The mom and pop business is a dying breed in Naples, Fla. Up and down Tamiami Trail the hulking frames of corporate giants cast their shadows on locally owned cafes and restaurants. The chains have brighter signs and louder advertisements, but when it comes to fresh, homemade food sometimes there’s just no substitute for having mom in the kitchen.
At the Bella Maria Café on Fifth Avenue S. in Naples mom is Maria Iribarren who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Carlos, and son, Franco. When I stop by for lunch on a recent afternoon Maria is indeed in the kitchen. Dressed in a white chef’s jacket, she runs between the kitchen and bar counter, delivering beautiful seafood-laden salads and sandwiches to Franco, who is working the small dining room with an easy smile and friendly words in both English and Spanish.
Although the restaurant is fairly busy during our midweek lunch, it seems to run with an unusual degree of polished and easy going professionalism. Later on I learn this should come as no surprise: the extended family has run a restaurant called Tequila in Santiago, Chile for around 75 years.
Now in Naples, Bella Maria Café’s cuisine reflects the Iribarren’s mixed heritage, bouncing between Chilean, Spanish (Carlos is from the Basque region) and Italian influences in a space that feels like a hip urban café. Under ceilings of exposed wood and steel, deep magenta walls are hung with an unexpected array of paintings. Above our table a triptych of canvases in black, white and nude are splattered with a confetti of bright colors. Across the restaurant we notice a large painting by young local artist, Juan Diaz, and nearby a colorfully drawn matador stands at attention with his back facing the dining room. The tables themselves are dressed in white cloths topped by thick panes of glass, and sturdy black plastic chairs add a decidedly contemporary touch to the cozy eatery.
Pouring over the single sheet menu, my friend and I find a lunchtime selection of salads, sandwiches, hot lunch dishes and tapas, most well within our $15 and under budget. The menu ranges from traditional Spanish plates like tortilla de patata, a thick omelet made with onions and potatoes, to more international fare like salad niçoise with salmon.
We decide to start with a tapa of croquettas de pollo (chicken croquettes, $7.95), a simple snack that is the Spanish version of a mozzarella stick. Served with a side of thick and tangy garlic aioli, the five croquettas are deep fried to perfection. Their golden breading is crisp but not greasy, and the inside is a warm doughy mix that almost melts with very every bite. We cut the last one in half to share; they’re just that good.
Next up are our sandwiches. My friend digs into his pork loin sandwich ($8.95), a simply constructed meal of pork loin, avocado and tomato on a homemade sub roll. It is good, he says, “but kind of plain.”
My chacerero sandwich ($9.95) is a more original lunch. Anchored by thick cuts of beef tenderloin, the sandwich is topped with tomato, avocado, cooked green beans, slices of green chili and mayonnaise. The chili pieces give the whole dish an underlying heat that contrasts nicely with the creamy avocado and hearty beef. The green beans add only minimal flavor, but peeking out from under the fresh, warm bread they dress up the sandwich and contribute some good texture. Both sandwiches are served with a handful of potato chips.
Our lunch comes in at $28.46 before tip, just under our $15 and under budget and we’ve even wrapped up half our sandwiches to take home. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my choices, next time I’ll head to Bella Maria Café for dinner. I’m eager to explore their evening entrees like a tempting paella, as well as the extensive wine list featuring bottles from all over Spain and South America. After all, what is a Spanish meal without a good glass of tinto?
Want to go? Bella Maria Cafe, 489 5th Ave S, Naples. 239.403.7222