Italian in Orlando

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    It's hard to say "basta" to the pasta when you can get a heaping plate of house-made cavatelli with zesty sauce and a garlic breadstick for less than $5. Six house-made pastas and six sauces allow for plenty of mixing and matching, but don't overlook the Tuscan rotisserie items and the grinder sandwiches. With all this and gelato too, you may need to break out the fat pants.

    An inordinately long period of time passed before the space that once housed the widely lauded Trastevere Ristorante in Winter Park finally found itself another tenant. It had seemed Jasmine's would be that place, but cost overruns and other factors shut it down before it even opened. So Rocco Potami, who has more than 30 years experience in the restaurant business, and international restaurateur Enrico Esposito took over the space, dumped $600,000 into remodeling the interior and built a brand-new kitchen to bring it up to code. That's a hefty investment for a place that isn't exactly conspicuously located, though a recently mounted marquee and additional signage should help catch the attention of commuters driving along busy Orlando Avenue.

    Nevertheless, the duo's commitment is a testament to their dedication in establishing Rocco's on the city's dining scene. 'You only get out what you put in,â?� so the saying goes, and Potami and Esposito have put a lot into making their trattoria as soothing and inviting as (lots of) money can buy. By that I mean polished travertine tile floors bathed in a hushed luminescence, laundered white tablecloths, modern art on cappuccino-colored walls and all the dark-wood trimmings and furnishings a 170-seat restaurant will allow. Arched brick-framed windows looking out into the courtyard are a nice Etruscan touch and give the place an air of comfortable modesty ' a tone the pair of expressive cheek-peckers take pride in setting.

    Another source of pride is chef Juan Mercado, a protégé of noted chef Massimo Fedozzi, whose creative Ligurian dishes had locals flocking to Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel. Under Fedozzi's tutelage, Mercado honed the art of preparing regional Italian fare.

    Coastal regions of Italy, particularly Veneto, are well-represented in the insalata di frutti di mare ($12), plump curls of shrimp, rounds of calamari and moist slices of scallops washed in a 'secret marinadeâ?� of lemon juice, garlic and flecks of Italian herbs and served inside a large sea-scallop shell. Aesthetically, it's as though Mercado is paying homage to Botticelli; culinarily, the dish is worthy of being served to a goddess.

    Another Venetian delicacy, carpaccio con arugula ($12), wasn't as worthy. The gossamer-thin slices of beef drizzled with truffle oil are artfully arranged, but just too bland on the whole. A topping of refreshing rocket salad, capers, shaved parmesan and lemon vinaigrette completed the dish.

    Pasta e fagioli ($6) is done in the Neopolitan style, its hearty broth of cannellini beans and chewy rounds of pasta served in an oversized bowl. The soup had the desired consistency ' thick, not mushy ' but it could've used a little more garlic and seasoning to elevate the flavors.

    For my entree, I opted for a northern Italian delicacy, and one of Mercado's signature dishes, the lombata di vitello alla Milanese ($29). The bone-in veal chop is first flattened like a cartoon character, then brought to life with a light, crisp golden-brown breading. Diced tomatoes, arugula, radicchio, lemon juice and balsamic vinaigrette provide the requisite zing.

    Seeing that Rocco's is billed as an Italian 'grille,â?� it seemed appropriate to sample some meat seared over an open flame, like the pollo alla griglia con erbette ($15). This simple dish of herb-marinated chicken breast served over mashed potatoes is impeccably executed, each succulent morsel nicely complemented with intermittent bites of caramelized shallots.

    Desserts are, in a word, heavenly. If you're a fan of tiramisu ($6.50), the lady fingers served here will roll your eyes to the back of your head. The glass of divine indulgence is rich, creamy and an exquisite ending to your meal. If you're so inclined, a chocolate version is also offered. I also savored a scoop of luscious milk gelato ($2.50), the deliciously dense ice cream being ideal for diners who d

    We were waiting for a table at Romano's Macaroni Grill, and we had plenty of company. Flurries of customers milled around the front door and lined up in groups on the sidewalk outside, prepared for one hour waits. We had chosen to bide our time in the bar, lulled into complacent resignation by Peroni beers and frozen Bellinis. We stifled hunger pangs as we watched a full house chowing on pastas, grilled meats and wood fired pizzas that came from the bustling exhibition kitchen.

    And then something happened that really got our attention. Five tables opened up right in the middle of the restaurant. Then they stayed open -- for five minutes, then 10. It was excruciating to watch them go unclaimed in the middle of a restaurant where people were clamoring to be seated. When our mobile "Macaroni" beeper never signaled us, we went back to the hostess to ask if anyone was going to be seated at the empty tables. But she told us our turn would come soon, and directed us back to the bar.

    And then something happened that really got our attention. Five tables opened up right in the middle of the restaurant. Then they stayed open -- for five minutes, then 10. It was excruciating to watch them go unclaimed in the middle of a restaurant where people were clamoring to be seated. When our mobile "Macaroni" beeper never signaled us, we went back to the hostess to ask if anyone was going to be seated at the empty tables. But she told us our turn would come soon, and directed us back to the bar.

