Bar Italia, the restaurant that now occupies the corner that once held Brio in Winter Park Village, comes to us from NCR Ventures – the initials stand for Next Cool Restaurants – an Ohio group now expanding to Florida. The Winter Park restaurant is only the third of the brand; the other two are in Ohio. Locations in Naples and Lakewood Ranch, Fla., are “coming soon.”
The company’s website says that it offers, “a collection of neighborhood local restaurants focused on world class food, upscale service, in a well designed space meant to create a dining experience.”
In terms of the new Bar Italia, they’re 0 for 3.
Oh, the place looks great. It’s an expansive space with soaring ceilings, nicely appointed with tufted leather booths and comfortable chairs at the freestanding tables. But the high volume space and many hard surfaces make it cacophonously loud, even when the restaurant is only half full. But in the company’s defense, the website promises only a “space meant to create a dining experience”; it doesn’t say what kind of dining experience.
And the food doesn’t compensate for the ear pain.
On my recent visit, my lunch companion and I started with the fritti misto, a sad collection of squid, shrimp and peppers in a crusty breading. The calamari looked wizened, as though it had died of old age. But after one bite I concluded it had been boiled to death.
The margherita wood-fired pizza featured a crust that managed to be both thin and doughy. There was plenty of sauce and thin dollops of mozzarella but little in the way of any distinct flavor. (I took the leftovers home thinking I could revive it somehow. I ended up throwing it out.)
My companion chose the grilled lemon chicken sandwich, which had a smallish breast with tomatoes and greens on toasted bread. It was not a large slice of bread yet the chicken didn’t quite fill it out. And with lemon in the name you’d think there might be a hint of that somewhere, but no.
There was lots of meat in my entree, listed as Chef Andy’s bucatini bolognese on the menu. Lots of meat but, again, nothing flavorful about it. Maybe Andy shouldn’t be so parsimonious with his spices. And the bucatini, which is of course a thicker noodle and bound to be chewier, was just gummy.
The “upscale” service was rote at best. I liked that the staff exercised cross-service. But I was thrown a bit when one of the people tending to us delivered the fritti misto and said, “Your friend calamari.” Though to be fair, the bulk of the dish was comprised of the dearly departed squid.
NCR Ventures, which is based in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, is owned by Rick Doody, who coincidentally – though I doubt there was anything coincidental about it – was the founder and CEO of Bravo Brio Restaurant Group. He knew Winter Park Village and that particular corner, and he knew there was a market for a vibrant, casually upscale restaurant serving good Italian food.
There still is. We’ll just have to wait for the next cool restaurant to come along.
Bar Italia is at 480 Orlando Ave., Winter Park (map). It is open for lunch and dinner daily. It does not publish a phone number (because, you know, the constant ringing would make the place too loud).