It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a restaurant as eagerly anticipated as Prato. Ever since it first threw open its doors onto Park Avenue last month, it has been mobbed, which is not always a good thing. Maybe the lustful welcome is because we’ve seen so few restaurants open during the economic downturn of the past few years, any new restaurant is cause for celebration. But I suspect the bated anticipation and thronged welcome for Prato is due more to the track record of the people behind it.
That would be the folks from Luma on Park, just a couple of blocks south on, um, Park Avenue. Chef Brandon McGlamery and general manager Tim Noelke have built that restaurant into one of the jewels not just of Winter Park but all of Central Florida. Both hold the same positions here -- you may spot either one brisking between the two venues during dinner hours -- though McGlamery now prevails as executive chef over “chefs di cuisine.” At Prato, it’s Matthew Cargo, a young culinarian who is showing great promise for talent and creativity.
The menu is ostensibly Italian, but don’t go expecting to find a list of the usual suspects served in the average Italian restaurant, at least the Italian restaurants in this country. Instead, look for stylized interpretations of Italian dishes that use, whenever possible, local ingredients.
The local angle may give a clue to why the name was chosen. Prato is a town in Tuscany that is considered central to the Slow Food movement, which originated in Italy. One of the precepts of Slow Foodism is the use of local products. On its menu, Prato lists several local purveyors as “partners.”
I’ve sampled a number of items at Prato and I liked most of them very much. Not everything was a boffo knockout and a couple of things didn’t come off well at all. Some of the misses might be attributable to the still-newness of the kitchen (the location was a former Ann Taylor clothing store) and some to the shell-shock reaction of all staff members to the crush of patrons.
One of the showpieces of the mostly open kitchen is a wood-burning oven used primarily for pizzas. It has a prominent place at the far end of the walk-around bar, and the pizzaiolo is stationed there, shaping the dough and assembling the pies. I sampled two, the Diavolo and one called the Widow Maker. The latter was wonderful, a thin crust topped with prosciutto, sausage with fennel and, in the center, a fried (or, more accurately, baked) egg. The crust was perfect and the flavors were wonderful. The egg made it fun. (I suppose it’s called Widow Maker because of the high cholesterol count, but seriously, you could apply that term to plenty of other items.)
The Diavolo, however, wasn’t much more than a pepperoni pizza with some extra red pepper seasoning. And this time the crust was a bit burnt. (It also seemed odd that the pizza, which my guests and I ordered as an entree, came out a good 10 minutes after the other dishes.)
Prato meatballs, which seem to be becoming a Cargo signature item (he served them at the Rioja Street Food Festival in September), were wonderful. Three dense orbs of meaty goodness, served with just the slightest bit of pulpy tomato sauce. I also enjoyed the house-cured lonzino, a simple salume served with apple, celery hearts and a touch of gorgonzola. There wasn’t a thing that was special about the Prince Edward Island mussels; in fact they were rather mundane. And although the pate of the chicken liver Toscana appetizer was good, it was served on toasted bread that was sliced too thick. Thinner toast would allow the chicken liver to shine. Chicken wings candito weren't worth the trouble or messiness of eating them (no towelettes were offered). And chicken wings? Seriously?
Pastas are freshly made, and worth trying. On one of my visits I could see McGlamery through a window to the kitchen as he ran a sheet of dough through the pasta machine, making it thinner with each pass. My guests and I enjoyed the duck bolo tagliatelle, with Long Island duck, soffritto and barolo wine. The sauce had a wonderful earthly tasty, and the pasta was just right. By the way, pasta dishes are available in half sizes. Very smart.
I liked the slow-roasted pork shoulder very much. The meat was thickly sliced yet delightfully tender, and it was served with toasted farro, Brussels sprouts and funghi agrodolce, a sweet and sour sauce.
Early online buzz about Prato is mixed, but it seems that most of the negative comments (it has a disturbingly low score of 65% “likes” on Urbanspoon) have to do with the the restaurant’s physical properties and, more specifically, the seating. When full, the restaurant has an electrifying energy -- you don’t want to come here to have a quiet dinner or a serious conversation. You’ll find people stacked up at the bar, which has a commanding presence in the dining room. Unfortunately, that means the people who are seated at the row of tables between the bar and the raised booths along the wall get jostled by folks trying to get to the back of the restaurant are are likely to have a bar-stander’s butt to look at most of the meal. A quick fix would be to ditch the low tables and replace them with communal high-tops.
And while they’re rethinking the design, I would lobby to lose the wall of potted plants that is just inside the front door. They do not go with the rest of the decor, which is rustic, almost country-cabinlike, and the folks sitting under them keep staring at the vegetation as though they expect one of the bromeliads to turn into the plant from “Little Shop of Horrors.” It may be that the designer wanted to give an inside-for-outside (Park Plaza Gardens, anyone?) feel to that part of the restaurant, which is just inside one of two expansive doorways that are open to actual sidewalk tables. (It doesn’t work.)
The youthful members of the staff are still finding their way, but I’ve noticed improvements each time I’ve been in. Kudos to the bar crew for handling the crowds with great aplomb. (By the way, the bar stools are quite comfy, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the best place to sit.)
Prato will continue to evolve. McGlamery and Cargo will tweak the menu; the servers will get the right rhythm. I know this because I’ve seen these folks to the same with Luma on Park. That’s turned into one of our finest restaurants. I expect the same for Prato.
Prato is at 124 Park Ave. N., Winter Park. It is open for lunch Wednesday through Sunday and dinner daily. Pizzas are $15, pasta dishes are $16 ($9 for smaller portions) and entrees are $19 to $28. This link will take you to prato-wp.com. The phone number is 407-262-0050.