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As Einstein said, time is relative. It can be measured in dog years, Internet years and restaurant-in-Central-Florida years. Using that gauge, being around for almost two years makes 310 Park South an area veteran.

The restaurant, glass doors open wide on to the hustle of Park Avenue, can be called what few others in the area can: cozy. The long room, with tables out on the sidewalk and a piano to the back, felt quite comfortable to me, and judging by the unrestrained conversation in the room, to everyone else as well. You have to applaud any restaurant that can generate real atmosphere.

Chef Angel Pereira grew up in the family food business in Spain and trained in Italy, and the influences show in dishes like "grilled grouper with linguine in a black-olive pesto sauce and artichoke hearts" ($11.95). Some choices are quite ordinary: the chicken piccata ($10.95) is prepared very traditionally in a white wine and garlic butter; while others like "horseradish encrusted salmon" ($17.95), a thick pillow of flaky fish under a horseradish and whole-grain mustard shell, are eclectic in design. All are a pleasure to eat.

However. not every dish hits the mark. The exercise afforded by chewing the fairly rubbery fried calamari appetizer ($8.95) is certainly cheaper than a facelift but not much more enjoyable. I will give an enthusiastic thumbs up to the "gator tail," sautéed 3-inch medallions under mustard sauce that will give you a new appreciation for lizard – and no, it doesn't taste like chicken.

If the place is crowded, as it was the night we were there, resign yourself to the fact that you'll be in line. Our 15-minute wait turned into 30 before we were seated, and our server was very long in coming for our orders and even longer to serve.

My companion had one of the evening's specials, a venison steak ($20.95). The good news is that the meat, which can be very easy to cook badly, was superbly done; fork-tender, moist and flavorful, a true credit to the capabilities of the chef. The bad news is that she didn't ask for the venison. After a 45-minute wait for the main course, the prime rib that was ordered had transformed into Bambi. Good Bambi, yes, but our server's reaction ("Gee, it would take a very long time to redo it.") put an unfortunate taste in both our mouths. Good service is a big part of enjoying a meal, and the quality of service at 310 Park South is a real failing.

Take note that 310 Park South participates in the overlooked and very welcome Winter Park Valet parking on the next corner (New England Avenue), and is a darned sight better than cruising for parking. Save that time for waiting for a table.

If you've ever lived south of the East-West Expressway, in the vicinity of Lake Davis, you probably remember El Rincon, a beer-in-a-bag kind of market at the corner of Mills Avenue and Gore Street. If your timing was good and you caught the place when it was open, which was frustratingly rare, you might find a loaf of white bread and a copy of the paper to go with your tallboy. But only the foolhardy would actually order a sandwich from the place.

How things have changed since Jim Ellis and Nick Massoni took over in September. El Rincon is now the 903 Mills Market, and it is the heart of a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The once-dark grocery with bars on the windows is now brightly lit and inviting. You can have lunch or a beer at one of the outside tables and watch the traffic on Mills whiz by. Or sit inside and chat with neighbors as they come and go.

How things have changed since Jim Ellis and Nick Massoni took over in September. El Rincon is now the 903 Mills Market, and it is the heart of a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The once-dark grocery with bars on the windows is now brightly lit and inviting. You can have lunch or a beer at one of the outside tables and watch the traffic on Mills whiz by. Or sit inside and chat with neighbors as they come and go.

903 Mills serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the food is worth a stop. I have yet to eat breakfast there, but the sandwiches are creative, tasty and huge (the "Grateful Bread," a combination of turkey, blue cheese, stuffing, onions and cranberry mayo on sourdough is a personal favorite); the dinner blue plates don't disappoint, and there's always a kettle of soup on.

903 Mills serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the food is worth a stop. I have yet to eat breakfast there, but the sandwiches are creative, tasty and huge (the "Grateful Bread," a combination of turkey, blue cheese, stuffing, onions and cranberry mayo on sourdough is a personal favorite); the dinner blue plates don't disappoint, and there's always a kettle of soup on.

Tipplers will appreciate what has to be one of the best beer selections in town. I've never seen He'Brew, Dogfish Head, Flying Dog and White Hawk together in one place before, let alone in a single cooler in a tiny neighborhood store. Wine heads (as distinguished from winos) will dig the monthly tastings.

Tipplers will appreciate what has to be one of the best beer selections in town. I've never seen He'Brew, Dogfish Head, Flying Dog and White Hawk together in one place before, let alone in a single cooler in a tiny neighborhood store. Wine heads (as distinguished from winos) will dig the monthly tastings.

In the age of the 7-Eleven, community grocery stores are a rare and wonderful thing, and this one is a gem.

