Fresh-casual: Italio Modern Italian Kitchen and Olea Mezze Grill 

Pickings are anything but slim at these eateries that allow for almost infinite customization

ITALIO MODERN ITALIAN KITCHEN

276 S. Orlando Ave., Winter Park | 407-960-1860 | italiokitchen.com | $

 

OLEA MEZZE GRILL

400 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland | 407-335-4958 | oleagrill.com | $

The steady diet of fast-casual restaurants we’ve been fed over the past decade has been the result of numerous factors – economics, for one, and a desire among an informed and health-conscious public for inexpensive, healthy and varied fare. Yes, the Chipotles, Paneras and Five Guys of the world have made a not-so-insignificant impact on our dining habits and patterns, all the while eating into the profits of full-service chains. Higher-quality ingredients, coupled with enhanced dining areas and infinite freedom of choice, pose an all-too-attractive option for the frugal-minded or picky diner, it seems – even more so when gimmicky ordering technologies are thrown in the mix.

Not surprisingly, then, the segment has become increasingly targeted by new franchise hopefuls in recent years, and many such establishments now shun the “fast casual” label in favor of “fresh casual” instead. Take Italio, for instance. The self-described “modern Italian kitchen” would seem out of place in even the most modern of Italian cities, but in Winter Park it offers the good folks three base entrée options along with a permutative windfall of toppings and sauces, à la the familiar Chipotle assembly line.

Well-placed signage (a necessity at any FCR) makes the ordering ritual quite easy, not that it’s rocket science – 1) pick a pasta bowl, salad bowl or piada; 2) pick a protein; 3) pick a sauce or dressing; 4) pick toppings. We sampled a bowl of whole grain spaghetti with Italian sausage ($6.98), topped with a spicy pomodoro-alfredo sauce. The pasta was neither al dente nor overcooked: “Just soft, like an American housewife would make,” mused my dining comrade. The sausage, pan-seared and slightly sweet, we liked; toppings of basil, onion, tomato, banana peppers and Parmesan were standard; roasted garlic was way overpowering. Had we known, we likely wouldn’t have added it (or as much of it) to our chicken fritte piada ($6.98). The wrap, like the chicken, was nicely crisped, and adding pasta, mozzarella, eggplant caponata and a chickpea mix to the filling gave it added substance. A suggestion when ordering the salad – make sure they add the meat after they add the lettuce. The cubes of grilled sirloin ($6.98) were at the bottom of our bowl, so by the time the lettuce, toppings and sauces were layered on top, the beef, and its flavor, was lost. From the list of sides, breaded cherry peppers were the lone surprise in a somewhat soggy calamari misto ($4.98).

Cannoli chips ($2.98), on the other hand, were surprisingly good and came served with a side of sweet cream and chocolate chips. Another positive: Seeing Italio’s workers sitting among customers and enjoying piadas and bowls of pasta after their shifts were done.

Like its Mediterranean cousin Italio, Maitland’s Olea Mezze Grill targets a similar audience – though, arguably, one with a more discerning palate. The fare here is predominantly Greek, and, save for a few items, most everything is made from scratch. The exceptions are the gyro meat (supplied by Fontanini, a wholesale meat company), the grape leaves (imported from Greece) and the baklava (brought in from Hellas Restaurant & Bakery in Tarpon Springs). The space is bright, spacious and comfortable, and not quite as bustling (or loud) as Italio, though the ordering ritual is similar: 1) pick a bowl (basmati rice or couscous), pita or salad; 2) pick up to three spreads; 3) pick a protein; 4) pick toppings.

That said, the item you should start your meal off with doesn’t require any decision-making. Those imported grape leaves ($2.80 for a tub of six) were terrific – not too mushy, not too rigid, and with just the right amount of lemon. Also terrific was the bowl of basmati rice and chicken ($7.45) marinated in lemon, oregano and garlic. You can choose up to three spreads, but here’s where a little self-control can go a long way. Plop spicy harissa, garlic hummus and eggplant-red pepper spreads into your bowl, and chances are you’ll be overwhelmed by all the flavors. Those chances increase when toppings like wonderful kalamata olives, tomato-cucumber salad and bean salad are added.

It’s a mistake I was careful not to repeat with a salad ($7.45) of arugula, romaine and mixed greens heaped with lamb-beef gyro meat. A little tzatziki, pickled red onions, diced cucumber and crumbled feta was enough to concoct a harmonious blend, but the meat, while tender, was a little lacking in flavor. The falafel may have lost some of its crunch when stuffed inside the pita ($6.55), but the sandwich roll was still properly fulfilling. Leaving without sampling a slab of baklava ($2.50) would be a tragedy of Grecian proportions; you won’t find a better honeyed pastry anywhere, save Tarpon Springs. It makes finding Olea – look for the Citgo on Orlando Avenue, then turn right before the Walgreens – a worthwhile exercise.

Olea’s general manager spoke about local sourcing and possibly selling their soups at farmers markets in the very near future. They haven’t been open long, but really want to be a part of community events. Most notable is that the folks here seem to care about your experience, and that likely has to do with the fact that Olea isn’t a fresh-casual chain … yet.

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