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    It would be easy for passersby to miss Park Ave. Pizza & Italian Restaurant, as its facade is a simple storefront amid all the pomp of Winter Park. Don't expect much better on the inside of this modest and very casual eatery. There are about five tables covered in plastic tablecloths, and the dining space is small, with a takeout counter and soda dispenser on one end. The delivery guy did double duty as our server, and the departure from the typical aloofness of the Winter Park waiters was refreshing.

    I began my meal with fried calamari ($6.50). They were served in a basket with marinara sauce and were curiously all the same size, indicating their swim had taken them only from the freezer to the fryer. Chewy and overcooked, they resembled fried rubberbands. The Greek salad ($5.95) was large and had fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, black olives and feta cheese. The only problem was that there was no Greek dressing to be had, so my choices were of the salad-bar variety and thus a little disappointing.

    I began my meal with fried calamari ($6.50). They were served in a basket with marinara sauce and were curiously all the same size, indicating their swim had taken them only from the freezer to the fryer. Chewy and overcooked, they resembled fried rubberbands. The Greek salad ($5.95) was large and had fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, black olives and feta cheese. The only problem was that there was no Greek dressing to be had, so my choices were of the salad-bar variety and thus a little disappointing.

    But people don't come here for the salad or the appetizers; they come for the pizza. It's sold by the slice ($2-$3.75) or by the pie ($7-$27.50), and there is something on the menu for every pizza craving. We had the small, 12-inch cheese pizza with pepperoni, olives and mushrooms. The dough was hand-tossed by the owner/chef right before our eyes, so we knew it was fresh and authentic. The taste only verified this. The pizza had been baked perfectly, and the crust was a golden brown. Judging by the general inhaling of pizza going on around us, every pizza prepared is of equal quality and possesses the same great flavor.

    But people don't come here for the salad or the appetizers; they come for the pizza. It's sold by the slice ($2-$3.75) or by the pie ($7-$27.50), and there is something on the menu for every pizza craving. We had the small, 12-inch cheese pizza with pepperoni, olives and mushrooms. The dough was hand-tossed by the owner/chef right before our eyes, so we knew it was fresh and authentic. The taste only verified this. The pizza had been baked perfectly, and the crust was a golden brown. Judging by the general inhaling of pizza going on around us, every pizza prepared is of equal quality and possesses the same great flavor.

    The baked ziti ($7) was truly delicious. The large portion came smothered in mozzarella. The sauce was tangy, full of tomatoes and mixed with ricotta cheese. This dish would have been perfect had the ziti noodles been prepared al dente, as opposed to overcooked.

    The baked ziti ($7) was truly delicious. The large portion came smothered in mozzarella. The sauce was tangy, full of tomatoes and mixed with ricotta cheese. This dish would have been perfect had the ziti noodles been prepared al dente, as opposed to overcooked.

    Some Winter Parkians might be horrified at not having 10 choices of waters and at the thought of having to get their own refills. But the no-frills Park Ave. Pizza is first and foremost a pizza joint, and a good one. You can eat in, take it out or have them deliver. If you dine in, you'll get to absorb the family atmosphere and possibly catch a rerun of Friends or Seinfeld on one of the large TVs. The husband and wife who recently opened this restaurant are not concerned with decor or with the patrons overhearing them call for the delivery guy in two languages; they are concerned with making a wonderful pizza. The down-to-earth, low-key style is a nice addition to Park Avenue's predictability.

    New trattoria on the Dr. Phillips block is schooling patrons an area restaurants in the way of Italian cuisine. The narrow space is reminscent of eateries in Italy, but chef Barbara Alfano's menu proffers enough new ideas to give the Old World-inspired bill of fare a refreshing breath of life. The menu changes dailym but pastas are perfetto and secondi, like branzino cooked in parchment, truly impress. Reservations are necessary as the smal space fills up quickly.


    Teaser: New trattoria on the Dr. Phillips block is schooling patrons and area restaurants in the way of Italian cuisine. The narrow space is reminiscent of eateries in Italy, but chef Barbara Alfano's menu proffers enough new ideas to give the Old World-inspired bill of fare a refreshing breath of life. The menu changes daily, but pastas are perfetto and secondi, like branzino cooked in parchment, truly impress. Reservations are necessary as the small space fills up quickly. Open daily.