Although we tend to think of "Indian" as one cuisine, there are many cultures within that country, and diets differ dramatically. In general, the food of Southern India is fragrant with curry leaves, coconuts and tamarind. In the North, cream and yogurt are common ingredients and the predominant spice is garam masala, a mixture based on cardamom, clove, black pepper and cumin.

Serving Northern-style cuisine is just what Amit Kumar and partner Joy Kakkanad were after when they opened Aashirwad (meaning "blessing") last November on the south side of Orlando. And although that is not a part of town hungering for an Indian restaurant, the owners wanted to set themselves apart by keeping the cost affordable.

This is certainly the case at lunch, when Aashirwad serves a tasty, if depleted at times, buffet for only $6.95. Every day, the buffet is stocked with favorites such as chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, curry and rice. They also have salad and a rotating array of vegetarian items that make this buffet well worth the price of admission. But it's necessary to exercise patience when eating here – service is slow, and they don't always keep the buffet completely stocked. My second trip to the mother lode was fraught with empty chafing dishes (in one there were three florets of cauliflower) and puddles of spilled curry sauce. Eventually we were waited on, and eventually the buffet was restocked. Even though this wasn't a fast lunch, I would happily recommend it for the frugal and hungry.

The dinner experience at Aashirwad is more suggestive of the basic hospitality background studied by Kumar and Kakkanad in hotel/restaurant management school in India: They keep the lights low, the music medium and the service high. Still, the restaurant is in a strip mall on the corner of International Drive and Kirkman Road, and the dining room itself is nothing special, just a collection of booths and tables and Indian-inspired wall hangings.

We started our meal with aromatic vegetable samosas ($3.50), delicate and flaky pastry snugly enfolding a mixture of potatoes and peas. Most of the vegetables at Aashirwad seemed slightly abused, as if they were overcooked or kept around too long, and the starchy-tasting veggies in the samosas were no exception.

Both the tandoori chicken ($11.95) and the tandoori mixed grill ($15.95) were fabulously flavorful and rich with the characteristic charred smokiness of the signature clay oven. The lamb that comes as part of the mix was succulent and moist, but the morsels of chicken were on the dry side. A nice element of surprise was the addition of grilled paneer (Indian-style cottage cheese); the smooth creaminess of the cheese and the spiciness of the seasonings blended quite beautifully.

I was disappointed with Aashirwad's version of palak paneer ($9.45), creamy spinach with cubes of Indian cheese. The spinach lacked the usual creaminess and tasted flat; the cheese – though very tasty itself – kind of hung in suspension and seemed out of place.

Many things we tasted were good but were shy of being great. The cucumber and yogurt condiment, raita ($1.95), didn't burst with flavor; the chickpea crackers with cumin seeds, pappadam (complimentary), were slightly greasy; the lentils with tomatoes and onions, tadka dal ($8.95), had a watery quality. But the tandoor-baked bread, naan ($1.50) was spectacular: springy and soft in the center, yet crisp and smoky on the outside where it melded with the heat of the clay oven.

I have a feeling this restaurant hasn't quite hit its stride yet. Until then, I'll go back just for the naan.

With stints at Antonio’s La Fiamma in Maitland and Terramia Winebar in Longwood, Adriatico chef Marco Cudazzo has played a significant role in pleasing local palates with a penchant for pasta and rustic dishes from the old country. Now, along with his charming wife Rosetta, Cudazzo brings the flavors of his native Abruzzo, a coastal region shoring the Adriatic, to College Park’s savvy denizens, most of whom are no strangers to authentic Italian cuisine.

Not surprisingly, Adriatico’s menu slants toward the sea, not the Abruzzo’s mountainous interior, where lamb, mutton and diavolicchio peppers typify the Abruzzese style. No, it’s all about the seafood here, and the calamaretti alla Napoletana ($8.50), ringlets and tentacles of small, tender squid sautéed in a spicy tomato sauce, is an antipasto worth diving into. The meat is faultlessly firm and doesn’t suffer from the rubbery texture that results from overcooking, while the sauce is an ideal lure for the complimentary bread.

I took great pleasure in listening to my waiter’s thick, rolling lilt, though I’m sure he felt like driving his giant fist into my skull after I asked him to repeat the evening’s special three times. When I finally understood that the white striped bass ($27.50) was pan-fried with portobello mushrooms, and not pot-bellied monsoons, I couldn’t say no. The enormous platter contained a thick fillet garnished with baby romas, yellow tomatoes and two crunchy jumbo shrimp in addition to the ’shrooms, all slicked in a garlic white wine sauce. The flavors worked well, but I would’ve enjoyed the fish more had it not been served tepid.

