By Autumn Gates
Hospitality comes naturally for Gzim Molabeciri.
“I was born in a hotel,” says the Montenegro native who has helped open numerous hotels, including Estero’s Embassy Suites by Hilton and five-star Ritz Carlton resorts around the world.
He followed in the footsteps of his father, working in the hospitality industry his entire life. Gzim even uses some of his dad’s recipes as specials in his newly opened dining venture, Amfora Mediterranean Restaurant.
This haven of hospitality and fine Mediterranean food is located near the main entrance to Coconut Point Mall in the space formerly occupied by MidiCi pizza. The eye-catching, gold, wood-fired ovens lent themselves perfectly to cooking Mediterranean cuisine.
Nearly every dish at Amfora is finished in the wood oven, fueled by red oak, releasing enticing aromas into the air. It’s rare to find quality wood ovens in the U.S., says Gzim, and you have to know what you’re doing to use them well. The extremely high temperature needs to be maintained by constantly adding quality wood.
His partner in the venture is Sabir “Sam” Fici, who considers the restaurant business a “calling of passion” stemming from his love for food, wine and service. Both Gzim and Sam have worked with top chefs, including internationally honored celebrity chef David Burke.
The restaurant’s unusual name comes from an ancient type of pottery vessel with a large, oval body, two handles and a narrow neck. It was used for the storage and transport of foodstuffs such as wine.
“Amforas are hard to find. Originals are usually found in ship wreckages,” says Gzim.
Living on the Adriatic Sea, his grandfathers were sailors and olive growers. They used amforas to transport olives, olive oil and fish, so the name Amfora is very much a part of Gzim’s family history and culture.
“The Mediterranean way of life is to always use fresh ingredients. You catch a fish, you cook it, and then you eat it,” says Gzim.
The food at Amfora is a delightful blend of Spanish, French, Italian, Adriatic and North African culinary influences.
The magic happening in Amfora’s kitchen is under the direction of Chef Enrique Galan. A Peruvian native, Galan shares the owners’ instinct for hospitality. He brings 25 years of experience and a passion for cooking that manifests in truly innovative dishes. His philosophy is “cuisine has no limits.”
Fresh seafood and signature spices are central to great Mediterranean cuisine, says the chef. Cooking in a wood-fired oven isn’t as simple as using gas, but the flavor is much greater, adds Gzim.
Amfora uses many local herbs to add flavor and freshness, and all cooking is done with extra virgin olive oil from the Greek islands. This isn’t the stuff you can buy at the grocery store. Gzim showed us one bottle of EVOO that was over 500 years old!
A small olive tree, planted inside the restaurant and awash with purple light, captures the essence of Mediterranean cuisine. It’s the details that set Amfora apart — classy, blue glasses, candlelight, shelves displaying small amforas.
“In order to be different, you have to pay attention to the details,” says Gzim, clearly an expert in ambience.
The pleasant atmosphere extends to the restaurant’s outdoor dining area. Amfora’s owners enjoy taking new team members under their wing and training them in the art of customer service.
“I try to bring that culture in here, and, as you can see, our staff are very passionate about their jobs,” he says. “We have a highly motivated team.”
Indeed, our experience was delightful — from the smiles that greeted us when we walked into the restaurant, down to the sweet, final bite of our pastry dessert. A highlight was the table-side plating of the dorado fish, presented whole and expertly filleted with the precision of a surgeon, leaving only the bony skeleton while the choice meat is placed atop a bed of risotto.
Amfora is easily the best new restaurant Estero has welcomed in a long while. Come ready to experience sensational flavors and exceptional hospitality.
Amfora Beet Salad: Fresh beets are the star of this succulent salad, roasted in the wood oven for robust flavor. The salad is completed with marinated goat cheese, walnuts, watercress and a very tasty house-made, honey-pomegranate-molasses dressing.
Calimari Al Forno: Sourced fresh from Spain, the squid is prepared expertly and is very tender. It’s stuffed with a pleasing risotto blend and served with tomato sauce, olive tapenade, aged balsamic vinegar and herb olive oil. dressing.
Mediterranean Octopus: This appetizer delivers an authentic taste of Spanish cuisine featuring flavorful, wood-grilled octopus over pappas bravas — spicy potato cakes. Fennel pollen and black garlic emulsion offer unbelievable flavor; the garlic is aged 30 days in a rice cooker for the rich, smooth emulsion sauce. A truly unique starter!
Braised Lamb Shank: This delicious lamb shank is crispy on the outside, yet falloff-the bone tender on the inside. Slow cooking is key; it’s marinated, braised for four hours, and then finished in the wood oven. The meat is seasoned with ras el hanout, a lovely Moroccan spice blend, and topped with infused herbs, including thyme and pei tendrills (delicate pea shoots). It’s served over creamy polenta with French-style au jus, a reduction made from braising the lamb.
Dorado (Whole Fish): At Amfora, both branzino and dorado (mahi-mahi) are presented whole and deboned right at the table. This is an experience not to be missed! Fresh dorado is displayed on ice until cooking. It’s seared on both sides and finished in the wood oven with lemon slices placed inside the fish for extra flavor. Spanish escabeche sauce incorporates tomatoes, garlic, capers and sherry vinaigrette.
Profiteroles: This classic pastry dessert originates from France. Amfora’s version features a cardamon cookie with Nutella gelato, topped with warm, dark-chocolate ganache and fresh strawberries — a heavenly combination of sweetness.