Move over, Florida oranges: There’s a new crop in town. The state harbors nearly 32,000 acres of tomato fields, yet many are unaware Florida also grows the largest amount of fresh-market tomatoes in the U.S.
The largest tomato producer across the pond in Europe, naturally, is Italy, so it makes sense that Sicilian-born chef Vincenzo Betulia sources the fruit and other local produce from this region. Betulia exhibits Italian techniques not only through his cuisine, but in his emphasis of farm-to-table cuisine: “Farm-to-table is the only way chefs do things in Italy—you cook whatever is grown in your surrounding area,” he says. “So being from an Italian family with many talented cooks, sourcing local has been ingrained in me since a young age.”
After coming to the U.S. at the age of 2, he and his family held firmly to their Italian roots. “I remember hauling bushels of fresh tomatoes into our basement in Milwaukee with my family and hand-grinding those tomatoes into concentrato,” Betulia says. “We collected fresh produce and canned what we did not use for use later in the winter months. It was just a way of life for us, and it still is today.”
Betulia attended Kendall Culinary School in Chicago and rose in the kitchen ranks under his mentor, James Beard Award–winning chef Paul Bartolotta. While living in the Midwest, Betulia always thought Florida held a special allure: His grandmother on his mother’s side was born in Tampa before her family moved back to Italy, and because the climate is very similar to Sicily, many of the same crops found in Italy, including zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, citrus, and peppers, can be sourced locally in Florida.
Easy access to these products, along with fresh seafood, prompted Betulia to move to Naples, Florida, after visiting on vacation. He set out to create a name for himself in the Naples restaurant scene, serving as the Head Chef at Naples institution Campiello, where he worked for nine years. In 2013, he opened his own restaurant, Osteria Tulia, followed by Bar Tulia in 2014.
At his concepts, Betulia says his the goal “is to not only serve simple food, but to also educate people on what Florida really grows,” making local varieties of diverse heirloom tomatoes grown year-round the stars of the show. But what exactly is it that sets heirlooms apart from the rest? “Flavor is the first thing that attracts me—tasting terroir and sun—and an heirloom tomato tells a story of that area and region,” the chef explains. “I actually go and visit the farms so that I can smell the tomato plants and soil, and I take notes on what the farmer tells me about what they are doing to keep the tomato growing. The amount of care that goes into these tomatoes is what makes them so good to me. That care translates to taste.” He names full-flavored, sweet heirloom tomatoes like Everglades and UglyRipe—both grown in the winter, Betulia’s favorite growing season—as favorites that remind him of Sicily.
Osteria Tulia sources as much as it can locally, including additional heirloom crops such as lettuces, baby vegetables, and sunburst squashes. Betulia has partnerships with local purveyors for produce, including Colusa Farms and two other growers just miles from the restaurant. Osteria Tulia also sources meat from nearby cattle and poultry farms, while the seafood comes from “friends and local fisherman,” Betulia says. “They will send me pictures of the day’s catch, and I’ll tell them what I would like for them to bring to the restaurant,” he adds.
Naturally, utilizing local fare whenever possible requires Betulia take a micro-seasonal approach to Osteria Tulia’s dishes. “There are two times a year that the menu completely changes, but we rotate our menus and add new items every day,” he says. “We also run regular specials that spotlight some of these more limited ingredients.”
And as for those coveted tomatoes, the menu aims to highlight their incredible variant flavors by showcasing the crop in burrata salads topped with Sicilian olive oil and sea salt, sun-drying them, oven-roasting them, and using them in sauces.
It’s clear that Betulia’s philosophy has had a significant impact on his local community, as the chef has noticed “a greater influence of farm-to-table cuisine in Naples” since Osteria Tulia opened five years ago. “We want to encourage others to value local and conscientiously grown ingredients,” he says. “When many people think of Florida produce, they only think about oranges, but there is so much more than that!”