Terrestrial items also get a chance to shine, and the indisputable freshness of the creamy tomato soup ($5.50) made it a bowl full of magical slurps, with heavy cream and basil adding texture and pungency to the ruddy orange bisque. Carciofini “mamma mia” ($8.50), baby artichokes sautéed in olive oil, garlic and mint, were tender for the most part though a few stringy stragglers found their way into the garlicky sauce. The astringency of the artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes, unfortunately, overpowered the essence of mint, making the dish a slight disappointment.

 

A comforting main like gnocchi della casa can be enjoyed with a choice of three sauces: marinara ($11.50), meaty Bolognese ($14.50) or gorgonzola cheese ($16.50). No matter the sauce, the potato dumplings were perfectly pillowy, and if you opt for the gorgonzola, the rich sauce is as aromatic as it is fulfilling. Italian-imported lemon sorbetto ($7) bests house-made tiramisu, partly for its refreshing tang and partly for its lemon-peel shell, though
either will ensure your meal ends on a sweet note.

Wine racks, exposed brick walls and the glow of candlelight on fresh linens create an oasis of calm, though the serene ambience also extends outside, where patrons can dine by the light of tiki torches along Edgewater Drive. Service is purposefully friendly and leisured, but can seem a little too leisurely when glasses are left unfilled and when lags create uneven pacing. Nevertheless, the trattoria’s genuine charm ultimately wins over the hearts of diners, and the competent execution of the seafood-leaning menu is sure to make Adriatico a fixture in the neighborhood.

When I was growing up in DeLand, there just weren't any kosher delis around. I didn't discover blintzes, latkes and matzo ball soup until going off to college in Atlanta. And while these days Orlando hardly brims with traditional Jewish food, the unassuming market and deli Amira's is worth a visit.

As a kosher deli, cleanliness, food and service at Amira's are supervised by the Orlando Rabbinic Council. But don't ask about the name; I felt like a real schlemiel when I asked our waitress for a translation, and she informed me that "Amira" is the owner's first name.

My companion and I visited for lunch, served between 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. For starters, we split the mini Israeli sampler ($4.95), a smaller version of the Israeli platter ($6.95). I could have made an entire meal out of the falafel (think chickpea hushpuppy) and the eggplant relish, which was similar to ratatouille. The tabouli also was tasty; heavier on parsley than bulghur wheat, it tasted more like a regular salad than other versions I've tried. And while I thought the hummus had too much tahini, my companion pronounced it delicious. Our sampler also came with a big plate of pita bread.

For my entree, I ordered half a "Virgin Rachel" and a cup of chicken noodle soup ($5.95 for the combo). Even without the customary Swiss cheese, this Rachel was superb. Served grilled on rye bread, it came with a huge, hot stack of pastrami, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. The soup stock was marvelous, although there was only one measly piece of chicken hiding in a cup full of noodles. My companion's overstuffed cold corned beef sandwich on rye ($6.95), served plain with condiments on the side, was similarly outstanding. His sandwich came with cole slaw and potato salad, fries or a potato knish. He chose the latter, a spicy mashed-potato mixture inside flaky pastry.

Other sandwiches include hot or cold beef brisket ($7.25), chopped liver ($5.25), half-pound turkey burgers ($6.25), and quarter-pound chili dogs ($4.45). And excepting Friday evenings, when Amira's is closed, the dinner menu includes stuffed cabbage ($9.95), prime rib ($12.95), half a rotisserie chicken ($9.95), and open-face roast beef or turkey sandwiches (both $7.95).

After a slowdown from the sushi overload of last year, several new restaurants have opened lately in various parts of town. Gracing the dining hot spot of Sand Lake Road is a familiar name in new clothing: Amura.

Owned by the same folks behind the cozy Church Street location, Amura on Sand Lake is upscale and reservedly glitzy. It's to their credit that, despite some stiff competition and the shaky state of Church Street, Amura has thrived enough to expand.

Owned by the same folks behind the cozy Church Street location, Amura on Sand Lake is upscale and reservedly glitzy. It's to their credit that, despite some stiff competition and the shaky state of Church Street, Amura has thrived enough to expand.

This venue includes teppan tables, secluded on one side of the restaurant from the main room; judging by the appreciative noises coming from that end they seem to go over well. The new Amura is a gorgeous space, with backlit glass walls, rich marble flooring and tiny halogen lights suspended invisibly overhead like stars. But oohs and aahs at the decor quickly turn to gasps at the pricing – $21.99 for boring salt-coated scallops? A "deluxe Isleworth boat" sushi assortment for $99.98?

This venue includes teppan tables, secluded on one side of the restaurant from the main room; judging by the appreciative noises coming from that end they seem to go over well. The new Amura is a gorgeous space, with backlit glass walls, rich marble flooring and tiny halogen lights suspended invisibly overhead like stars. But oohs and aahs at the decor quickly turn to gasps at the pricing – $21.99 for boring salt-coated scallops? A "deluxe Isleworth boat" sushi assortment for $99.98?

