I like to revisit a restaurant, especially a long-established one like Enzo’s on the Lake, whenever there is a major change. The recent sale of the business by original owner Jo Anne Perlini, who opened it in 1980 with her then-husband, Enzo, to Orlando dentist John Khalil is about as major as changes get.
So it’s time to take another look. But for this one I asked for help.
The opportunity for two diners to join me on a visit to Enzo’s was a silent auction item at last month’s Orlando Shakes gala. Ellen Prague was the successful bidder, but Winter Park couple Steve Goldman and Melanie Love said they wanted in on it, too. So they agreed to match Pragues bid and I made reservations at Enzo’s on the Lake for two nights exactly one week apart.
(Note: The original auction item was donated by Khalil and ScottJosephOrlando.com; Goldman not only matched the winning bid ($750) but also agreed to pick up the tab for the dinner.)
First up was Prague, who many of you will remember as the owner of The Paper Shop on Park Avenue. She brought along her friend Sharon Hagle, founder of SpaceKids Global and the first person I’ve ever had dinner with who has been to space. (She and her husband, Marc, flew aboard a commercial spacecraft a year ago and have plans to go again.)
We had multiple courses, beginning with Enzo’s popular antipasti, followed by pastas and entrees of our own selections.
So how is Enzo’s under the new ownership? Prague expressed it perfectly, paraphrasing, perhaps inadvertently, the rapper Pusha T (or maybe it was Biggie Smalls): “If I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t know it.”
“While I miss seeing Jo Anne at the front – and I really do miss seeing her – everything else is exactly the same, which is to say perfection,” said Prague.
Both Prague and Hagle have been longtime patrons of Enzo’s and Prague had dined there just recently. But Hagle said, “This is the first time I’ve been here since the change of ownership, but it’s like coming home.”
We may have gone a bit overboard with the antipasti, having multiple plates of cheese and salumi; peppers, eggplant and artichokes; shrimp and gigante beans; and sauteed mushrooms and cipollini onions. All of it wonderful.
And the fresh bread and breadsticks. “The bread still doesn’t come with a butter dish, but it’s ok,” said Prague.
Following her pasta course of Pappardelle alla Farnese, with mushrooms and arugula – “Exactly as it has been for the past 35 years,” she declared – Prague had the Dover sole, deftly filleted tableside by our server Susan. “It’s a rare treat,” she said of the sole, noting that it’s hard to find locally. “It’s like eating butter.”
Hagle had veal parmesan, which is not on the regular menu, but when she asked if they could make it for her they said of course. It’s those tiny details, said Hagle, that keep Enzo’s special. The chop was huge, covering a large plate, breaded and sauteed, topped with tangy marinara and dollops of mozzarella.
I had a half portion of Bucatini alla Enzo, because I almost always have Bucatini alla Enzo. The thick pasta tossed with prosciutto, peas, bacon, mushrooms and parmesan cheese makes it a favorite.
I followed with Beef Short Ribs Toscana, the meat tenderly braised in a Chianti ragout and served over house-made pappardelle noodles.
A week later we were back for our dinner with Goldman and Love, who have been longtime customers of the restaurant. “We’ve been going to Enzo’s literally since it first opened,” said Goldman, “and I’ve been in Italy many times on business and this is as good as the best Italian food I’ve had in Italy.”
We went a little easier on the antipasti, but seriously, you should never come here without having something from the array set out at the front of the restaurant. (You can’t help yourself, but you’re welcome to go with your server to the display and point to what you want.)
For his entree, Goldman chose the Linguine e Vongole, because “I always get the linguine with clams and red sauce,” he said. “It’s as good as it’s always been.”
Love chose a special of the day featuring lamb chops with a pesto vinaigrette. She said she enjoyed the lamb and that it was cooked perfectly to order. But she didn’t care for the pesto, which she said was too sweet. And the polenta that accompanied the lamb was a bit dry and “cakey.”
On this visit, I had the Braciole di Maiale alla Griglia, or grilled pork chop. It was a sizeable chop with frenched bone topped with basil butter and accompanied by a nice arugula salad and polenta. (I agreed with Melanie about the polenta.)
Goldman said that he and Love had been to the restaurant since the change and they were glad that most of the staff remained, including the chef, Brandon Parron.
On their previous visit, they found the desserts weren’t quite up to par from before. But the tiramisu we shared on this visit was declared delicious.
Service was up to the usual standards, and not just for our table. Prague said that during dinner she was looking around at the other tables – textbook restaurant critic technique – and noted that the servers appeared to be as attentive as always.
Enzo’s occupies a structure that was once a home. Much of the ambience is the same, though some of the regulars noted that the artwork on the walls had changed. And Khalil has been making improvements to the landscaping. When I visited with Prague and Hagle the terrace between the house and the lake had been stripped. The following week, new sod and landscaping were in place. Khalil has said that he wants to make better use of the outdoor space.
Goldman said that they were worried when they learned of the change in ownership. “We were very concerned that we’d lose one of the best restaurants in Central Florida,” he said. But Prague said she thinks the restaurant is in good hands.
“All he has to do is keep doing what he’s doing.”