Pizza in North

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    Here's something you don't see every day: a pizzeria in Orlando. OK, so maybe there are quite a few pizza joints. Doesn't mean a person can't keep hoping for perfection.

    Dom's Pizza (5075 Edgewater Drive, 407-298-8998; www.domspizza.com) isn't quite perfection. Biting into a slice of their classic thin crust, I thought the sauce was a little too salty, the crust had an almost pretzel-like consistency, and the cheese was spread on way too thick. And I liked it. A lot. Somehow the combination works, and I'll eagerly return for more.

    Dom's Pizza (5075 Edgewater Drive, 407-298-8998; www.domspizza.com) isn't quite perfection. Biting into a slice of their classic thin crust, I thought the sauce was a little too salty, the crust had an almost pretzel-like consistency, and the cheese was spread on way too thick. And I liked it. A lot. Somehow the combination works, and I'll eagerly return for more.

    You'll also find specialty pizzas like the Drew Show, named after a certain radio personality, that's really a Philly cheesesteak-and-onions pie, a combination that seems so logical I'm surprised everyone doesn't do it. Hot and cold subs, calzones and oven-baked pasta round out the offerings. Now someone explain the Sound of Music cast photo on the wall.

    Bryan Miller honored his Uncle Giovanni; he named his latest restaurant after him. Miller, an original owner of Positano's on Orlando's westside, and the Nikolaja brothers (whose family and recipes hail from Northern Italy) have enjoyed a successful year at their latest venue, Giovanni's Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria.

    Located in the University Palms Shopping Center, it's bright and immaculate with minimalist décor: small tiles of ceramic floor covering, comfy booth seating, pale walls, a wide window-front, a few pictures, some plants, a shiny deli case, and BUSTLE. Our busy server was friendly, in that brash New York kind of way, and after a too-long wait for bread and water, she was efficient.

    Located in the University Palms Shopping Center, it's bright and immaculate with minimalist décor: small tiles of ceramic floor covering, comfy booth seating, pale walls, a wide window-front, a few pictures, some plants, a shiny deli case, and BUSTLE. Our busy server was friendly, in that brash New York kind of way, and after a too-long wait for bread and water, she was efficient.

    Appetizers ($3.95-$5.95) range from simple mozzarella sticks ($4.25) to the chef's baked clams oreganata ($5.95). We shared an enjoyable version of tomato bruschetta, heaped with diced tomatoes that actually tasted like tomatoes and crumbles of not-too-salty mozzarella.

    Appetizers ($3.95-$5.95) range from simple mozzarella sticks ($4.25) to the chef's baked clams oreganata ($5.95). We shared an enjoyable version of tomato bruschetta, heaped with diced tomatoes that actually tasted like tomatoes and crumbles of not-too-salty mozzarella.

    Salad lovers can choose from standard favorites ($2.50-$6.95): Caesar, spinach, chicken, tuna or chef. Our house salads were a fresh mix of greens, tomato, cucumber and carrots.

    Salad lovers can choose from standard favorites ($2.50-$6.95): Caesar, spinach, chicken, tuna or chef. Our house salads were a fresh mix of greens, tomato, cucumber and carrots.

    We looked forward to the soup course ($2.50) that chilly night and tried the minestrone. It did the job, acceptable in a nondescript sort of way.

    We looked forward to the soup course ($2.50) that chilly night and tried the minestrone. It did the job, acceptable in a nondescript sort of way.

    There's an interesting menu division of pastabilities: ziti, spaghetti or linguini can be had with any of seven sauces ($6.50-$7.75), from broccoli in garlic and oil to traditional tomato. A half-dozen baked pasta recipes ($7.25-$7.95) include those combinations you know and love: stuffed shells, ravioli, lasagna.

    There's an interesting menu division of pastabilities: ziti, spaghetti or linguini can be had with any of seven sauces ($6.50-$7.75), from broccoli in garlic and oil to traditional tomato. A half-dozen baked pasta recipes ($7.25-$7.95) include those combinations you know and love: stuffed shells, ravioli, lasagna.

    For the eight-item "pasta alla Giovanni" list ($8.50-$8.95), try the capellini primavera in a nicely spiced light sauce. For heartier appetites, the paglia fieno papalina combines green and white pasta with ham, mushrooms and peas, all in a tomato sauce with cream.

    For the eight-item "pasta alla Giovanni" list ($8.50-$8.95), try the capellini primavera in a nicely spiced light sauce. For heartier appetites, the paglia fieno papalina combines green and white pasta with ham, mushrooms and peas, all in a tomato sauce with cream.

    Among the calzones, the vegetarian version ($5.75) was a tasty, steaming combination of green peppers, spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, olives and onions.

    Among the calzones, the vegetarian version ($5.75) was a tasty, steaming combination of green peppers, spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, olives and onions.

    Unlike most aficionados of Italian food, I'm not a tiramisu freak, but I have to say Giovanni's version ($3.25) could make me convert.

    Unlike most aficionados of Italian food, I'm not a tiramisu freak, but I have to say Giovanni's version ($3.25) could make me convert.

    Importantly, the owner is on the premises here, and – especially with an eye toward a franchise business – aims to please. And if he promised Uncle Giovanni that in his name he'd dish up family-type food, he's done him right.

    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.

    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.

    These days there are more ways than ever to slice a pizza. And Sicilian Pizzeria offers all the usual suspects, from seafood pizzas to barbecue, vegetarian and beyond.

    But their most impressive pie of all is the pizza ripiena, which is a gourmet double crust stuffed with fillings. Basically, they've taken the tried-and-true pizza and multiplied it by two. The pizza ripiena con carne ($18.95) is two 18-inch crusts stuffed with ham, salami, pepperoni, sausage and mozzarella. And con vegetali ($17.95) is with sautéed spinach, broccoli, ricotta and mozzarella. One bite, and you may have a habit on your hands.

    But their most impressive pie of all is the pizza ripiena, which is a gourmet double crust stuffed with fillings. Basically, they've taken the tried-and-true pizza and multiplied it by two. The pizza ripiena con carne ($18.95) is two 18-inch crusts stuffed with ham, salami, pepperoni, sausage and mozzarella. And con vegetali ($17.95) is with sautéed spinach, broccoli, ricotta and mozzarella. One bite, and you may have a habit on your hands.

    This casual, little joint also offers pastas, antipasti and "rolls" -- sandwiches full of cheeses and toppings wrapped in dough and baked. And they deliver.

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