The quality of the sushi does remain high, and it's particularly nice to see varieties of fish that have a low environmental impact, like hamachi (yellowtail, a kind of amberjack) and saba (mackerel). The saba is particularly good, with a slightly pickled taste that complements the firm rice. I recommend any of their nigiri sushi or sashimi, which glistens like jewels under those lights, except for the sashimi appetizer ($8.99), which includes a piece of surimi (that horrible fake crab). Surimi also turned up in the sunomono salad ($7.99) – shame on them.

The quality of the sushi does remain high, and it's particularly nice to see varieties of fish that have a low environmental impact, like hamachi (yellowtail, a kind of amberjack) and saba (mackerel). The saba is particularly good, with a slightly pickled taste that complements the firm rice. I recommend any of their nigiri sushi or sashimi, which glistens like jewels under those lights, except for the sashimi appetizer ($8.99), which includes a piece of surimi (that horrible fake crab). Surimi also turned up in the sunomono salad ($7.99) – shame on them.

The rolls didn't fare as well as the sushi. The "bamboo wine roll" ($8.99) of white tuna wrapped in avocado was limp and tasteless, the avocado overwhelming other flavors. And the "Magic roll" ($7.99), with shrimp, crab and asparagus was so soggy with a sweet, watery sauce, that it was almost impossible to pick up.

The rolls didn't fare as well as the sushi. The "bamboo wine roll" ($8.99) of white tuna wrapped in avocado was limp and tasteless, the avocado overwhelming other flavors. And the "Magic roll" ($7.99), with shrimp, crab and asparagus was so soggy with a sweet, watery sauce, that it was almost impossible to pick up.

It's when we get to the kitchen that everything falls apart. Not everyone likes the same thing, but I'll bet very few people enjoy oily and lukewarm shrimp tempura, with batter-dipped vegetables that are either undercooked or in such large pieces, like the broccoli, that raw batter sits inside as an unpleasant surprise. All that for $16.95. "fiery garlic chicken" ($15.99), a small portion of chewy chicken bits, was more overseasoned than fiery. The "geisha shrimp" ($18.99) were battered, then covered in an odd white sauce, with a bitter, burnt garlic taste that lingered for hours.

It's when we get to the kitchen that everything falls apart. Not everyone likes the same thing, but I'll bet very few people enjoy oily and lukewarm shrimp tempura, with batter-dipped vegetables that are either undercooked or in such large pieces, like the broccoli, that raw batter sits inside as an unpleasant surprise. All that for $16.95. "fiery garlic chicken" ($15.99), a small portion of chewy chicken bits, was more overseasoned than fiery. The "geisha shrimp" ($18.99) were battered, then covered in an odd white sauce, with a bitter, burnt garlic taste that lingered for hours.

If you go, stay with what Amura knows best – sushi – and let the kitchen staff take a break.

Restaurants specializing in Eastern European cuisine no longer seem content simply to attract homesick expats pining for a hearty meal. Judging from the popularity of such places as Polonia, Lacomka and Chef Hans Café, it appears there are more than a few diners with a proclivity for stuffing their gourds on meals that no one could describe as 'light.� Polish food, like the cuisine of other Slavic nations, is about as glutted as Coach Ditka's arteries, and Anna's Polish Restaurant will certainly help nurture a bay- windowed frame.

Case in point: a platter of smoked kielbasas ($10.99), flown straight in from Chicago, grilled and served with plenty of sauerkraut and sautéed onions. Sorry, dieters ' they don't offer the low-fat I Can't Believe It's Not Polish Sausage option here. A plate of pan-fried potato-and-cheese pierogies ($4.99) help enrich any meaty dish, and these pillowy dumplings, handsomely primped with fried onions, were damn near perfect. For as hearty (but not as filling) a side, try the red borscht ($3.29 cup; $4.79 bowl) ' a crimson-colored beet soup not acidic in the least. With fava beans, carrots and potatoes, the chunky concoction makes a great option for those looking to up their vegetable intake; a white borscht, made from fermented rye flour, smoked sausage and eggs, will certainly speak to the Bob Swerski (George Wendt's SNL 'superfan� character) in you.

