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North Italia logo

The space vacated so long ago by J. Alexander’s on Sand Lake Road’s Restaurant Row appears to be set to welcome a new tenant, North Italia, a concept owned by the Cheesecake Factory.

That doesn’t sound promising unless you know that North Italia was originally developed by Fox Restaurant Concepts, a Phoenix group known for its high quality restaurants like Culinary Dropout and the Arrogant Butcher. (OK, neither of those sound very promising, either, but trust me they’re quite good.)

Cheesecake Factory acquired North Italia and FRC in October of 2019 for over $300 million. The company had previously invested moe than $88 million dollars in North Italia and another FRC concept, Flower Child, over the previous three years in anticipation of the acquisition.

North Italia currently has 26 locations in 12 states and the District of Columbia, including two in South Florida: Miami and a recently opened restaurant in Dadeland.

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And just like that, I found myself back at a restaurant, sitting at an inside table, a mere 381 days from the last time.

It’s not like I’ve been shirking for the past 54 weeks. Throughout the pandemic I’ve maintained an out put of an average of two restaurant reviews each week (about double that of any other local publication, I might add). But just as restaurants shifted to takeout and delivery service, I, too, adjusted my reviews to focus on the new way we dined out, which meant dining in. But now, nearly 10 weeks past my second vaccination, I think I’m ready to get back in there.

Please note, I’m not yet advocating for a full return, at least not for everyone. Those who are not vaccinated are a risk to others, especially to restaurant servers, who tend to be younger and who therefore have not yet been eligible to receive a vaccine. That will change in early April when the state of Florida lowers the age of eligibility to age 16 beginning April 5. But even so, it will take weeks for the newly eligible to schedule the first shot, and then to schedule the second dose approximately four weeks later, unless they’re taking the one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Then, a two-week wait for the vaccine to have full effect. In other words, we’re still a couple of months or more away from optimum coverage, but it is finally feeling like it is possible.

So it was a treat to have a preview of what may be to come. And for my first outing, I couldn’t have done better than the 12th anniversary celebration at Tornatore’s Cafe & Pizzeria.

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Like a lot of people, I make my cocktails in my kitchen – everything’s that I need is there, why haul things out to the dry bar in the living room?

And it’s easy to grab a drink when I’m cooking.

Today I wanted something different, something refreshing, so I called on Tim Wilz, the bartender at Soco in Thornton Park, to see what he could come up with.

He made a delicious Blue Rebel, and he shares the recipe below. Click here to watch the video then give the recipe below a try.

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Congratulations to Tornatore’s Pizzeria and Cafe. The popular College Park restaurant, which also recently opened an Italian market next door, is celebrating its 12th anniversary this weekend. The Dodici Party will be Saturday and Sunday and guests who spend at least $40 dining in will get a complimentary take-home meal from the market. I’m going to stop by and I plan to stock up on several of the takeout dinners because, as I wrote in a review when the market opened, they’re pretty damn good. Reservations are required. Call 407-292-2248.

A franchise described as a “marijuana-themed sandwich” restaurant will open Monday in east Orlando near UCF (go figure). It’s called Cheba Hut, because Toasted was taken. Orlandoan Tim Brashear is the franchisee along with his future in-laws Jean and Bill McCarthy. There is no pot in the food, mind you; the menu is inspired by the sorts of foods one might crave after indulging. Oddly, hash is not on the menu, but you’ll find sandwiches called Dank, Pacific Blue and Kush among others. I have to admit I don’t know the significance of the name Cheba Hut. But hey, the Estefans aren’t using the name Bongos anymore; maybe that would be better. You’ll find the new joint at 12100 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando. Stop in and have a discussion about the existentialism of sandwich making.

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It might be enough for the Hampton Social, a new restaurant at Pointe Orlando, to be all atmospherics. Its mien is a coastal yacht club with a stressful casualness, a yacht club whose members wear unscuffed boat shoes.

It’s about lounging. It’s about sipping. It’s about schmoozing, seeing and being seen. And after a year of not seeing or being seen except through a computer screen, that might be plenty.

That Hampton Social also serves some pretty decent food makes it all the more enjoyable.