By Laura J. Cummings
The French Brasserie Rustique
365 5th Avenue S., Naples
“I don’t like to feel stuffy,” says Chef Vincenzo Betulia. It’s an interesting statement from a man whose goal for the last 20 years has been to elevate the local dining scene. And by all accounts, he has. His newest venture on Naples Fifth Avenue, The French Brasserie Rustique, has already captured several awards, and for good reason. It offers what Chef Vincenzo calls “simple, honest food” — food that’s simply delicious.
Unlike other French restaurants in the area, The French Brasserie emits a casual vibe. There are no white table linens; rather, rustic wood tabletops. And the decor, rather than being modern or trendy, is a throwback to the Belle Époque — the “Beautiful Age” — of Paris around the turn of the 20th century: red banquettes, a checked tile floor, a zinc-topped bar and mirrors that appear blackened with age.
“I wanted that bistro feel to make people feel like they are in Paris,” explains the Sicilian-born chef-owner, who is classically trained in both French and Italian cuisine and has been recognized by Best Chefs America.
The French is Betulia’s third dining concept. Sister restaurants Osteria Tulia and Bar Tulia are Italian with French influence, while The French is the inverse, incorporating Mediterranean influences. You won’t find the heavy butter sauces most people associate with French cuisine. Instead, the flavors of a few simple ingredients are allowed to shine.
“Brasserie” translated is “brewery,” and The French fittingly offers many craft beers on tap, along with bottled beers imported from France and French and Italian wines. Taking cue from the “Daily Specials” chalkboard sign, we started with a slushy Frosé.
If the sidewalk sign isn’t enough to stop passersby on Fifth Avenue, then the stunning courtyard and open-air bar surely will. The colors of the French flag, a festively lighted tree and several small, vintage-looking tables beckon. Inside the the restaurant, those welcoming, red banquettes are surrounded by playful, nostalgic scenes from Paris, painted in a frolicking mural by local artist Megan Young.
If you look closely, you may spot a beret-clad Chef Vincenzo and his photographer wife lounging on a picnic blanket enjoying wine and grapes. Our terrific server, Mont, who hails from Albania and is full of life, is also humorously honored, although his likeness is a bit less recognizable as a lizard waiter sporting a beret and pencil mustache.
“We wanted a very jovial feel,” says Chef Vincenzo. The brasserie’s design is intentionally open for loud and lingering conversations. Live music enhances the ambiance on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, as well as for Sunday “Jazz Brunch” from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Although the restaurant is casual — “If you have sand on your feet, we welcome you!” says the chef — you will find one thing missing that’s a staple at most other “casual dining” establishments: there are no TVs. This is intentional, too. To Chef Vincenzo and his friendly staff, dining out should be a time of connecting with friends and family.
“Casual” also does not mean average food. Chef Vincenzo sources high quality ingredients. Seafood is fresh from the water, meat and produce come from local, family-owned farms, and specialities like cheeses and dried fruits are imported from artisanal producers in France. Saucisson sec (dry sausage), pastas, pastries and desserts are handmade in house.
“For us, we’re just having a good time serving simple, honest food from France,” says the chef.
Fried Squash Blossoms
Start with this simply tasty appetizer. Squash is stuffed with house-made ricotta and coated in zucchini flour before being deep fried. It’s served over lightly sautéed cherry tomatoes and topped with aged pecorino cheese shavings.
A rare treat to find on a local menu, the ingredients for the Beef Tartare are simple: fresh, hand-cut beef tenderloin, shaped into a patty and topped with a raw, organic egg yolk. It’s served with cornichons (pickled baby cucumber), market greens and crostini.
Chilled Seafood Salad
The flavors of this “premier plat” are more Marseille than Paris. Quality seafood — shrimp, scallops, mussels, lobster and calamari — are slowly cooked in broth, then served chilled with green olives, onion, cherry tomatoes and house-made vinaigrette. It’s a succulent seafood medley and salad all in one!
Brasserie Steak Frites
Tender hanger steak gains flavor and a nice char from the oak-wood grill. It’s sliced attractively and served with tasty herb butter, along with everybody’s favorite: crispy maitre d’ fries. As a bonus, The French donates $1 per order to buy books for local hospitals!
Pan Roasted Black Grouper
We’ve had a lot of grouper, but this may be the most flavorful grouper entrée yet. Fresh caught black grouper is pan-seared and then finished in the oven for perfect texture and taste. While the fish is mild, it’s bedded on a wondrously creamy veggie blend, incorporating the flavors of caramelized fennel, sweet corn, string beans, summer mushrooms, baby carrots and chives.
Baba Au Rhum
Our hands-down-favorite dessert may look small but packs delightful flavor to finish on a sweet note. Vanilla sponge cake is paired with rich mascarpone cheese and served in warm, rum-butter sauce. For a festive ending, also try the chocolatey Baked Alaska, served with flaming rum!