Of the mains, I couldn't get enough of chef Anna's specialty ' a Cracovia chicken cutlet ($15.99) crusted on both sides with a healthy coating of Parmesan dough. The fried slab was at once juicy, tender and crisp, and the steady downpour outside made me want to curl up with the cutlet on a sofa in my jammies and watch the rain hit the window.  The defining characteristics of Eastern European cuisine ' substantial, comforting, bloat-inducing ' made an order of the beef goulash ($13.99) a no-brainer. And it looked inviting: beefy chunks slathered in a thick brown sauce blanketing kopytka (potato 'finger dumplings� similar to gnocchi). But like the 1986 Chicago Bears, the dish comprised an impressive assemblage but didn't come through in the clutch. Compared to the goulash at Chef Hans Café, Anna's was an unseasoned disappointment. A side of red cabbage salad, on the other hand, was refreshing, while the beetroot salad went a little too heavy on red peppers. Potato pancakes, another letdown, were brushed to the side after a couple of bites ' even apple sauce that tasted like grandma's apple pie couldn't redeem the flat, lifeless patties for me.

And then came the strudel ($4.29), a late-game neutralizer that put the kitchen back in our good graces. Another dessert, the walnut extravaganza known as pychotka ($4.29), is a must for nut-lovers, and crepes 'Nalesnikiâ?� ($4.79) is a winner, even with Reddi-wip and strawberry topping from a jar. Service deserves special mention: Our server couldn't have been more charming or pleasant, qualities that were reflected in the restaurant's dining room.

The space once housed Polonia, the reigning champeen of Polish cuisine in this town, before they moved to larger digs up in Longwood. With a little time and some seasoning, Anna's should give them a run for the title.

Pizza without beer? Lasagna without wine? It's unthinkable according to Anthony Marku's standards, but then he's a native of Italy and the owner of Thornton Park's newest restaurant, Anthony's Pizza Cafe.

Marku feels so strongly about the pairings that he's prepared to start giving away beer and wine at his establishment – and he may have to do just that. Last week, the City Council, acting on the interests of a handful of residents concerned about adding another outlet for alcohol in their neighborhood, once again shot down his appeal for a permit to sell beer and wine.

Marku feels so strongly about the pairings that he's prepared to start giving away beer and wine at his establishment – and he may have to do just that. Last week, the City Council, acting on the interests of a handful of residents concerned about adding another outlet for alcohol in their neighborhood, once again shot down his appeal for a permit to sell beer and wine.

For the meantime, the Thornton Park dining district is confusing, with regard to spirits. Customers can belly up to the bar in droves at Dexter's, Chez Jose Mexican and Burton's Bar & Grill. But across the street at Anthony's, you have to bring your own bottle or visit the 7-Eleven.

For the meantime, the Thornton Park dining district is confusing, with regard to spirits. Customers can belly up to the bar in droves at Dexter's, Chez Jose Mexican and Burton's Bar & Grill. But across the street at Anthony's, you have to bring your own bottle or visit the 7-Eleven.

Even so, only one month after opening, Anthony's is shaping up as a popular dining spot. Located in a former car-repair shop that's been gutted and washed with bronze colors and a Tuscan atmosphere, the two dozen tables inside and on the courtyard are usually filled on Friday nights. This is casual, affordable Italian food at its best, prepared traditionally.

Even so, only one month after opening, Anthony's is shaping up as a popular dining spot. Located in a former car-repair shop that's been gutted and washed with bronze colors and a Tuscan atmosphere, the two dozen tables inside and on the courtyard are usually filled on Friday nights. This is casual, affordable Italian food at its best, prepared traditionally.

But don't come here if you're trying to save calories – there's nowhere to hide. The cheesy garlic bread appetizer is out of this world and a steal at $2.25. An Italian baguette is sliced down the middle, lusciously soaked with garlic butter and capped with whole-milk mozzarella cheese. Then it's lightly bronzed under the broiler.

But don't come here if you're trying to save calories – there's nowhere to hide. The cheesy garlic bread appetizer is out of this world and a steal at $2.25. An Italian baguette is sliced down the middle, lusciously soaked with garlic butter and capped with whole-milk mozzarella cheese. Then it's lightly bronzed under the broiler.

Lunch and dinner mainly consist of subs, pizzas and pasta entrees. Some of the portions are gargantuan. We asked for a small "special stromboli" ($6.95) and were presented with a virtual football, stuffed with mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, onions and ham. The "VIP stuffed pizza" is daunting, too, with a double crust filled with all of the above, plus cappicolla and Genoa salami. Just one slice ($3.50) is the size of most restaurants' personal pizzas, and a large pie ($24) would serve a crowd.

Lunch and dinner mainly consist of subs, pizzas and pasta entrees. Some of the portions are gargantuan. We asked for a small "special stromboli" ($6.95) and were presented with a virtual football, stuffed with mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, onions and ham. The "VIP stuffed pizza" is daunting, too, with a double crust filled with all of the above, plus cappicolla and Genoa salami. Just one slice ($3.50) is the size of most restaurants' personal pizzas, and a large pie ($24) would serve a crowd.

A lighter choice would be the spinach pizza, topped with white cheeses and spinach ($2.25 slice, $8.95 small pie).