    When you grow up in an Italian family, dining out rarely means Italian food. Why go to a restaurant if Mom makes it better at home? The sole exception for us were occasional visits to a nearby family-owned joint. Besides an acceptably rich marinara, it offered more entrees than Mom's recipe file, semiformal waiters and an unintendedly kitschy dining room boasting the aggressive bad taste second-generation 65-year-olds find comforting. ("Look, hon, these plastic flowers never need watering!") Perhaps this is why dining at Peppino's feels like so familiar to me.

    Located waaaaay out east in Oviedo (two miles north of University, at 434 and Carigan), Peppino's had been around for 13 years, though it looks sprung from Astoria, Queens, circa 1972. There's is nothing remotely trendy within these walls or on the menu. But if you want traditional Italian fare in a place that your parents -- or at least my parents -- would love, Peppino's fills the ticket nicely.

    Located waaaaay out east in Oviedo (two miles north of University, at 434 and Carigan), Peppino's had been around for 13 years, though it looks sprung from Astoria, Queens, circa 1972. There's is nothing remotely trendy within these walls or on the menu. But if you want traditional Italian fare in a place that your parents -- or at least my parents -- would love, Peppino's fills the ticket nicely.

    For a recent dinner, a friend and I started with two appetizers, "escargot cognac" ($6.50) and "zuppa di mussels" ($6.95). The escargot, sautéed in a butter/garlic sauce and served in mushroom caps, were only average. The sauce and the texture of the mushrooms overwhelmed the escargot. On the other hand, the mussels, served on the half-shell, were plump and tasty, kicked up nicely by a spicy marinara sauce.

    For a recent dinner, a friend and I started with two appetizers, "escargot cognac" ($6.50) and "zuppa di mussels" ($6.95). The escargot, sautéed in a butter/garlic sauce and served in mushroom caps, were only average. The sauce and the texture of the mushrooms overwhelmed the escargot. On the other hand, the mussels, served on the half-shell, were plump and tasty, kicked up nicely by a spicy marinara sauce.

    For a second appetizer, we opted for a small "pizza primavera" ($7.95), topped with sausage, onions, mushrooms and sliced tomatoes. The crust was perfect, crisp on the bottom and substantial without being doughy, and the toppings were so fresh they made your mouth tingle (especially the sausage). This pizza was the surprise hit of the evening.

    For a second appetizer, we opted for a small "pizza primavera" ($7.95), topped with sausage, onions, mushrooms and sliced tomatoes. The crust was perfect, crisp on the bottom and substantial without being doughy, and the toppings were so fresh they made your mouth tingle (especially the sausage). This pizza was the surprise hit of the evening.

    For entrees, my friend ordered the "shrimp and scallop bianca" ($15.95), while I called for the "chicken a la Maria" ($13.95). Both were excellent, but the chicken was a clear winner on both our cards. The bianca, served over linguine, offered a delectable white-wine-and-butter sauce and robust scallops, but the shrimp were a tad overcooked and rubbery. On a different night, this would have been fantastic, but during our visit it was merely good.

    For entrees, my friend ordered the "shrimp and scallop bianca" ($15.95), while I called for the "chicken a la Maria" ($13.95). Both were excellent, but the chicken was a clear winner on both our cards. The bianca, served over linguine, offered a delectable white-wine-and-butter sauce and robust scallops, but the shrimp were a tad overcooked and rubbery. On a different night, this would have been fantastic, but during our visit it was merely good.

    The chicken, wisely recommended by our excellent waiter, was a huge portion of rolled chicken breast cut in four pieces and stuffed with spinach, cheese and spices and served in a hearty "pink" sauce. (It looked more light brown to me, but maybe that was the lighting.) Coated with a thin (perhaps egg?) batter, the meat was succulent and moist without a hint of greasiness.

    The chicken, wisely recommended by our excellent waiter, was a huge portion of rolled chicken breast cut in four pieces and stuffed with spinach, cheese and spices and served in a hearty "pink" sauce. (It looked more light brown to me, but maybe that was the lighting.) Coated with a thin (perhaps egg?) batter, the meat was succulent and moist without a hint of greasiness.

