Cielo Celebrates 10 Years: During the Pandemic Slumber, This Island Favorite Dreamt BigNov 21, 2021 08:22PM ● By GINA BIRCH
Cielo Restaurant is celebrating its 10th anniversary on Sanibel Island, and while a lot has changed over the years, one thing hasn’t. Cielo is still one of the island’s most highly regarded restaurants in virtually every category, from ambiance and service to food and drink.
In the summer of 2019, Cielo (which means sky in Italian) made some of the biggest aesthetic changes in its history. Very few people, however, were able to enjoy and appreciate the beautiful renovations, mostly because of the global pandemic.
Fast-forward two years and people are returning to the island with great enthusiasm and hunger for thoughtfully prepared cuisine delivered with attentive service in a pleasing atmosphere.
The restaurant stands on Periwinkle Way, less than a mile west of the island entrance, the striking building surrounded by lush foliage with a simple sign reading “Cielo, Fresh Fare, Fun Drinks.”
This is not your typical island restaurant. It’s an award-winning mix of resort casual and sophistication. The cuisine is contemporary American with Mediterranean and Asian influences. The menu is manageable and refined rather than overwhelming, focusing on quality while still offering variety.
Local fish is sourced for daily specials, and plant-based diners have many more options than salad. Attention is given to creative vegetarian and vegan specials, and 60 percent of the menu is either gluten-free or can be with slight modifications.
For years, guests have been greeted by and taken photos with the sculpture of a dapper frog named Rutherford. He still stands by the entrance, but the warmest greetings come from general manager Marcus Preece.
With Cielo since 2013, Preece began his career in hospitality outside of London, working as a bellboy after school. His eagerness and enthusiasm were noticed by those around him, and he quickly moved to helping with banquets, kitchen prep, and eventually hotel management.
After relocating to Chicago, Preece honed his skills at the Marriott Corporation and managed Trattoria No. 10 until his move to Southwest Florida, where he opened some of the most famous restaurants on Third Street South and Fifth Avenue South in Naples, including Campiello and the former Café and Bar Lurcat.
Preece lives and breathes service, and it is apparent from the time you are greeted to the time you leave Cielo.
For those who have not dined at Cielo since before the pandemic, one of the biggest changes is the new horseshoe-shaped bar. It now sits near the entrance and has become a cozy haven for those on the island who are looking for a true craft cocktail.
Bartender Rachel Urbelis is a Certified Spirits Specialist (CSS) who is constantly concocting delectable seasonal specials, including smoky bourbon-based cocktails. “We have one of the best selections of bourbon on the island,” Preece says. “Anywhere from 35 to 40 that rotate.”
The bar is stocked with many of the standards, along with unique small-batch bourbons, including a nice selection of ryes, to keep the offerings fresh. You’ll also find numerous lesser-known spirits and cordials from around the world, so there is almost always something new to discover. The cocktail program is elevated even further by craft ice. Ice can make or break a drink with its size, shape, and clarity.
A Wineemotion machine keeps wine lovers in love. Containing eight typically higher-end selections, the machine keeps wine fresh while dispensing two-, four-, and six-ounce pours. Not only is it perfect for a tasting flight, but it also allows patrons to enjoy a small glass of something different before ordering a bottle with their meal.
A modern-looking, temperature-controlled wine wall separates the bar from the dining room. It’s stocked with selections from around the world.
The open dining room is island chic. Every seat has a view of the vibrant tropical foliage that surrounds the building, and those colors have been brought inside, into the décor. Chairs and table linens are accented in green, purple, and white. The new light wood flooring adds a fresh new energy.
Executive Chef Melissa Akin leads an experienced team in the kitchen, skillfully preparing and plating each dish. Take, for example, the twist on a traditional Caprese salad. House-made slices of mozzarella are rolled with fresh basil, then sliced. In a nod to molecular gastronomy, the pinwheels are topped with pearls containing a balsamic reduction that explodes with flavor.
For the calamari appetizer, Chef slices a squid steak into batons, dusts them in a fine flour, then flash fries them. Sweet chili sauce and fresh mango puree add the perfect combination of sweet, spice, and local flare. Cashews are sprinkled on top for a salty, crunchy garnish.
Seared U-10 scallops are a signature. Crusted in fennel and served over bamboo rice with a dollop of pancetta jam, the presentation turns heads. The dish arrives under a bell-shaped glass, clouded with smoke for an infusion of flavor. When the top is removed, a comforting, smoky aroma wafts across the table.
Diners who desire protein from the land have options including a tender grilled filet of beef in green peppercorn demi-glace, and a succulent rack of lamb prepared Moroccan-style. Wagyu meatballs are a standout. A mixture of ground wagyu and pork, they are served in guajillo-tomato sauce and topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Cielo’s pastry chef is known for creating delectable desserts, including a signature chocolate salted caramel mousse cake that’s airbrushed with edible gold powder.
Considering Cielo’s new look, combined with its legendary food and service, Preece says, “There’s nothing else like it on Sanibel Island.” Those who dine and drink here tend to agree.
Gina Birch is a Southwest Florida media personality, a lover of food and wine who contributes regularly to TOTI Media.
Belt of Venus
- 1½ ounces dark rum
- ½ ounce light rum
- ¾ ounce Strawberry Campari*
- 1½ ounces pineapple juice
- ½ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce simple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, fill with ice, shake until nice and cold.
Pour into a hurricane glass. Garnish with a lemon wheel and strawberry.
*Strawberry Campari: Wash, hull, and roughly slice 8 ounces of strawberries. Combine strawberries with 750 ml (1 bottle) of Campari in a nonreactive container. Place container in refrigerator and let steep for two days. Strain out strawberries.