Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sophia’s Ristorante Italiano

Sophia’s Ristorante Italiano is the best traditional-style Italian restaurant in Collier County.
      There, I’ve said it! Others will try to claim that honor on basis of their half price offerings, white linens, or “atmosphere.”  Some stuff the “Tripadvisor” sites with family and friends crowing about their hyped goodness. Nice try.  None offer the Sophia's triad of good ambiance, great food and attentive service. The clear choice of those who have dined in Italy is Sophia's, not the other well known, highly advertised Italian spots in town.

It's much of an upscale Mom and Pop family friendly place, a hidden gem, only Mom and Pop are gourmet chefs.  Owners Jay and Camille Cherr have been more than just passionate about their Italian heritage. They went to Italy to live and learn the best Italian cooking in home cooks and top chef’s kitchens! Venice, Florence, Turin and the Amalfi Coast - every place has its style. Jay and Camille graduated from Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli –that’s the top International Pizza School to you. Jay’s family hails from Sicily, so you get a southern style as well. He’s run Susie’s Diner on Marco for 15 years, and many of his customers drive up from Marco for dinner -that’s double success in my book.

Sophia’s motto is “Eat pasta, live longer”.  It may give you an extra month or decades, people’s mileage will vary.  The pasta is all homemade, daily, and it tastes better than the store-bought dried pasta. Ravioli and tortellini don’t lie. Bread is freshly baked.
 NYC’s Little Italy or Boston’s North End have their delicious Italian spots, and aficionados of these cuisines will feel at home with Sophia’s traditional Italian cooking styles.
Sophia and Jay Cherr
 Sophia has what to be proud about! Sophia Giovanna was born on August 28, 2009, and was at her namesake restaurant on day one in January, 20100! She’s often present, majestically dispensing smiles and giggles to her admirers. Sophia’s has beautiful marble  throughout, courtesy of the prior Roman Oven’s masons.  Walk around, look at the attractive decor, and peer into the kitchen. Check out the specially built pizza oven.  The kitchen was originally open to those seated at the barstools in front, however a poll clearly showed a preference for a barrier to be put up.

My Italian friends (and great cooks)  Marvin and Alexa note that the ambiance is that of a casual, comfortable neighborhood trattoria, rather than a white linen ristorante. It’s casual, friendly and family oriented. Here, tables of 8, 12 and 14 people are common, as a family comes together to share a birthday or other event. The level of service and the food style is that of a ristorante, so you get the best of both worlds. Camille, Jay and Sophia make the rounds. I really like owners who care enough to be on premises and actively interact with their diners.
I like to dine out with 4-6 people sharing dishes. It makes for great conversation, as plates are passed. Each person pipes up their opinion, or gives s simple tell-all grin or thumbs-up. Sophia’s is the place for this, family friendly, and people at other tables are not shy about asking what we liked!  To suit our style of dining, Jay put several dishes on each plate for our group, and it also took up less room on the table.

Sophia’s grilled calamari ($13) is delicious! It’s more unique than the fried variants that abound in town. Sophia’s also serves the fried, or fritti style. Timing is everything, a little too long at other restaurants, and you’ve got a rubbery texture. Calamari are cooked with love, with nice herbs and spices, and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. The grilling adds a fresh outdoor taste to an Italian seaside classic. The bed of fresh greens are crisp and the tomatoes have a definite flavor, unlike those at grocery stores.
Trio of Cheese Tortellini, Salmon and Pappardelle Bolognese
 Fresh Atlantic salmon is complemented with fresh garlic, artichokes and capers in a lemon-white wine sauce with touch of cooked garlic ($27). It’s cooked till just tender, and the light spicing nicely sets off the fish’s taste. It’s a good size portion, and you may take some of the salmon, mashed potatoes and vegetables home!

The pappardelle Bolognese ($21) is a hit! Fresh homemade pappardelle, the wide noodle pasta, comes with a generous portion of  Bolognese sauce’s blend of veal, beef and pork. The taste is vibrant and big- this is not your typical Italian restaurant fare A Bolognese sauce may contain various proportions of onion, tomato, celery, carrot, beef broth, thyme, red wine, and olive oil. What makes or breaks it is the sauce’s meats, and this slow cooked sauce brings it all together, in balance. Sophia’s doesn’t  overspice, or cut corners on the meat. I really like that be sauce has chunks of meat, rather than it being finely ground, giving the sauce more flavor.  This is solid very good comfort food, as you’d have it in Italy, not NYC.

