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Thursday, October 2, 2008

FRESH AIR

Dazzling Italian at tastefully appointed new eatery

Posted on Thu, Oct 2, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The thought of ordering seafood in a restaurant completely devoid of diners can be a tad unnerving. Visions, however unwarranted, of gastrointestinal anguish can easily contaminate the mind in eateries lacking any bustling human stimulus. Such was the scene as we sat down to peruse Fresco's lengthy bill of fare. Scores of dishes required studied concentration on the menu, a feat seemingly commensurate with taking in the size of the restaurant itself. It's cavernous ' there's a deli, a market, an espresso bar and a conventional bar ' but the place is tastefully appointed, pun intended. As much as we expected a substandard dining experience, the result was, in fact, quite the opposite.

The dollops of lemon-caper mayo weren't necessary with the carpaccio di bresaola ($9) ' the thin slices of salted aged filet were flavorful enough and, thankfully, not saturated in olive oil. 'Some of the best carpaccio I've had in Orlando,â?� my dining partner remarked, and I'm inclined to agree. Roughage in the form of Parmesan-dusted arugula, along with cherry tomato halves, accompanied the starter. The round of goat cheese ($9) could've been more substantial; its panko-coated shell a little less so. The crust was too overdone, the crisp texture impinging on the cheese's soft consistency. The polpette ($5) may not be your grandma's meatballs, but the spheres of finely minced beef and pork will certainly gratify that orb-o'- chuck craving.

From the list of pasta plates, gnocchi caprese ($14), potato parcels served in a stainless steel skillet, dazzled in a thick pomodoro sauce ' at least the ones on the outer rim did. The ones toward the center were a speck overcooked. Yes, they could've eased back on the garlic, but the dish satisfied despite its flaws. Poultry and veal dominate the secondi, with traditional chicken piccata ($15) carrying a primo tangy note. Even better was the side of flawless fried zucchini ' it really should be a permanent antipasti item.

An ample wine list will win over even the most cultured oenophile, but offering none by the glass shows a lack of good restaurant sense. Not everyone is going to want to foot the bill for a bottle, even if they're offered at a wholesale price. That said, the owner did promise more wines by the glass in the coming weeks. You won't have to wait that long for a slab of house-made tiramisu ($5) with a nice balance of sponge to cream, nor the exemplary puffs of profiteroles ($5). Flown in fresh from Italy, the airy pastries come enveloped in moussey chocolate frosting with a not-too-sweet cream filling. It's as standout a finale as you'll ever enjoy.

Service is cordial, but failing to tender a wine list and ignorance of the desserts in the display case are traits of inexperience. No matter ' Fresco's menu cleaves to the familiar, but its execution is worthy of praise. By meal's end, any notions of paralytic shellfish poisoning had dissipated, which ultimately had us lamenting our lack of seafood-ordering abandon.

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