers Home Style Cooking just days before the Marion Avenue restaurant was lost to fire. My companion and I had an amazing time, enjoying the Cuban chili burger and the Spanish-style chicken fricassee, live blues and the warmth of owner Luis Rivera, who was talking about the restaurant’s upcoming first-year anniversary and repurposing the second floor as a checkers room with private bar.

But alas, fate dealt an ugly blow on April 2.

Mr. Rivera is so passionate about bringing the blues to Punta Gorda and his “working man’s” budget-friendly Cuban and Latino cuisine, he’s planning a rebuild. He also continued with the one-year anniversary celebration and customer appreciation party on April 11 in the parking lot. He posted his sincere gratitude on Facebook to local businesses such as the Celtic Ray, which offered support and facilities for the anniversary shindig.

“I will be back like a Phoenix,” Mr. Rivera promises.

I, for one, can’t wait.

Opus closes

Punta Gorda suffered another loss to the local dining scene with the recent closing of Opus on Marion Avenue.

The Turtle Club, Jacks on Marion and all Smugglers Enterprises’ restaurants will honor Opus gift certificates.

Turtle Club summer Hours

Ah, the wild rumors of a small town. Within hours of the Turtle Club Coastal Tavern and Claw Bar announcing it was closing for lunch hours as of March 30, the mill was grinding and tongues were a wagging that Punta Gorda’s newest restaurant would be closed for the summer.

Not so, says managing partner Chris Evans, who just earlier in the day had e-mailed a press release announcing the Turtle Club’s spring hours and its introduction of “Mostly Locals” hours featuring dinner, bar snacks and cocktails served from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday. The new hours and smaller crowds, he says, will create a more intimate experience and allow the kitchen to offer an experimental menu targeted to locals.

“It’s a time to kick back a bit and create a special season for the community and patrons that call this area their home,” he wrote in the press release.

When asked about the rumors, Mr. Evans responded via e-mail: “We aren’t totally closing and haven’t committed to anything yet.”

Torch Ignites $10 summer menu

Torch Bistro and Rumtini Bar has also announced a seasonal menu change. In addition to regular entrees, the Punta Gorda restaurant will offer $10 dishes, including Thai coconut chicken curry, chicken pot pie, roasted half-chicken, a pulled barbecue pork platter, signature meatloaf, pot roast and pork loin Marsala. Paired with $4 bar specials, a couple can enjoy a night out for less than $50.

Olive Garden celebrates 25 years

Funny how quickly 25 years flies by. The Olive Garden at the Port Charlotte Town Center is celebrating a quarter of a century in business. For the past 11 years, the restaurant has also been feeding the hungry, donating leftover made-from-scratch sauces and soups, lasagna, meatballs and desserts to the soup kitchen and food pantry at the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition, which is also celebrating its 25th.

“Before Olive Garden Harvest, we were throwing away great quality food,” says managing partner Jerrilynn Doherty. “For some people, a meatball may be the only source of protein they’ll have for a while.”

Since the harvest’s inception, the restaurant has donated 92,000 pounds of food, the equivalent of more than 119,000 meals.

“Last year we received $75,000 in food from the Olive Garden, which we used in our dining room and food pantry,” says Tina Figliuolo, director of community relations and development for the coalition.

Ms. Doherty says food donations include discontinued items, surplus cans and ingredients from limited-time menu offerings and unclaimed to-go orders. Because of the restaurant’s emphasis on fresh food, lasagna pans with just one serving gone are packaged and frozen for the coalition’s weekly pick up.

“We never know what we’re going to get, but we have a fantastic and resourceful cook who can do something with everything we receive,” says Ms. Figliuolo. “With the help of the Olive Garden, we make sure the homeless population is eating hot meals.”

The coalition serves about 140 meals every night, plus breakfast for its shelter residents.

“It’s so much better than throwing food into the trash can,” says Ms. Doherty. “At the end of the day, we can’t be upset. Tracking the donations keeps us honest and we know we’re providing nourishment for the community.”

The Olive Garden also supports summer camps provided by the Boys & Girls Club of Charlotte County and annually bestows a $1,000 grant to a worthy nonprofit.

Ms. Figliuolo says spaghetti night à la Olive Garden is always a special treat at the coalition’s kitchen.

“Eating out is such a luxury and it’s a treat for the children at the shelter. Our goal is to get clients back on their feet. We want them to come full circle and eat at local restaurants like the Olive Garden.” ¦

— If your establishment has food news to share with Florida Weekly readers, email me at ntheoret@floridaweekly.com and tell me about it.

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