There was a time, not too long ago, when a restaurant would throw some pasta onto a plate, slosh some red sauce on top of it, shake some sawdusty substance out of a jar labeled Parmesan, and call it Italian. What’s worse is that a lot of people ate it and figured it was authentic.
Times have certainly changed, at least for Central Florida. We now have long list of really terrific Italian restaurants that range from small mamme e pop trattorias to full fine dining ristoranti. Don’t misunderstand -- there are still plenty of lousy Italian pretenders out there. But Central Floridians are becoming more sophisticated, and they’re learning that there’s more to Italian restaurants than garlic breadsticks. You just have to know where to look.
Here then are some of my favorite Italian restaurants:
Rocco’s Italian Grille -- Rocco’s is one of the area’s hidden gems. Although it occupies a space on busy U.S. Highway 17-92, just north of Fairbanks Avenue, it isn’t easily noticed from the cars whizzing by. But make a point to find it. The food here is first rate, and the service is, too. If Rocco’s bolognese sauce is on the menu, get it. It doesn’t matter what you put it on.
Antonio’s La Fiamma -- Antonio’s is like getting two restaurants in one. Downstairs is a market, wine shop and deli, with tables and chairs set up among the racks and stacks of imported dry goods and bottles of vino. Upstairs, however, is a fine dining restaurant with crisp white linen tablecloths, excellent service, and authentic renderings of Italy’s finest dishes. I like the risottos here, expertly prepared. And while the veal Marsala is always delicious, I sometimes ask the chef for his veal Milanese.
Enzo’s on the Lake -- Enzo himself is gone, but his legacy lives on in this lakeside restaurant that occupies a former house. Start with the antipasti, which your server will cull from the table of salumi, cheeses and other goodies at the front of the dining room. My favorite dish here is the bucatini alla Enzo, which features fat, hollow noodles with prosciutto, peas, bacon, and mushrooms, all tossed tableside.
Stefano’s Trattoria -- This is a true mom and pop operation, with Marie and Stefano Lacomarre the owners and operators. Although Stefano is a native of Marsala, Italy, his cooking style is more closely related to his adopted Brooklyn. Not exactly old country authentic, but pretty darned good nonetheless.
Terramia Winebar e Trattoria -- Owner Rosario Spagnolo has been involved in a number of Italian restaurants in the area (including the original Bravissimo, when it first opened on Howell Branch Road in Winter Park). Terramia also has a wonderful antipasti array -- in fact, I could make a meal of that alone. But I also like the salmone Portofino, a Ligurian style seafood entree.