Just call Stefano LaCommare the galloping gourmet. The itinerant chef has spread his brand of culinary philanthropy in all parts of the metro Orlando area, towing his loyal following along in the process. First it was the original Stefano's Trattoria in Winter Park; then it was the widely lauded Il Pescatore downtown; and now, he's set up shop in the corner of an out-of-the-way strip mall in Winter Springs, presumably to take advantage of the large space to house the hordes of rabid regulars packing the joint six nights a week.
LaCommare's cartoonish brand of gregarious affability is in keeping with the familial and frenzied environment fostered by the entire clan, which includes daughter Antoniella, son Leonardo and wife Marie, who often greets patrons as they enter the cramped waiting room. (Reservations are not accepted, so if you're planning a visit here on the weekend, expect a 20- to 30-minute wait.) Stefano's animated Sicilian accent always seems to rise above the cacophony as he perambulates the restaurant, stopping to chat it up with his appreciative customers, most of whom sing the praises of his dishes.
Dishes like the cozze marinara ($8), for example, which reflect LaCommare's fisherman roots. After downing more than a dozen of the delicately sweet mussels sautÃ©ed in garlicky tomato sauce, I dunked pieces of complimentary bread into the velvety marinara while waiting for the next dish to arrive.
That dish, pizza margherita ($8), perplexed me somewhat. Every pizza margherita I've ever sampled has been decorated with basil leaves, but not so here. When asked about the absence of the royal herb, our waitress responded by saying, 'It's in the sauce,â?� but I could barely taste any basil at all. Deliberate? Or an oversight? Pizza margherita, I thought, was supposed to mimic the colors of the Italian flag ' red (tomatoes), white (mozzarella) and green (basil).
There are an amazing number of entrees from which to choose ' veal, seafood, chicken, pastas of every imaginable type, including the build-your-own variety ' but the cannelloni Florentine ($11) proved to be another confounding, though ultimately tasty, number. The totally tubular pasta came filled with a mulch of spinach and ricotta smothered in a rich mozzarella-and-tomato sauce. A wonderful main course, no doubt, but the menu stated that 'meatâ?� (ground beef, as I later learned) was also part of the filler ' yet not a mince was present.
I thoroughly enjoyed the special for the night, pollo summertime ($16): a corpulent chicken breast stuffed with yellow rice, zucchini, yellow squash, red peppers, carrots and pine nuts, then breaded and baked, and finally topped with a faintly sweet cherry-wine-mushroom sauce.
From the dessert plate, I opted for the airy tiramisu ($3.50), which Stefano makes himself. I only wish there had been more spongy goodness to devour. The whipped ricotta filling with chocolate chips qualified the cannoli ($3.50) as sublimely indulgent; no surprise, seeing that the molto bene dolce is also a Stefano-made concoction. Chocolate corruption cake ($3.50) was moist and intense.
My only knock against the service was that more than an hour passed before the entrees arrived, evidently because they had run out of the pre-made stuffed chicken breast and had to manufacture one from scratch. No worries, as it gave my stomach a chance to regain its original form, and my ears a chance to soak in Stefano's rollicking lilt.