A lighter choice would be the spinach pizza, topped with white cheeses and spinach ($2.25 slice, $8.95 small pie).

Pastas are just as good. We tried a heaping portion of delicious spaghetti ($6.25), topped with sweet, basil-infused marinara sauce and meatballs the size of golf balls.

Pastas are just as good. We tried a heaping portion of delicious spaghetti ($6.25), topped with sweet, basil-infused marinara sauce and meatballs the size of golf balls.

Even without beer and wine, Anthony's is positioned to become a fixture in the Thornton Park enclave.

There are plenty of great Italian restaurants in Orlando, but there are few that can manage to be smart and sophisticated without being imposing. Antonio's La Fiamma in Maitland has that wonderful combination of warmth, hospitality and energy.

This is one restaurant that wouldn't be caught dead relying on accordion music, red-checkered tablecloths or drippy candles in Chianti wine bottles to convey atmosphere. Although it's a popular spot for lunch, twilight is an excellent time to visit. There's a second-floor view of shimmering Lake Lily, framed by sunset skies. The dining area glows with impressions of candlelight, crisp white linens and gleaming china. Service is thoroughly professional, yet fluid and relaxed. It's almost as if the formal dining area were taking its cue from Antonio's Café Downstairs, the lively deli, wine shop and Italian market that occupies the first level.

This is one restaurant that wouldn't be caught dead relying on accordion music, red-checkered tablecloths or drippy candles in Chianti wine bottles to convey atmosphere. Although it's a popular spot for lunch, twilight is an excellent time to visit. There's a second-floor view of shimmering Lake Lily, framed by sunset skies. The dining area glows with impressions of candlelight, crisp white linens and gleaming china. Service is thoroughly professional, yet fluid and relaxed. It's almost as if the formal dining area were taking its cue from Antonio's Café Downstairs, the lively deli, wine shop and Italian market that occupies the first level.

The food also is first-rate, we found on a recent visit. The restaurant, which inspired the spin-off Cafe d'Antonio in Celebration, owes its skillful creations to head chef Sebastian Santangelo. Although he is a native Sicilian, his menu is a tour of Italy.

The food also is first-rate, we found on a recent visit. The restaurant, which inspired the spin-off Cafe d'Antonio in Celebration, owes its skillful creations to head chef Sebastian Santangelo. Although he is a native Sicilian, his menu is a tour of Italy.

Among the caldi, or hot appetizers, fried calamari ($6.95) were lightly breaded and greaseless – these weren't dainty squiggles, but more like thick calamari steaks, accompanied by a superb sauce of sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and mayonnaise. Also good were the ravioli al funghetto ($5.95), stuffed with shiitake mushrooms in a pink sauce of cream and tomatoes.

Among the caldi, or hot appetizers, fried calamari ($6.95) were lightly breaded and greaseless – these weren't dainty squiggles, but more like thick calamari steaks, accompanied by a superb sauce of sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and mayonnaise. Also good were the ravioli al funghetto ($5.95), stuffed with shiitake mushrooms in a pink sauce of cream and tomatoes.

But you could easily cut costs by skipping the starters: The bread basket is a showcase featuring onion-embedded focaccia. The freshness is owed to a baker who arrives at 3 a.m. daily for a baking marathon that continues until 10 a.m. That's when Santangelo arrives to reclaim the kitchen and begin cooking various sauces, which are the restaurant's real bread and butter, he says.

But you could easily cut costs by skipping the starters: The bread basket is a showcase featuring onion-embedded focaccia. The freshness is owed to a baker who arrives at 3 a.m. daily for a baking marathon that continues until 10 a.m. That's when Santangelo arrives to reclaim the kitchen and begin cooking various sauces, which are the restaurant's real bread and butter, he says.

There was one in particular that we enjoyed: A Cognac sauce enhanced with lemon and fresh herbs, served with a double-thick, sautéed veal chop. But for a better idea of what a talented chef can accomplish with the simplest ingredients, don't miss zuppa di pesce ($22.95). Preparation is a 7-to-10 minute deal, featuring a tricky, mixed bag of shrimp, calamari, scallops, fish and langostino, a species of prawn with a sweet, delicate meat which rivals shrimp or lobster. Santangelo's version is outstanding, mostly due to a delicate broth of tarragon, basil, garlic and a touch of marinara.

There was one in particular that we enjoyed: A Cognac sauce enhanced with lemon and fresh herbs, served with a double-thick, sautéed veal chop. But for a better idea of what a talented chef can accomplish with the simplest ingredients, don't miss zuppa di pesce ($22.95). Preparation is a 7-to-10 minute deal, featuring a tricky, mixed bag of shrimp, calamari, scallops, fish and langostino, a species of prawn with a sweet, delicate meat which rivals shrimp or lobster. Santangelo's version is outstanding, mostly due to a delicate broth of tarragon, basil, garlic and a touch of marinara.

