Puccini’s, named after the famed Italian composer from Tuscany (I had the privilege to stay in a villa in which he spent time growing up near Lucca, home to the amazing Toscana Saporita Culinary School), when a foodie friend told me about this place, I was most intrigued and couldn’t wait to check it out.
Puccini’s is not about the fuss or fanfare. It is the kind of place you could drive right past several times– (we even walked right past it twice) before gently trying a door where we figured the restaurant might be. Opening the door from a nondescript shopping center location revealed a humming, glowing, almost secret garden of culinary pleasure–great aromas, the sound of laughter and people enjoying their meal, it was as if I had discovered some secret club. I fully expected to be asked for the password or a membership card instead of welcomed before being shown to my table. When we called for a reservation, I was informed of Puccini’s BYOB policy– they do not serve alcohol, only what you bring–and no corkage–something I like, and cash only, and only a handful of tables. As it turns out, my dining companion and I were most welcomed– after finding the place and managing to score a tough-to-get reservation on a Saturday night in season. “Do you mind a table in the kitchen, next to the chef?,” we were asked. Mind?–Not at all! In fact, anything less would almost cut the buzz off what proved to be a very enjoyable evening. Truly, the experience reminded us of a private, exclusive, members only “supper club,” where we felt privileged to be included. Clearly, the restaurant was packed with regulars–locals in-the-know.
Although the space and menu choices are small, the staff and owners certainly make up for it. One of the owners offered us a glass of the wine he and some friends were drinking, and we reciprocated with a taste of our Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio all’ Oro, 2007. This was an enjoyable, intimate dining experience. Having been to restaurants with award-winning wine lists, as well as to restaurants with wine lists that look like a high-end car dealer’s inventory sheet, it was actually refreshing and fun to go to a good bottle shop before dining, and choose something great–paying retail, not restaurant mark-up or a corkage. Having stayed last summer at the Castello Banfi, and spending time at Toscana Saporita in the heart of Tuscany, I felt this was a perfect complement to anything Italian.
We began with some crostini, very Tuscan, then a classic, light mixed “mista” salad. Everything was made to order, literally in front of us. The sights, sounds, and aromas of the kitchen whet our appetites. What was most notable about Chef Richard De Felice, aside from great food, was his total calmness even on a Saturday night with a packed house– it reminded me of some large dinner parties I host (and do the cooking) at home, where I am able to calmly socialize with my guests while preparing the night’s feast. With everything cooked to order literally in front of you, a small menu of nightly features, dim lighting, and sitting practically in the kitchen, it felt very comfortable–like we were at home.
For entrees, we had to taste the lamb chops (done to perfection), and branzino was the fish of the day, over lobster ravioli (yum). We took the homemade desserts to go, which I was told were given many thumbs up by my friend’s family members at home.
For an intimate, fun, casual, yet very sophisticated dining experience, bring your favorite vino and your appetite and check out Puccini’s, and be sure to tell them Fred Bollaci sent you!
2881 Clark Road, Sarasota, FL 34231