    One tip for dining at Peppino's: Trust your waiter's recommendations. We noticed that everything he suggested was excellent, or turned out to be excellent when it was served to another table after we chose something else. If you do that -- and order a pizza -- you'll immensely enjoy this Oviedo tradition.

    Priced for worker bees, this West Church Street addition offers plenty of possibilities. Pastas, panini and salads cost under $9, and pizzas range from the usuals to specialties like the "pollo pesto." Leave room for desserts like chocolate ganache cheesecake.

    Judging by what passes for pizza these days, it's not as as easy at it sounds.

    Fortunately, the newly opened Pizzeria Valdiano in Winter Park Village has the technique down. And its next-door proximity to the Regal cinemas there, will help the word spread quickly.

    Fortunately, the newly opened Pizzeria Valdiano in Winter Park Village has the technique down. And its next-door proximity to the Regal cinemas there, will help the word spread quickly.

    Casual and inexpensive, Pizzeria Valdiano (referring to the Vallo di Diano area of Italy, known for great peasant food) serves up the basics of cheese and toppings, along with specialties like "pizza Gamberetti" (shrimp, oil and garlic), "Fiorentina" (spinach and artichoke), and "Valdiano" (sausage, pepperoni, meatballs and veggies). The crust is breadlike and crisp at the same time, and the smells are so wonderful you'll start drooling at the front door.

    When you go to a "restaurant and pizzeria," you don't normally expect two distinct environments. But that's exactly what Positano's has: a front room offering a boisterous, family-oriented pizzeria, and a back room featuring elegant, sophisticated Italian dining.

    This dual identity can be confusing. Entering from the front, we found ourselves awash in family meals, televisions, busy pizza makers and ringing takeout phones. We had to make our way to the "middle" of the space to be transported into a more pleasant fine-dining room full of atmosphere.

    This dual identity can be confusing. Entering from the front, we found ourselves awash in family meals, televisions, busy pizza makers and ringing takeout phones. We had to make our way to the "middle" of the space to be transported into a more pleasant fine-dining room full of atmosphere.

    Management makes the "restaurant" half feel cozy with mood lighting, fine background music and an impressive bar and wine list. The excellent service was friendly and helpful without being intrusive, and we were welcomed with a bread basket of cheese-flavored dinner rolls and a light, fresh-baked Italian roll with surprisingly good cracker crust.

    Management makes the "restaurant" half feel cozy with mood lighting, fine background music and an impressive bar and wine list. The excellent service was friendly and helpful without being intrusive, and we were welcomed with a bread basket of cheese-flavored dinner rolls and a light, fresh-baked Italian roll with surprisingly good cracker crust.

    For appetizers, my guest and I went in opposite directions: she had the "Positano bruschetta" ($6.25), which we found fairly average and lifeless. I had the delicious "warm chicken salad" ($8.95), an Asian-style dish featuring excessive amounts of shiitake mushrooms over a bed of mixed greens, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, balsamic vinegar and nicely grilled chicken. It was a surprising, refreshing and original treat.

    For appetizers, my guest and I went in opposite directions: she had the "Positano bruschetta" ($6.25), which we found fairly average and lifeless. I had the delicious "warm chicken salad" ($8.95), an Asian-style dish featuring excessive amounts of shiitake mushrooms over a bed of mixed greens, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, balsamic vinegar and nicely grilled chicken. It was a surprising, refreshing and original treat.

    The shared menu offers a wide selection from seafood and chicken to innumerable sorts of pasta. We ordered both a "fine dining" entree as well as a New York-sized slice of white-cheese pizza ($15 per pie, $2.50 per slice) to sample from each side of this unique restaurant.

    The shared menu offers a wide selection from seafood and chicken to innumerable sorts of pasta. We ordered both a "fine dining" entree as well as a New York-sized slice of white-cheese pizza ($15 per pie, $2.50 per slice) to sample from each side of this unique restaurant.

    The pizza was thin-crusted and hand-rolled. "Pasta fagoli" ($3.50, if ordered separately) was served as a precursor to the entree, though it was more of a Tuscan-style white bean soup (with very little pasta) rather than a real pasta fagoli. We sensed a pattern: "ordinary" dishes were prepared rather matter-of-factly, while "specialties" received more care and attention.