The cheese tortellini, with rich four-cheese Alfredo sauce is a good starter. The hat-shaped tortellini are cooked properly al dente.

Have a glass or bottle of wine. Pricing is wallet friendly, and it’s a very good assortment of Italian wines. We loved our red Rocca Sasyr wine.

Sophia’s Caprese salad ($14) is fresh! It comes with fresh mozzarella, plum tomatoes, Prosciutto Di Parma, farfalle bow tie pasta. 
 It’s topped with extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil, roasted pignoli nuts and finished with a balsamic reduction. The pine nuts add a great taste and texture.

Each dish is a good sized portion, and the tastes are bold, not shy!

We also had a trio of  veal marsala, Milanese, and piccatta on one plate, as a taster for the individual dishes.
The signature veal chop Marsala is a 14 ounce center-cut milk-fed veal chop, pounded and thinly breaded, then pan fried with Italian breadcrumbs, and finished with extra virgin olive oil. Arugula and cherry tomatoes add to the feast, and the whole dish is topped with a homemade balsamic reduction sauce and served with pasta. It’s crisp, not oily. Highly recommended!

    Veal marsala’s ($27) pounded veal  is cooked with  imported Marsala wine, fresh mushrooms, sage and other herbs and spices.. Recommended!
    Veal piccata  ($26) had fresh artichokes, capers, white wine and lemon butter sauce. The sauce gives a nice slight lemony tartness, the capes a bite and slight saltiness, he way it should be done! Two thumbs up!

    Bella Sophia sole ($29) is a big seller, topped with fresh chopped plum tomatoes, fresh garlic, sautéed onions, Kalamata olives and capers sautéed in white wine sauce, finished with a balsamic reduction, served with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetable or a side of pasta.The fish is tender. A must have!
Bella Sophia Sole
Next time, we’ll try the Zuppa DiPesce Alla Sophia  ($39) with fresh main lobster tail, jumbo shrimp, clams, mussels, scungilli and calamari.Others gave it a high rating.

 Or try the veal chop parmigiana - 14 oz. center cut milk fed veal chop thinly breaded and pounded, topped with our famous marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, is served with a side of pasta.

Leave room for desserts!
Cannoli, the Italian pastry shell filled with Ricotta cheese and chocolate chips, are topped with powdered sugar and filled just before serving. Otherwise, they get soggy.
 The cheese cake is delicious-nice and light, New Jersey style, with a rich raspberry sauce on top- take home a piece! The family recipe uses fresh imported Ricotta. Another cheese cake offers a hint of orange citrus. 
If you like tableside preparation, the cherries jubilee and bananas Foster ($22 each) are the way to go!
Tiramisu, Cheese Cake, Cannoli Desserts
 Sophia’s tiramisu is one of the best- light rather than heavy, it’s a perfect dessert.Savoiardi (lady fingers) are dipped in espresso and a hint of Kahlua, layered with mascarpone, light whipped cream and dusted with cocoa powder. The taste is terrific, top to bottom. Tiramisu doesn’t get much better than this.
I like the bright, Mexican style plate.
We like the almond cantuccini, what some call the tiny biscotti, or twice baked cookies, that are half the size of your finger. My friends love to dunk biscotti into Vin Santo, a  sweet Italian dessert wine.

Cappucino is heavenly, with a thick white milky froth.  So fresh and delicious!
 Sfogliatelle are clam-shaped pastry with many layers, and a citrus touch.

If you frequent the  two-for-one 3 course specials for $24 (including the  $3 bottle of cheap wine), this is not your place. If you want Olive Gardens cuisine, or frilly $16 martinis, this is not for you. Sophia’s portions are generous. The place is filled every night for a reason. You get high quality,delicious Italian food for a reasonable price. 

Sophia's Ristorante Italiano, 3545 Pine Ridge Road, Naples,  597-0744, Sophiasitaliano.com

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