Just a few doors down from Publix in the Shoppes at Pelican Landing sits a gem in fine dining which seems worlds away from its bustling strip mall location. While shoppers rush in and out of the grocery, La Fontanella beckons them to linger and indulge in a slow-cooked Italian repast.Established in 2000, La Fontanella has long been a favorite for white-linen dining in the Estero-Bonita Springs area. Egyptian-born owner Moe Abdelmasih trained under some of the best self-taught chefs in New Jersey before taking over operations at La Fontanella.

His wife, Mona, greets each guest warmly at the door. We had the privilege of being served by their son, Mina, a student at Florida Gulf Coast University. The owners are always on site, ensuring guests are enjoying their meal and the total dining experience. The menu features much more than spaghetti and lasagna. Those basic dishes aren’t even listed.

Spaghetti alla Rotese dresses the traditional dish up with imported pasta, broccoli, artichoke hearts, black olives, capers and fresh tomatoes. Dinner menu highlights include an array of fresh seafood dishes, along with several versions of veal scallopini, each complemented by a varied assortment of vegetables, herbs, and tantalizing sauces. Each night at La Fontanella also brings a number of “featured” dishes not on the standard menu. Our heads were spinning as Mina expertly recited eight daily specials, complete with all of their tantalizing ingredients.

We asked him to repeat the lineup several times before making our selections. Who can choose between Chilean Sea Bass, homemade cannelloni, rack of lamb and veal shank? We started our culinary adventure into Italy with Eggplant Rollatini and Portabello alla Griglia, featuring grilled portabello mushrooms topped with a hearty helping of melted mozzarella and fresh basil olive oil.

The scrumptious eggplant antipasto featured four kinds of cheese — gorgonzola, parmesan, ricotta, and fontina — combined with a fresh tomato basil sauce and homemade pesto. Next, Mina brought out “Moe’s Special,” a seafood sensation featuring marinated, grilled calamari and jumbo shrimp on a bed of baby arugula with cannellini beans, grape tomatoes, red onion and two types of olives in balsamic vinegar. Bon appétit! We moved on to the special salad of the evening, the Mediterranean, paired with fresh crab bisque. The creamy bisque provided some zip, along with the bold flavor of gorgonzola in the salad.

Choosing a dinner entree proved a daunting task with so many succulent-sounding pastas, meat and fi sh dishes. “Every night there are many more dishes not on the menu, so if you don’t see something, just ask,” Mina added reassuringly. He recommended the Osso Bucco, a signature dish of slow-roasted veal shank, served with a small fork for scraping the marrow out of the bone. Bathed in a well- seasoned gravy and paired with risotto, this dish was a hearty and flavorful treat. One of my dining companions also chose veal, but ordered the Scaloppine di Vitello Pizzaiola, enjoying the thin-sliced cutlets with artichoke, olives, tomatoes, and basil in a light garlic chardonnay sauce.

“If you can’t cut it with a fork, the veal is free!” Moe likes to tell his customers. He personally pounds the veal into scaloppine each afternoon. “We clean it ourselves, we cut it ourselves, and we pound it every day,” Moe said. The rest of our dinner party chose to go with pasta, but the two dishes were quite diverse. Cavatelli con Broccoli Sausage pairs imported sweet Italian sausage with broccoli in a buttery white wine sauce.

The homemade Meat Cannelloni combines veal, chicken and beef with mixed vegetables in a classic red sauce, accented with a sprig of fresh basil. La Fontanella also offers an extensive wine list with the perfect match for every entree. We tried valiantly to save room for sampling those luscious Italian desserts. We ordered cappuccino and settled in for guilty pleasure as we tried the classic crème brûlée, an amazing rice pudding with white raisins and macadamia nuts and the cannoli, filled with smooth, sweet cream and chocolate chips and garnished with pistachio nuts. (Mina swears he gained six pounds the first week Moe started making the homemade cream.)

Mona says her husband is successful as a chef because he simply enjoys eating. He would never serve a dish to a customer unless he loved it. “You have to have the taste for how to mix things together to create a good meal,” he said. La Fontanella Ristorante is located in the Shoppes at Pelican Landing, 24600 Tamiami Trail, in Bonita Springs. Reservations are recommended by calling (239)498-6808.

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