    The pizza was thin-crusted and hand-rolled. "Pasta fagoli" ($3.50, if ordered separately) was served as a precursor to the entree, though it was more of a Tuscan-style white bean soup (with very little pasta) rather than a real pasta fagoli. We sensed a pattern: "ordinary" dishes were prepared rather matter-of-factly, while "specialties" received more care and attention.

    This theory was confirmed with the expertly prepared and presented "veal saltimboca"($17.50). The veal was tender and perfectly done, the prosciutto topping was a nice complement, and the sage seasoning and fabulous white-wine sauce combined to make the dish a real delight.

    This theory was confirmed with the expertly prepared and presented "veal saltimboca"($17.50). The veal was tender and perfectly done, the prosciutto topping was a nice complement, and the sage seasoning and fabulous white-wine sauce combined to make the dish a real delight.

    For dessert, we tried both the chocolate Amaretto cheesecake ($5.50) and the unique "berrimisu," ($4.95), a fruity twist on the traditional tiramisu. The cheesecake relied too much on its toppings, but the "berrimisu" was exquisitely light and tasty -- the perfect complement to the natural "heaviness" of Italian cooking.

    For dessert, we tried both the chocolate Amaretto cheesecake ($5.50) and the unique "berrimisu," ($4.95), a fruity twist on the traditional tiramisu. The cheesecake relied too much on its toppings, but the "berrimisu" was exquisitely light and tasty -- the perfect complement to the natural "heaviness" of Italian cooking.

    Positano's obviously takes great pride in their "specialities," but the "family side" seems a far more average experience. I recommend one-half of Positano's highly.

    You'll battle crowds to get a seat at Brandon McGlamery's Park Avenue "it spot," but once inside, the rustic Italian creations of chef Matthew Cargo will justify the body-checking. Start with house-cured bresaola and meatballs lolling in cipollini-sweetened sauce, then indulge in Bolognese bigoli enriched with foie gras butter, or simple oven-roasted yellowtail snapper.

    Orlando's ability to create and attract "stars" goes for acclaimed cuisine celebrities just as well as sports and music figures.

    Chefs Paul Bocuse and Gaston Lenotre call Epcot their Florida home; Todd English is moving in to the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel; Roy Yamaguchi holds sway on Sand Lake Road; and we've all been exposed to Emeril and Wolfgang Puck. Slightly lower on the fame scale, but no less talented, is Melissa Kelly, the guiding hand behind Primo at the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes.

    The massive Grande Lakes complex also includes The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, home of Norman's, the signature restaurant headed by fellow James Beard Award winner Norman Van Aken; Kelly was named "Best Chef: Northeast."

    This Primo is the second location for the renowned chef, who opened her Rockland, Maine, location in 1999 to critical acclaim. While Kelly's "down east" spot is a fairly simple affair in a Victorian house, the Orlando version reflects its massive surroundings. In a deep-colored room with semi-William Morris wallpaper and organic-looking chandeliers, you're confronted with a dizzying assortment of salad knives, fish forks and several sizes of dessert spoons. The cutlery is only slightly more complex than the food.

    Kelly and chef de cuisine Kathleen Blake are well-versed in the ways of organic foods -- in fact, there's an organic garden on the premises -- and the menu varies with available supplies. The stuffed squash blossom starter ($10) was immensely pleasurable: crispy flowers filled with creamy ricotta and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Too bad there were only two. Fried calamari ($11) used tender ring slices and spicy tentacles dressed with cress and citrus.

    It isn't often you encounter a new experience, which I did with the sturgeon entree ($28). Sturgeon are huge, dense beasts, and my serving had a firm texture more like chicken than fish, with a flavor that only comes from cold-water catches. It was served alongside a baby artichoke half-filled with tomato couscous and a braised slice of escarole (impossible to cut with the fish knife).

    Beautiful women and young men with spiky hair make up the well-trained staff, and do their jobs well. The only downside that comes to mind is the price: Dinner for two easily rises to more than $100. The Maine lobster ($32) -- while interestingly served with handmade pansoti (similar to ravioli) stuffed with squash -- is not the expected full shellfish but some chunks and a few deshelled claws, which seems a bit expensive.

    There's thought behind the cuisine, and the excellent food isn't simply trendy -- Melissa Kelly has earned her fame.

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