Dave's faves: The best Gainesville cuisine of 2007


Published: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

It should not be a big surprise, but somehow it always is.

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A plate of Shrimp Tiko is surrounded by a basket of sliced garlic bread and glass of Chianti white wine at Fresco Neighborhood Italian restaurant.

AARON DAYE/The Gainesville Sun

Facts

Dining hot spots:

O!O Tapas and Tinis

2725 SW 91st St.

331-6620

Ti Amo

12 SE Second Ave

378-6307

Fresco

3117 SW 34th St., Suite 2

377-3484

Red Onion Grill

3865 NW 24th Blvd.

505-0088

The best restaurants I visited in 2007 were not the corporate, behemoth-owned dining spots that capture, oh, probably 90 percent of all the dollars Americans spend dining out. Nope. There's not a single Olive Garden, T.G.I. Friday's, McDonald's or even Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on my "Best of" list.

It's the same year after year. The best meals I had in 2007 were at locally owned and operated restaurants, and some of them are spots that you might not even know about.

You could say that 2007 was the year of the tapa for Gainesville. After an introduction from Steve's Cafe American a year or two ago, the small plates from Spain arrived in style in 2007.

O!O Tapas and Tinis looks non-descript from the outside. It's in the end of a Publix shopping center that's just a few hundred yards from Gainesville's ritziest neighborhood (the gated part of Haile Plantation that is home to Gator coaches Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan.)

But the location really has nothing to do with what makes O!O special. It's the food. O!O is a tapas place that just happens to serve an impressive variety of martinis, but what I like so much about it is that you can dine here very inexpensively - or with relative abandon. Tapas are $5 to $7. The most expensive single item is about $15, but you could let yourself go and spend $40 to $50 a person and not regret a thing. There is a caveat: My last visit a few months ago was not up to par.

Ti Amo is the latest offering from Chef Bert Gill, proprietor of Mildred's Big City Food and the New Deal Cafe (and the closest thing to a celebrity chef Gainesville has to offer). It does not call itself a tapas place, but it serves large and small plates, some hot and some cold. Sounds a lot like tapas, si?

The space, an old, downtown carriage house occupied for decades by the Sovereign Restaurant, is spectacular. Prices here are a little steeper, $6 to more than $30, but you can still dine on a budget.

I loved the North African chicken cooked in a tagine ($16) and the flatbread pizzas ($9-$11).

Fresco is not a tapas place, but it resembles the thousands of small cafes, or "trattorias," that line the streets of Italy.

It's a small, neighborhood Italian joint, except that it doesn't really have a neighborhood because it's in a strip center on Archer Road.

When I was last there in November, it was just a few months old and inclined to be a bit inconsistent, but it definitely had potential, and I hear it's doing well. The daily specials are a particularly good bet as is the Pizza Florentine, fresh spinach, basil, black olives and Roma tomatoes on a chewy crust ($9).

On a completely different note is the Red Onion Grill, a family friendly bar and grill in the Uptown Village on NW 39th Avenue. It specializes in friendliness along with great sandwiches and lots of things made with red onions.

The beer-battered red onion rings are a crunchy, flavorful testament to what onion rings can be, as nearly perfect as any I've tasted in a very long time. Then there is the French Red Onion Soup made with, what else, fire-grilled red onions. And while you're there, don't miss the decadent Blackened Chicken Mac & Cheese.

David Carlson has been writing about food and wine for more than 15 years. Dining is done anonymously and without advance notice. All meals are paid for by the Gainesville Sun. Contact Dave via email to dave@carlsonfamily.net.

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