Who's to say the effects absentee celebrity chefs have on a city's collective psyche? Yes, you're worthy enough for us to grant you our presence, but temper that excitement – it'll only be for a day. Possibly two. That sort of treatment won't help our inferiority complex any, so maybe a "glass half-full" approach is the way to go. Maybe we should just be thankful that gastro-astros Masaharu Morimoto, Jose Andres, Rick Bayless, Art Smith and Wolfgang Puck have restaurants here at all. Yeah, that feels a lot better, doesn't it? Take that, Tampa! You too, Cincinnati!
Of course by "here" I refer to the Culinary Circus Maximus of Disney Springs. It's where Tony Mantuano, the Top Chef Master of Chicago's Spiaggia, has thrown his James Beard Award into the park's starry ring with Terralina Crafted Italian. Mantuano previously held a consulting role in Portobello, a "country trattoria" that's since been transformed into Terralina thanks to his vision – and Levy Restaurants' financial backing. Mantuano's inspiration? Italy's Lake District, with rooms all rustic and faux- finished. Tranquil? Hardly. The place rollicks in perpetual packed-dom, and feast they do, but not on seafood as one might expect.
Rather, the menu here offers a snapshot of the Boot's best: antipasti, meatballs, pasta, pizza – though you probably wouldn't find a spicy capicola pie ($16) like Terralina's along the shores of Lago Como. The crust – thin, dense, unblistered and char-free – lent it flatbread status in our eyes. "A little skimpy on the meat," grumbled my dining comrade about the sauce-less, cracker-style pizza. For all this "Lake District" business, I'm not sure how many folks at Terralina are even aware of the region's culinary nuances. Both hostess and server said the cuisine was "Tuscan" which, honestly, didn't seem that far off. We ate meatballs – a couple of expensive $14 meatballs – and wondered where the flavor went. The peasanty pair were coated in a tomato-basil sauce, topped with shaved Parmesan, and came served over polenta (there's the Lake District influence!), but a couple of blander polpette we've never sampled. I'm all for simplicity, but not at the expense of flavor.
A simply grilled ribeye ($42) fared much better. We inquired as to its provenance and grade, but couldn't be told either. Our server did, however, sing the praises of the grill cook and, sure enough, the steak was superb. It came with a smear of gremolata (more Lake District influence!) along with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.
I should probably state that while Mantuano is the face of Terralina, Justin Plank (Wolfgang Puck Café, Hue, Park Plaza Gardens) is the executive chef. We quite enjoyed his ravioli gigante ($23), one of two pastas made in-house, we were told (the other being the $26 seafood cannelloni). The spinach and ricotta stuffing, as well as the roasted-garlic and tomato saucing over the large squares, certainly adhered to the kitchen's "simplicity" ethos.
Same goes for the lovely plate of burrata and sweet pickled beets ($13), for us a pre-dessert of sorts that segued into a trio of cannoli sprinkled with toffee crunch ($10) and a lemon panna cotta flecked with candied thyme ($9). Nothing fancy, just solid dishes the likes of which you'd find in an "Italian home," according to an early press release. But let's be honest here – Terralina is no Spiaggia. Hell, if Levy spun Terralina off into a chain, they'd surely give the major players a run for their money. No, Terralina exists to receive and embrace the throngs who converge onto Disney Springs for their post-park meal and, for now, it appears content to be the big fish in a small man-made lake.
NOTE: After going to press, we came to learn that Tony Mantuano is no longer associated with Terralina Crafted Italian or Levy Restaurants.
– This story appears in the Dec. 11, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.