You can usually catch a glimpse of him at work behind the kitchen counter, visible from most seats in the dining area. Or, get a closer look during Festa Italiana, a group cooking class, Italian feast and wine soiree from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. Nov. 15 at the restaurant. The cost is $50 per person in advance, $55 at the door.

Seemingly everything is imported from Italy, from the glassware to the tile. Drink prices are the usual Sand Lake high, but low traffic to this second-floor restaurant means you'll have the bartender's undivided attention. The bar features a walk-in wine closet and flat-screen TVs, and there's live entertainment on weekends.

True to form, in the Artist Point restaurant, Disney does it up big – from the size of the room, to the size of your plate, to the size of your food portion, to the size of your bill, which, in this instance, is justified.

And they do it beautifully.

And they do it beautifully.

Located in the jaw-dropping magnitude of the Wilderness Lodge, in the Magic Kingdom resort area, the restaurant follows the Northwest theme both in decor and menu. Half-a-dozen starters from the woods, rivers and fields offer exotics such as the sautéed elk sausage that's served with braised potatoes, onions and mushrooms ($5), or shrimp and chicken saté marinated and grilled on a rosemary skewer and served with sea grass and dipping sauce ($8.25).

Located in the jaw-dropping magnitude of the Wilderness Lodge, in the Magic Kingdom resort area, the restaurant follows the Northwest theme both in decor and menu. Half-a-dozen starters from the woods, rivers and fields offer exotics such as the sautéed elk sausage that's served with braised potatoes, onions and mushrooms ($5), or shrimp and chicken saté marinated and grilled on a rosemary skewer and served with sea grass and dipping sauce ($8.25).

The Northwest salmon sampler ($9) featured smoked pepperlachs and cured gravlachs (both are cuts of salmon) and pan-seared salmon presented with a relish side of onion, sweet peppers and capers – a generous and successful combination. However, smoky pepperlachs and pork nearly overpowered the pot-au-feu, a hearty soup combining lentils, potatoes, pork and elk sausage in a saffron broth ($4). The Oregon sampler of marinated wild berries, pickled asparagus, bleu cheese and duck confit ($7.25) delivered enough vinegar to lock even my vinegar-loving jaw, and the fowl was typically greasy. But the creamed onion soup ($3.50) was light, perfectly seasoned and garnished with chive strips and freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese.

The Northwest salmon sampler ($9) featured smoked pepperlachs and cured gravlachs (both are cuts of salmon) and pan-seared salmon presented with a relish side of onion, sweet peppers and capers – a generous and successful combination. However, smoky pepperlachs and pork nearly overpowered the pot-au-feu, a hearty soup combining lentils, potatoes, pork and elk sausage in a saffron broth ($4). The Oregon sampler of marinated wild berries, pickled asparagus, bleu cheese and duck confit ($7.25) delivered enough vinegar to lock even my vinegar-loving jaw, and the fowl was typically greasy. But the creamed onion soup ($3.50) was light, perfectly seasoned and garnished with chive strips and freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese.

Five seafood entrees ranged from a rainbow trout pan roasted with pancetta with a lentil and red pepper side ($15) to a line-caught wild king salmon from Alaska ($19.50). The latter was marinated in whiskey and oven-roasted with julienned winter squash and couscous enhanced with plump raisins and pine nuts. The huge salmon steak was perfect – flaky but moist with delicate seasoning.

Five seafood entrees ranged from a rainbow trout pan roasted with pancetta with a lentil and red pepper side ($15) to a line-caught wild king salmon from Alaska ($19.50). The latter was marinated in whiskey and oven-roasted with julienned winter squash and couscous enhanced with plump raisins and pine nuts. The huge salmon steak was perfect – flaky but moist with delicate seasoning.

From a meat list that included espresso bean barbecued chicken ($15.25); a 16-ounce porterhouse ($21) and a lamb-pheasant dish ($19.50), my companion chose a smoked prime rib ($17.50) that was generously marbled and served with red potatoes he deemed delicious. All entrees are served with a delicious tri-lettuce salad, nicely chilled and tossed with just a whisper of raspberry vinaigrette. There's also a freshly baked hazelnut bread loaf and sunflower seed rolls.

From a meat list that included espresso bean barbecued chicken ($15.25); a 16-ounce porterhouse ($21) and a lamb-pheasant dish ($19.50), my companion chose a smoked prime rib ($17.50) that was generously marbled and served with red potatoes he deemed delicious. All entrees are served with a delicious tri-lettuce salad, nicely chilled and tossed with just a whisper of raspberry vinaigrette. There's also a freshly baked hazelnut bread loaf and sunflower seed rolls.

