Grove Stand: Chef Vincenzo Betulia adds The French to his Naples lineup
The acclaimed toque is putting the Paradise Coast on the Florida's culinary map
When Vincenzo Betulia unpacked his lunch in elementary school, nobody wanted to share. There was caponata—think Sicilian ratatouille—and maybe cold cod poached gently in good olive oil. No sir, the kids of Milwaukee kept their PB&Js, and Betulia plowed through the food his Sicilian nonna had made for him. His parents, both immigrants, were foundry workers, so his grandmother was the cook in the house.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his early lunchroom experiences, Betulia began his culinary career at age 14 with a dishwashing job in Paul and Joe Bartolotta’s Ristorante Bartolotta. He was quickly promoted to pizza maker and became a Bartolotta protégé, helping the brothers open a pizzeria and the James Beard Award–winning Lake Park Bistro in Milwaukee. Then it was on to Bartolotta’s acclaimed Spiaggia in Chicago. And, as people tend to do after enduring Chicago winters, he vacationed in Florida.
Click here for The Bum Boat Cocktail by the chef
At age 23, he came to Bonita Springs on vacation with a girlfriend. They ended up going their separate ways, but, before they did, they ate in a few restaurants. “What intrigued me about Naples and the dining scene at the time [was that] I felt like I could add something to it.”
He got a job at Campiello, then the 900-pound gorilla of upscale Italian restaurants in the area. He eventually became head chef and held that role for nine years before taking the plunge in January 2013 and opening his own restaurant, Osteria Tulia.
“[Visitors to Naples] come from the Midwest and Canada, either coming from an older country or an area that had barns and local pubs. Naples is a really new market—buildings are stucco and fake Tuscan. I wanted real brick. I bought [wood] from a barn in northern Florida. All the wood in the restaurant is 100-year-old Florida pine. People recognize that warmth.”
There were plenty of Italian restaurants in Naples at the time, he says, but he wanted a food program based in simplicity, featuring dishes that transported people to the roots of Italian cuisine.
“We don’t do tweezer food,” Betulia says, referencing the kind of ultra-fussy dishes, popular at some fine-dining establishments, that look as if they were plated with surgical tweezers. “There are a few top-selling dishes: tortelloni stuffed with braised short ribs, served just with melted butter with a marsala glaze and a foie gras emulsion. We’re really known for pasta.” Okay, simple, but the foie gras tips the menu into fine-dining territory. Garganelli with lamb sugo, tomato and sheep cheese is another customer favorite.
When the retail space adjacent to his restaurant became available, Betulia and his wife, Anna, cousin and Chef Frank Pullara, and General Manager Jason Zadorski annexed it and transformed it into Bar Tulia, which opened in December 2015.
“[I realized] we could do a cool Italian-style gastropub,” Betulia says. “This was something [the city] needed. There were plenty of Italian restaurants in Naples, but this was different.”
Click here for Halibut with Anchovy-Thyme Beurre Blanc
In January 2017, Betulia opened his third restaurant, The French, a classic brasserie. Would his grandmother approve?
“All of my restaurants have the same energy and feel and Italy and France share a border,” he says. “It’s a French restaurant with Italian technique, a 230-seat street-side brasserie with the classic look of tile floors and tin ceilings, very casual. It’s not fine dining. This is a street-side brasserie.”
The French became an overnight success, and an experience the chef describes as being “shot out of a cannon.” For now, it appears Betulia has no additional projects on the horizon. The three restaurants, his three boys—Gianfranco, 10, and twins Luca and Paolo, 8—and a whole lot of plans for putting Naples on the culinary map are keeping him busy. In April 2015, he became the first chef in Naples to host a Friends of James Beard Benefit dinner, and he cooked at the Beard House in New York City in September 2016. He was also featured in a segment of Emeril’s Florida, and USA Today recognized Osteria Tulia as the No. 1 Italian restaurant and No. 1 lunch spot in Naples.
His overarching goal is to change the perception of Naples, to bring it national recognition as a foodie destination, alongside cities like Charleston. And he’d like to see the local chef community work together to achieve that goal.
“I’m working on creating a camaraderie among chefs here. Yes, we’re all busy, but that would be awesome,” he says. “And with the [annual Naples Winter Wine Festival], it’s cool to get all these chefs to come out to this sleepy beach town.”
A sleepy beach town, fine. But one that, these days, traffics in pretty notable nonna-style cod and caponata.