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What’s Italian? Quality of the Cuisine has Improved Over Time

Written By Scott Joseph On September 16, 2011

In this week’s WMFE-FM segment, Scott talks with 90.7’s Judith Smelser about the state of Italian restaurants in Central Florida. You can hear the segment at WMFE-FM/dining.

There was a rumor going around in the early days of my restaurant reviewing career that I did not like Italian restaurants. The rumor may have gotten started because nearly every review of an Italian restaurant I did in those days was ultimately a negative one. But that didn’t mean I didn’t like Italian restaurants; what I didn’t like were the places that were dumping tomato sauce on top of pasta and proclaiming, “That’s Italian!”

That’s not Italian, but that’s what was being foisted on the local dining public. It didn’t help that a major restaurant company based in Orlando was serving its own brand of so-called Italian food that wasn’t any more authentic than the others.

But then things started to change. Some restaurateurs who knew Italian cuisine started dishing up the real thing and educating diners that Italian food didn’t necessarily mean red sauce, and it almost never meant heavy doses of garlic. We now have a wonderful array of authentic Italian restaurants that serve everything from the creamier style sauces of Northern Italy to the seafood specialties of the Ligurian coast to, yes, the tomato sauces of the south. Here are some of my favorites.

Antonio’s La Fiamma, 611 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland. Most people never leave the first level of this big Maitland complex. The downstairs deli serves wonderful dishes among the market’s aisles. But upstairs is a more formal dining room with authentic Italian fare. The roast duck is a favorite, but if it’s available, the veal Milanese is the one to have.

Rocco’s Italian Grille, 400 S. Orlando Ave., Winter Park, is where Rocco Potami and his able staff serve some of the most authentic dishes in the area. His Milanese is also first-rate, but the bolognese sauce is what I always have if it’s on the menu, and I never leave disappointed.

Enzo’s on the Lake, 1130 S. Highway 17-92, Longwood, was one of the exceptions in those early days of reviewing. Bucatini alla Enzo, with the big, fat noodles tossed tableside with prosciutto, peas, bacon and mushrooms, was and is my favorite thing here. The old house on the side of the lake that serves as the restaurant’s setting makes it feel as though you’re dining in a friend’s home.

Terrami Winebar e Trattoria, 1185 S. Spring Center Blvd., Altamonte Springs, has been a favorite of mine and a multiple winner of my critic’s choice Foodie Awards. Everything is good, but the antipasto table is especially impressive, with such things as sweet roasted red, green and yellow peppers, spicy peppers, buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes garnished with a sprig of basil, soppressata and mortadella, provolone, and Italian olives. You can make a feast just with the antipasti.

Trattoria Toscana, 521 Park Ave. S., Winter Park. Armando Martorelli oversees this small restaurant on the south end of Park Avenue. The sauteed calamari is almost like a Tuscan soup. The pasta e fagioli, which is a soup — and my favorite Italian soup at that — is extra special here.

Caffe Positano, 3887 Lake Emma Road, Lake Mary. Eggplant rollatini is offered as antipasti, but it’s good enough and filling enough to be an entree. If you must move on to the secondi, try the chicken mama mia or the veal zingarella.

There are dozens of other really good Italian restaurants in the area. Sadly, we also still have some that are less authentic. You learn how to spot them. I remember coming across a restaurant that had a statue of a chef outside the front door, the figure holding a chalkboard on which was written, “This is a real Italian restaurant.” I had my doubts. It didn’t matter that I spotted that particular restaurant during a visit to Rome.

This link will take you to all the Italian listings on the site.


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