Pizza in Orlando

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    The overwhelming smell of garlic, the barely-20-something staff and the fluorescent glow coming from Panino's Pizza and Grill, on the corner of Orange Avenue and Pine Street, suggests just another pizza joint with faux'New York slices and soggy wings. Not so. With more than 14 by-the-slice variations and many others available in whole-pie form, it's easy to be enchanted. From their loaded seafood pizza teeming with calamari, shrimp, baby clams, mussels and tuna ($18.95 for a large), to the rich and cheesy chicken cordon bleu version slathered with white garlic sauce and pancetta ($3.90 for a slice) there's a pie for every preference. The multitude of bankers and court reporters that flood in around lunchtime and the partiers and bike-hipsters who trickle in for a midnight snack don't fear the wings, either. The morsels ($6.95 for 10) arrive gloriously hot, slightly crispy, garlicky and bathed in the appropriate amount of Frank's RedHot sauce. Open until 5 a.m., Panino's is one of the few choices in Orlando for late-late-night grub, a perk for a city with night life but very little night food that doesn't involve pancakes. After hitting the bars, order a Phillyboli ($7.25), a stromboli-esque pocket of folded dough filled with cheese, steak, sautéed onions and peppers. The only downside: It's served with marinara sauce instead of something more appropriate, like jus or mustard or even horseradish mayo. If you want to keep drinking, the specials at Panino's rival those of any Church Street hotspot. Draft beers are $2 every day, all day (Bud Light, Budweiser American Ale and Miller Lite are all on tap); order a slice and get a draft beer for $1. Or order two and get a draft beer free. It doesn't get much better on steamy Orange Avenue nights. dining@orlandoweekly.com

    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.

    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.

    Pizza Bruno
    Arguably Orlando’s most popular and buzzed-about pizzeria entices with its “neo-Neapolitan” pies fashioned with fermented dough in a Ferrari-red Pavesi oven (it’s a beaut) with creative flavor combinations. Traditionalists can have a field day day here, for sure, but the adventurous can employ such ingredients as hot honey, charred peaches, blueberries, maple syrup and the like on their fast-blistered pizzas. Garlic knots with “too much garlic” are practically a must – enjoy them with the ricotta meatballs prior to pie-eating. The phone is rarely answered, which means no call-ahead orders and no reservations. Closed Mondays. 3990 Curry Ford Road, 407-906-8547; $$

    No man's pie is freed from his ambitious finger,â?� Shakespeare wrote in King Henry VIII, and though I'm not exactly sure what that means, I'm sure there are scores of you out there with digits as desirous as mine when it comes to pies layered with tomato sauce and mozzarella.

    So, given that 'tis the season for pizza (October is National Pizza Month), and that 93 percent of us eat at least one pizza every month, we thought it fitting to pay a visit to a trio of the nearly 70,000 pizzerias scattered across the country.

    First stop: Alfonso's Pizza & More. The once-venerable, once-independent College Park pizza joint was recently taken over by the Anthony's Pizza clan ' that is, the members of the estranged family that run Anthony's Pizza Café in Thornton Park, not Li'l Anthony's on Colonial Drive, who claim to have the original family recipe for their N.Y.-style pizza. And though the name remains unchanged, Alfonso's Pizza & Less would be more apt a moniker. In the not-too-distant past, these guys served up some of the best pie in the city ' just peruse the accolades adorning the brick walls if you need proof. But now, those kind words aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

    Though the sauce on my cheese slice ($1.99) had an adequate zing, and the overall flavor was passable, the crust lacked any semblance of the crispness characteristic of top-notch New York-style pizza. Even if you're a folder, you'd be hard-pressed to keep your slice from flopping.

    So my yearning for sustenance had me perusing the menu. The wings ($3.99), ordered 'as hot as you can make 'em,â?� couldn't rouse my tastebuds from their oral slumber and failed to elicit a single pang, pop or pow. The handful of ridiculously greasy flappers were overcooked and fried to the bone, though I will say that the three celery sticks were served the way I like them ' washed. Unfortunately, the accompanying container of blue cheese dressing was already open, and half-empty, when it arrived at my table. Not sure if it was used previously or not, but our waitress was nice enough to replace it when I brought it to her attention.

    Service was quick and prompt, but even that positive element was negated by the blare of Fox News on one of the dining room's two televisions. In the name of all that's good in this city, bring back the old Alfonso's.

    Next, it was off to Pizza Xtreme, housed in an isolated strip mall adjacent to a Shell gas station on one of the few barren quarters of the tourist sector: Kirkman Road and Carrier Drive. Pizza Xtreme isn't new ' they've been around for about six years ' but they dish out a damn decent pie. The sauce is made from scratch; the dough is hand-stretched and tossed (a glove in the face of competitors using preformed crusts); and toppings, including pineapple, are cut fresh. The result is the quintessence of pizza.

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    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.

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    ALFONSO'S PIZZA & MORE
    3231 Edgewater Dr.
    (407) 872-7324

    PIZZA XTREME
    7250 S. Kirkman Road
    (407) 226-3333

    AMERICAN PIE PIZZA & DRAFTHOUSE
    2912 Edgewater Dr.
    (407) 648-8835

    Pizza