We restaurant critics love to talk about our “finds” – new or obscure, out of the way restaurants that haven’t been touted but deserve to be.
I’m not sure a place that has been open for more than a year and is in the heart of Winter Park’s Hannibal Square qualifies as new or out of the way, but I sure was happy to find Vinia Wine Bar.
It’s actually easy to miss, even if you frequent the stretch of New England Avenue where it is located. The other restaurants – Armando’s, Pepe’s Cantina, Chez Vincent, Hannibal’s – are more visible and grab the attention of passersby.
Vinia is on the other side of the street from those businesses and at the top of a stoop in a building that doesn’t look like it holds a wine bar and restaurant. Indeed, until Fabio and Paula Gamba took it over last year the space was a shoe store. (Actually, from the outside it doesn’t look like a shoe store, either.)
It’s a small space, and the couple – he’s Italian and she’s Brazilian – are the hosts and servers, though they’ve recently hired someone to help out front because Paula is expecting. When my companion and I sat down at the wine bar we were greeted most warmly and sincerely by the couple who offered us tastes of wines that caught our interest from the two-page list.
The food is mainly tapas. Fabio explained that the menu is dictated by the limitations of the small kitchen (because former shoe stores don’t tend to have large cooking areas). But the food we sampled was more than substantial, and it was all quite good.
We chose a vegetarian flatbread – there is a carnivore option option, as well – that had thick and chewy mushrooms, onions and cheese on a crispy platform.
Handmade ravioli were overstuffed with butternut squash and topped with shaved parmesan.
Porc en Croute de Cacao Épicé featured smoked pork tenderloin with a cocoa rub served on slice of polenta surrounded by a tomato-coffee reduction. The meat was tender and had a wonderful smoky note. The sauce was intensely flavored by not overwhelming.
Bacalhau ao Forno was pan roasted cod on a ploof of honey roasted butternut squash flan in a nage flavored with lemon and sage. The fish was brilliantly white and impossibly tender.
I enjoyed a Cortese from Cascina d’Or in Piemonte. Fruity and full bodied, it complemented the cod nicely but also stood up to the pork.
The small dining space has 40 or so seats and is intimate and dark, even with the large windows to the street and the somewhat stark hot-pink neon V behind the bar. Black and white photos and shelves of wine bottles decorate the walls. There is a small piano next to the front door that the Gambas said was left by a customer who asked if he could come in and play it from time to time. We were lucky that the evening we visited was one of those times. It added the right grace note, literally and figuratively.
We restaurant critics sometimes worry that our finds might be flukes. That a perfect evening – and this was a perfect evening – can’t be duplicated. I don’t think that’s the case here. With such charming hosts serving excellent food and wine in a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere, I feel confident you’ll have the same experience I did.
Vinia Wine Bar is at 444 W. New England Ave., Winter Park. It is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday. The phone number is 407-925-7485.