It was the evening of my first full day in Orlando, and I was still a prisoner of my own assumptions. Central Florida is famous for Walt Disney World, right? The happiest, but also the most broadly pleasing place on earth? I expected meals there to consist of comforting but unchallenging food, and the idea of going out for Italian prompted visions of garlic bread and wine bottles in straw baskets.
As I found out during my visit to Prato (124 North Park Avenue, Winter Park, 407-262-0050, Prato-wp.com), my assumptions were dead wrong. Prato felt vital and contemporary from the moment I stepped in the door.
The space is large and airy, with lots of windows. It used to be a clothing store, and is still lit to make everyone look great. I noticed two things right off: One was a large bar island in the middle of the room. Patrons sat around it, having easy conversations with each other and the bartenders. The other attention grabber was a huge chalkboard near the entrance with a hand-drawn map of Florida. The map highlighted the locations of all the farms with which Prato has a working relationship, driving home the restaurant’s 21st-century commitment to eating locally and sustainably.
Dinner started with a round of drinks off the aperitivo menu, and they were my first hint of the playfulness and creativity that would be found at Prato. Most contained familiar flavors and combinations knocked pleasingly off kilter by an unexpected ingredient or two. My Melone Piccante, for example, was mostly gin and fruit juice, but was taken to another level by a splash of Canton Ginger and a dash of habanero-flavored bitters.
I was lucky enough to be dining with a large group, so I was able to sample a number of dishes. On the day I visited (the menu changes daily), a beef carpaccio called out to me. It was served with salty Sardinian pecorino and tangy citrus-infused olive oil that perfectly complimented the rich meat. I also tasted tender octopus that changed the way I feel about eight-legged things, a dish of roasted fresh chickpeas that made me wonder why anyone bothers to dry the legumes, and cipollini onion-studded meatballs smothered in a roasted tomato sauce that again found the perfect balance of richness and tang.
Prato is named after a city in Tuscany that is the seat of the slow food movement. Ironically, though, the restaurant’s signature offerings are not Tuscan but Neapolitan, and they aren’t slow, either, cooking in about a minute and a half. They are pizzas baked in wood-burning Acunto ovens custom-made for the restaurant in Italy. The crusts come out crisped and blistered on the outside, with a slight chew to the inside. Toppings can be as simple as the classic tomato and basil, but some pies use more creative combos to delicious effect, like butternut squash and sage, or sausage and egg.
Unfortunately, by the time my group was done with filling first courses and pizza, we were late for a show and full to bursting, so we never got the chance to try any of the pastas or oven-roasted meats. We also completely skipped dessert, and anyone who knows me and my sweet tooth knows that from me, a happy report of a dinner without dolce is a rare thing indeed. But even without trying sweets such as mascarpone pound cake or butterscotch budino, I felt as though I’d had more than enough flavor experiences for one meal, and dessert would just have to wait for another day.
I did not, in fact, make it back to Prato that visit, which is a shame, because when the question is: “Prato?,” the answer should always be: “Sì, pronto!”
THE DIRTY DISH
Prato; 124 N. Park Avenue, Winter Park, FL; 407-262-0050; Prato-wp.com.
TYPE OF RESTAURANT: Contemporary Italian, with an emphasis on Neapolitan pizza.
(0 = lowest score to 5 = highest score)
AMBIANCE: Classy yet relaxed.
SCENE: Couples on dates, groups of friends having drinks. Clientele skews professional but younger and hipper than Winter Park in general.
SERVICE: Friendly, prompt, and helpful—staff know the menu inside and out.
NOISE LEVEL: Lively, but not so loud you can’t have a conversation.
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Any pizza; if the Widowmaker is on the menu that night, try it—it includes sausage and an egg cracked on top during baking.
SIP: The wine list is extensive but don’t miss the chance for an artisan cocktail whipped up by the resident mixologists.
CHECK, PLEASE: $$$$ = Over $30
(price of average dinner/lunch/breakfast/brunch bill for an individual dinner)
THE EAT: Fresh, creative food rivals offerings at the contemporary Italian restaurants in far foodier cities.
WORTH THE NIGHT OUT? Worth the night out? It’s worth the trip to Orlando.