Tolla's in Winter Park
I went with a couple of friends to Tolla's for dinner the other night. I was surprised that one of my companions, a longtime Winter Park resident, had never heard of it, even though I first reviewed it back in early 2004. I was further surprised that Tolla's was still open, not that I didn't think it should be. I liked it well enough back then, but its location -- on upper pennsylvania Avenue a couple of blocks away from the more bustling Park Avenue -- and the apparent lack of knowledge in how to run a restaurant seemed to be working against the owner, Gary Tolla.
But good food often wins out over lack of experience and lackadaisical service. Our dinner at Tolla's was very good, and in one aspect, excellent.
Tolla and his staff apparently still don't know how to properly run a restaurant. When we arrived and were led to the patio -- most of the seating is outside under an awning -- we discovered our choice of tables was rather limited. It wasn't because all the others were occupied but rather because they had been occupied and vacated but had not been cleared. There really is no reason for that. Every time the server headed back to the kitchen, she could have grabbed some dishes and glasses to take with her.
But we overlooked that shortcoming once the food started to arrive. Say what you will about his skills as a restaurateur, Tolla knows how to cook.
We started with an appetizer of Italian sausage ($3.95), spicy and seared and smothered in a thick, pulpy tomato sauce. Another companion chose the fresh buffalo mozzarella ($7.25) served alla Caprese with thick slices of tomatoes and a sprinkling of salt for flavor.
The only disappointment of the evening -- at least in terms of food -- was the pasta e fagioli ($3.95), which had a thin watery broth and precious few beans, which, given that beans are the fagioli in pasta e fagioli, is a big oversight.
But the entrees were all winners, and none better than the veal marsala ($13.95). What made it so good was not that the veal was perfectly tender, though it was, or that it had been sauteed just right, because it had. It was the sauce, a pitch-perfect blend of sweet marsala wine and butter, converted to a singular substance that lovingly accentuated the meat. Can you tell I liked the veal marsala?
Well, I liked the stuffed shells ($10.25), too. The large pasta shells were filled with a creamy ricottoa concoction and smothered with more of Tolla's wonderful red sauce. Simple as that. And by the way, in case you haven't noticed, the prices here are way below standard Winter Park fare.
There was no live entertainment on the evening I visited, though Tolla's has featured it in the past. It was early in the week, so maybe that's reserved for weekends. And it would be nice if Tolla's could stock some better wines on the list. I think the Winter Park clientele would welcome more variety, or at least better quality.
That is, if they can find it. Of course, it may be that many have found it and discovered the detritus among the tables that my friends and I saw. Many people would see such conditions and just walk away. I can understand that; I've done it a number of times myself. But I knew better about Tolla's and I was pretty sure the food would be worth putting up with the surroundings.
But I would urge Tolla to peek out of the kitchen when he can to manage the dining area a little more. Or else, hire someone who can.
Tolla's is at 240 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Winter Park. Lunch is served Tuesday through Friday and dinner is served Tuesday through Sunday. The phone number is 407-628-0068. Click here for more info and to read Tolla's menu.