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Praise, Not Bury

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

Bar Tulia @ Mercato

9118 Strada Pl Suite 8150, Naples, FL seems that my magnum opus about Mercato has caught a bit of attention. I've actually had a few people come up to me and ask me if I Mr. Bites, which is usually reserved for those serving me a subpoena, so while awkward, it was a welcome change of pace.

One of the reasons I started this site was because I wanted to inject a sense of the joy of food and dining out into the deep, dark, angry place that the Internet has become. I realize that what I write definitely has a bit of mildly serrated snark, but without that this a) it would just another place on the internet with pictures of food, and b) I wouldn't be true to myself. So when I wrote the third Mercato installment that was basically a hit piece on a lot of Mercato and Blue Martini, I knew I had to balance it off with a return to the positive snark I'm attempting to make my trademark (btw, Positive Snark will be playing their greatest hits at South Street starting in March).

With that in mind I booked a table at what I believe to be not only the best place in Mercato by far, but one of the more constantly delicious yet evolving spots in all of Naples and Southwest Florida. I am talking about Bar Tulia, as well as their sister spot Osteria Tulia and Bar Tulia downtown. Side note, one of the best by-products of outdoor dining in Naples was their Nonna's Garden that they had in their parking lot on Fifth. It was unique for Naples, it's own menu, and a truly terrific energy and vibe. A little bit of laid-back Austin-vibe meets Fifth Ave. They should bring that back, immediately.

For those who haven't been, Mercato is sort of like three small places in one. There's nice sized patio, a long bar area with several high tops (huge fan of a bar area with high tops) and a dining room to the side. I much prefer the bar area as it feels a little bigger and I have a weird fetish for sitting eight inches higher than a normal table (as long as the chair/stool has a place for my feet. Nothing is worth than dangling unsettled feet).

Before I go into the details of the food, I want to thank the GM Cecilia for her fantastic hospitality and kindness. We had a nice conversation about Naples food and the current issues with the service industry and she has a really healthy attitude about being a holistic employer. It's not just about dropping off a meal at a table with a smile; she also has discussion about the community and mental health, etc with her staff. More of this please, everywhere.

Ok, enough ramble. Time for the grub. First up was the squash blossoms, which if you haven't had, are basically a giant flower stuff with ricotta and fried with what I think is a tempura style rice flour. Made famous by Mario Batali (why are so many great creatives such creepy people?), they are basically a cheese and fried delivery device, and a very tasty one at that. The ones at Tulia are a bit bigger than normal, so keep that in mind when ordering so you don't get all gut busted by deliciousness.

I should also mention that my server, Paige, was spot on. Honest about the menu and when I asked a wine recommendation she gave me one reasonably priced and one that was more exceptional at a higher price point. I ended up with a fantastic Amarone that more people in Naples should drink to get them out of the Cab and Pinot torpor that they are mired in. Dry, with fruit, but not jammy at all...and they carry it at Total Wine. Win! Win!

Next up was one of my most favorite dishes in all of Naples and Southwest Florida. Grilled sausage with a navy bean/tomato...sort of salsa I guess? I forget what it's called on the menu and I'm too lazy to use the Google Machine. It's just great. Really high quality well cooked simple Italian sausage, with the right amount of garlic and fresh tomatoes and..its just eat all the bread AFTER the meal even though you're really full because you don't want to waste a drop of the sauce awesome. (Btw, am I the only one who when they see a dish like this thinks "I miss Jack?"...and this is why I'm not a movie quote person).

The third participant in this orgy of goodness was Cacio e Pepe, basically cheese and pepper. To quote my dear-departed Uncle "you can put cheese on underwear and make it taste good..aka Underwear Parmesan". While I don't suggest toss some gouda on your Fruit of the Loom, it is a pretty good way to eat. It's a very simple dish and its very good here. The only mild complaint I have is that it's a LITTLE bit creamer than I'm used to which pushes away a bit of the simplicity, but its still lovely and the best in town.

Finally, the octopus came. Normally, I want my octopus crispy on the outside to the point of a char and soft and easily masticated on the inside (thank you Word a Day calendar). This was a little different. It was actually kind of soft yet slightly chewy all the way around, which if you told me that would be Death by Tentacles, but the combination of a sweet sauce and the tenderness worked, much to my delighted surprise. Also it came on a bed of deliberately undercooked black rice. I pretty much love rice on anything and to quote the also dearly-departed (way too soon) Mitch Hedberg "Rice is great when you want to eat 2000 of something)." And all seafood dishes with rice should served on black rice.

With a belly full of food love, Paige and Cynthia were kind enough to send over a Tiramisu to cap things off. Normally I'm more of an apple pie guy and don't love dishes featuring an aggressive amount of cream, but this was a damn tasty Tiramisu. Not too sweet, not too wet, more like a pudding than a cake.

In a town full of Italian restaurants that take the easy way out, Tulia pushes things further than it needs to and I welcome that thought process. Also worth noting is that executive chef is an under-30 year old woman. More of this in Naples as well. Young talent willing to push things without losing an initial main focus is how this food scene will only get better, diversity and make our tummies happy.

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