September 2, 2014

DINING

The Sarasota-Manatee Originals

Ortygia in Bradenton is an original.

Chris Sherman | 1/1/2011
Gaetano Cannata
Gaetano Cannata converted a 700-sq.-ft. home in Bradenton for his restaurant, Ortygia.? [Photo: Mark Wemple]
Restaurants don’t get much smaller than Ortygia in Bradenton — one chef-owner and one waiter most nights. The building is converted from an old house, a plain-Jane Florida ranch of 700 square feet. It seats 30, tops.

The guy in the kitchen, Gaetano Cannata, is a diehard chef who has tried other things, even early childhood education, but can’t quit the restaurant business. “I look at places like Carrabba’s and Olive Garden with all their marketing; I can’t match that. We can’t compete with them on prices with the special deals they get in quantity.”

But he’s more than a little guy who keeps plugging. Cannata has a passion for monzu cuisine from Sicily. That’s not Neapolitan, mind you, but mushroom pate, Farsumagru steaks, fennel roasted in chardonnay cream and pasta timballos. It’s a rarefied hybrid of French and Sicilian cooked up in the finest estates.

He is, in a word, an original, a rare, maybe endangered, species. But around southwest Florida, he’s not alone.

At least 50 independent restaurants — breakfast places, supper clubs, bistros and four-star palaces, from Floribbean to French-Sicilian — have banded together as the “Sarasota-Manatee Originals,” one of the cleverest and most successful grassroots efforts to counter the growth and advantages of chains. Restaurants take turns staffing a booth at Sarasota’s Saturday morning market doing cooking demos and plugging the whole Originals list.

The group started in 2003 under the auspices of Michael Klauber, owner of the fashionable Michael’s on East.

Today, the Originals have grown to have an executive director, a marketing budget with $200,000 worth of exposure and an annual food and wine festival that’s one of the area’s biggest.

The chief benefits of the effort are in marketing, including advertising in media that members could not afford, like slick magazines and television time. The members also become affiliates of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, with access to its research and resources, like insurance. Members agree to work together checking references and comparing notes to improve their hiring pool.

Does it work?

“It’s been four years, and I’m still here,” says Cannata. It also helps that he’s an original.

Event from the Sarasota-Manatee Originals:
Forks & Corks 2011

forks and corks

The Sarasota-Manatee Originals hosts its fourth food and wine festival Jan. 28-31, with more than 60 wineries from around the world joining the group’s more than 50 local restaurants. It starts with special dinners paired with premium wines and beers at participating restaurants and private homes Thursday and Friday evening, followed by tasting and seminars Saturday. The grand tasting is on Sunday at the Ringling Museum. More information: Freshoriginals.com

Tags: Dining & Travel

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