Dec 31, 2023

Fort Myers restaurants: 'Godfather of grinders' spills (some) secrets

The secret to making a great grinder, according to Gary Ciaramitaro, is the conveyor oven. And, of course, good bread.

Ciaramitaro, known to some as the "godfather of grinders," would know. He owns the 14-year-old Bellacino's Pizza & Grinders franchise in Fort Myers and has been grinding out Italian-American cuisine for more than 22 years.

In 2008, the entrepreneur left his restaurant in Michigan for the warmth of Southwest Florida, opening his first local Bellacino's in a strip mall at Colonial Boulevard and Winkler Avenue. Two years later, he moved the restaurant a few miles east on Colonial, to a brand new plaza along Six Mile Cypress Parkway. Bellacino's was among the first wave of restaurants to open in Colonial Square, an area that has since boomed to become one of the highest traffic and most restaurant-dense shopping centers in Lee County.

The owner of a successful trucking company in Michigan, Ciaramitaro became acquainted with restaurants through his family's wholesale produce operation. Lending a hand in their office motivated him to open a grinder and pizza place in his hometown of Warren, Michigan.

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If you ask what kind of sandwiches Bellacino's serves, Ciaramitaro is gentle but quick with a correction: They're grinders.

Grinder is a term common in and around New England for sandwiches crafted on long rolls and teeming with meats and cheeses. The name is said to be coined from the steel grinders who ate the thick sandwiches on their lunch breaks.

Besides the name, Ciaramitaro said what makes grinders different is the bread and the way they're heated. Bellacino's uses that aforementioned conveyor oven, warming it to 490 degrees. It offers an even distribution of heat from top to bottom to thoroughly warm the ingredients without scorching the cheese.

Bellacino's serves more than 30 combinations of grinders, filled with everything from seafood to corned beef to Cajun chicken. However, the Italian is a signature. It's layered with ham, sausage, salami, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, cheese and more.

Close behind in popularity: the Chicago steak featuring thin slices of rib eye.

"The garlic butter makes it," Ciaramitaro said. "It just soaks into the bread, and people love it."

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Instead of butter, it's tangy ranch dressing that gets absorbed by fresh bread for the chicken bacon ranch, which is topped with the same three-cheese blend used on the majority of Bellacino's grinders. Ciaramitaro calls the cheeses a "secret weapon" and would only confirm the presence of mozzarella and provolone.

The bread for the grinders and dough for the pizza is made fresh daily. Bellacino's also cooks its pizzas in the conveyor oven. It doesn't get as hot as traditional pizza ovens, but Ciaramitaro and his team make it work.

"It's not New York style, but it still has that nice little crunch to it," he said. "The sauce is excellent. It has just a touch of sweetness."

Two of Ciaramitaro's favorite appetizers: the Parmesan sticks and garlic-cheese bread. "Try them and you’ll fall in love," he said. Both come with a side of pizza sauce for dipping.

For diners looking for healthier options, Bellacino's has 10 salads to choose from. Thanks to the family's produce background, Ciaramitaro does not skimp in this area, either.

"I make it a point to get good produce and make big salads," he said.

Then there are the french fries. Not your typical health food, sure, but Bellacino doesn't fry its fries, it bakes them and manages to keep them light and crisp. "People like that there is no oil," Ciaramitaro said. Then he grinned, "Grease isn't so good for ya’, you know."

Bellacino's also bakes its wings and offers light sandwiches with fat-free mayonnaise and fat-free cheese but plenty of flavor.

However, if you’re going to splurge on something, Ciaramitaro said it has to be the cinnamon sticks made from baked strips of pizzas dough coated in cinnamon and vanilla icing.

"They are to die for," he said.

While so much around Bellacino's has changed, Ciaramitaro's commitment to quality and consistency has not. Neither has his love for grinders, or the people who come in searching for a good one.

Gina Birch writes about food, wine and spirits for The News-Press and at Follow her as @ginabirch on Twitter and find her on Facebook.

Address: 9377 Six Mile Cypress Parkway, Fort Myers

Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday

Phone: 239-277-0600

Also: Beer and wine served, takeout and catering availa


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