This is a thoughtful menu, innovative and prepared with care – an amazing feat when you consider that this place can accommodate 206 people (and often does). And our service was as spectacular as the setting – although next time, we plan to take our coffee outside, by the magnificent lobby fireplace.

A restaurant's service can be a make-or-break proposition. There are people who will let an unfilled water glass ruin the bliss brought on by multiple courses of gastronomic delight. Such fussy perfectionism is not how the vast majority of diners approach the restaurant experience. The food is the main attraction, and as long as it's delivered accurately and in a timely fashion, it's the quality of the dishes that determine whether or not a restaurant leaves a positive impression.

Sometimes, however, what appears to be decent if unexceptional service may prevent a diner from walking away from a meal with an accurate sense of what that particular establishment is capable of.

Such was the case with a sojourn to Ayothaya, a new "authentic" Thai place in the Dr. Phillips area. Given the level of competition among restaurants on that stretch of Sand Lake Road, I could be forgiven for expecting Ayothaya to be more than just another place to grab some mussaman curry. Though the teak-heavy décor was nice, the small dining room was cramped and possessed of none of the sumptuous and spacious elegance of Thai Thani, a nearby restaurant that hasn't let their strip-mall location prevent the proprietors from creating a relaxed oasis.

But, real estate being what it is, this is the sort of thing I'd be willing to forgive. Except that within this small space, the owners have made the bizarre decision to install two unavoidable televisions on the premises … tuned to Central Florida News 13, no less. Here's a headline: Some people like to go out to dinner and not be distracted by nine-minute news cycles. (For the record, this trend of multiple televisions in supposedly "upscale" restaurants is a sin against nature. You run an Applebee's or a barbecue joint? Fine. Anywhere else, it's inexcusable.)

Still, a too-cozy space, visually polluted by television, can be redeemed by a skillful kitchen. Perhaps one day I'll find out if Ayothaya has one. You see, our server forgot to tell us about the specials. Under some circumstances, such an omission would be a minor mistake – we'd miss the fish of the day or the chef's best effort to put an inventive spin on overstocked ingredients. And given the seemingly vast selection on Ayothaya's misspelling-riddled menu – a none-too-shabby 45 items – it didn't even occur to us to ask about the specials. A closer examination of the menu, however, revealed it to be filled with the standard dishes found in so many Thai restaurants, with a few surprises here and there. Somehow, it was both overwhelming and uninspiring, and our server didn't provide much assistance in navigating us through it.

Eventually, our party of four settled on a combination of "the usual" and the unexpected. A sampler plate ($12.95) of six of Ayothaya's appetizers – chicken satay, spring rolls, shrimp dumplings, Thai crab cake, fried wontons and fried shrimp rolls – was wholly average. (The dumplings came out cold, adding to the disappointment.) Tom kha gai soup ($5.95) was the opposite of cold, as it was invigoratingly spiced and amply filled with massive shrimp, rather than the hide-and-seek variety many Thai places use. The wonton soup ($4.95) wasn't nearly as nuclear but was equally substantial, with sizable chicken- and shrimp-filled dumplings.

Continuing with "the usual," we ordered a red curry with chicken ($12.95) and a shrimp and broccoli in oyster sauce ($12.95). Neither held any surprises, positive or negative. The red curry was flavorful and not overpoweringly spicy, while the oyster sauce had the right kind of salty zing. Moving out of familiar territory, it was on to a deliciously greasy, vegetable-heavy and appropriately named "spicy duck" ($14.95) and, the tour de force, a whole red snapper, fried and topped with a salsa-like concoction of red onions, basil, chilis, garlic and an excellent, spicy red sauce. Called pla chom suan, it wound up being a bit pricey ($28.95/market price), difficult to plate and too large for one person, but none of those things mattered in the slightest while we were greedily stuffing our gullets. The super-crispy exterior provided that perfectly pleasing contrast with the soft, flaky flesh, and the fresh spiciness of the topping made the dish that much more pleasingly complex.

The entire latter part of Ayothaya's menu is comprised of 10 such "creations," all but one of which are centered around fresh fish. These dishes are rather costly, but they are the closest the restaurant gets to breaking out of the standard fare found at so many other Thai restaurants. Or so we thought.

On our way out the door, I noticed a lengthy specials board that told me what might have been. This list of exciting-sounding seafood dishes (most notably a lobster curry) and other impressive concoctions were a drag to run across at the meal's end. Potentially, here was the exceptional food that would make the obnoxious televisions worth putting up with; here were the chef's personal signatures that would make what seemed like a run-of-the-mill restaurant the kind you tell friends about. And it was too late to try any of them.

So that, folks, is why good service is so important.

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