    When a restaurant can flubs the seating arrangements like that and still remain so filled with customers, it's obviously doing something right. And Romano's Macaroni Grill is the kind of Italian restaurant that lots of people like. It's noisy, fun, fast-paced and filled with lavish Italian food at neighborhood prices. The setting is spacious, rustic and casual with stone walls, lights strung overhead, fresh flowers all around, waiters who occasionally belt out "Happy Birthday" serenades in Italian, and wine that flows. Jugs of house wine are on the honor system at $3.29 a glass. Bread is limitless too, and it's always hot, crusty, and plentiful, served with a dipping plate of olive oil, shredded parmesan and pepper.

    When a restaurant can flubs the seating arrangements like that and still remain so filled with customers, it's obviously doing something right. And Romano's Macaroni Grill is the kind of Italian restaurant that lots of people like. It's noisy, fun, fast-paced and filled with lavish Italian food at neighborhood prices. The setting is spacious, rustic and casual with stone walls, lights strung overhead, fresh flowers all around, waiters who occasionally belt out "Happy Birthday" serenades in Italian, and wine that flows. Jugs of house wine are on the honor system at $3.29 a glass. Bread is limitless too, and it's always hot, crusty, and plentiful, served with a dipping plate of olive oil, shredded parmesan and pepper.

    The kitchen doesn't stint on portions, either. "Fonduta Gamberi" ($6.99) is just what the name suggests in Italian: A ravishing fondue of shrimp, artichoke hearts and spinach, roasted into a melted mess with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. It's appetizer heaven with a heap of garlic toast wedges.

    The kitchen doesn't stint on portions, either. "Fonduta Gamberi" ($6.99) is just what the name suggests in Italian: A ravishing fondue of shrimp, artichoke hearts and spinach, roasted into a melted mess with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. It's appetizer heaven with a heap of garlic toast wedges.

    "Pizza di Pollo Barbacoda" is another winning choice: A wood-fired pizza on a thin, chewy crust with vigorous toppings of barbecued chicken, pecorino and mozzarella cheese ($7.49). It manages to be light and filling at the same time.

    "Pizza di Pollo Barbacoda" is another winning choice: A wood-fired pizza on a thin, chewy crust with vigorous toppings of barbecued chicken, pecorino and mozzarella cheese ($7.49). It manages to be light and filling at the same time.

    "Scaloppine di Salmone" salmon fillet ($12.99) is a winning entree that leaves a citrus impression, sauteed with fresh lemon butter. It's adorned with capers, tomatoes and fresh bright basil. But on the night we visited, the accompanying bowl of linguine had no flair whatsoever. It looked and tasted like someone had dumped it out of a pot to get it out to the table in a hurry. And the "Ravioli Formaggi" only hinted at the asiago, parmesan cheeses that were stuffed into the pasta, because the roasted garlic cream sauce had been drenched with a heart-stopping dose of salt.

    "Scaloppine di Salmone" salmon fillet ($12.99) is a winning entree that leaves a citrus impression, sauteed with fresh lemon butter. It's adorned with capers, tomatoes and fresh bright basil. But on the night we visited, the accompanying bowl of linguine had no flair whatsoever. It looked and tasted like someone had dumped it out of a pot to get it out to the table in a hurry. And the "Ravioli Formaggi" only hinted at the asiago, parmesan cheeses that were stuffed into the pasta, because the roasted garlic cream sauce had been drenched with a heart-stopping dose of salt.

    Popularity notwithstanding, Romano's Macaroni Grill doesn't belong in the big leagues of Italian restaurants. It's so busy being sought after that when customers start flooding in, the kitchen stops sweating the details. Best to try this restaurant when it's not quite so busy, and the heady flavors of Tuscany are more dependable. In the meantime, if you're looking for ultimate Italian breads and grilled Tuscan meats, your search has ended.

    It's a Tuesday ritual for spaghetti junkies on the south side of town: Hefty, homestyle dinners for about $3 at Rossi's. This mom-and-pop restaurant is celebrating nearly 34 years in the same location by slashing prices on a special anniversary menu.

    The deals are outrageous -- roughly half-price for some of the most popular items. A spaghetti dinner, plus salad and grilled garlic bread, starts at $2.75. Thick, toasted submarine sandwiches packed with deli meats start at $2.50. Ten-inch cheese pizzas are just $2.95.

    The deals are outrageous -- roughly half-price for some of the most popular items. A spaghetti dinner, plus salad and grilled garlic bread, starts at $2.75. Thick, toasted submarine sandwiches packed with deli meats start at $2.50. Ten-inch cheese pizzas are just $2.95.

    The only catch is that you must eat in and don't expect anything fancy. Service is casual; the amenities are low ceilings, dim lighting and lumpy seats. It's truly a south-side dive -- and a well-loved one, judging from its staying power.

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