I have to admit I approached Big Italy with more than a little trepidation. After all, it’s has an International Drive address in heart of Tourist World, where too many restaurants have adapted an attitude that they don’t have to do a good job with food and service because a new busload of hungry customers will come in next week. Certainly not all I-Drive restaurants are like that, but there are enough of them to give the area a bad name.
And, it can’t go without saying, too many of those bad apples sling pasta and pizza.
Big Italy features pasta and pizza, too. In fact, those words are right under the logo.
So, having agreed to give it a try, I paid a visit one evening recently. And I left very pleased with not only the food but the overall experience.
Big Italy occupies a space that incorporates the original Passage to India location in a storefront of a strip mall at the corner of Kirkman Road. (Driving note: if you take I-4 to the Kirkman exit, you don’t have to endure the congestion of International Drive.) Big Italy’s dining area expands into other storefronts, making a large, open dining area with a central bar and a view to the kitchen.
I was greeted warmly by a young woman at the door and shown to one of the booths overlooking the parking lot. A young man with a heavy Italian accent came by to tell me he would be my server. So far everything was looking OK. Then I opened the menu and I started to have second thoughts.
There are over 100 pizza selections, and half as many pasta configurations (well, the name is Big Italy). I found it just as intimidating as a typical Vietnamese restaurant’s menu. We’re basically talking about just a handful of ingredients, they’re just rearranged.
Instead of trying to make a decision, I asked the server to make the choices for me. And I wasn’t sorry with what he came up with.
Well, I was a bit disappointed when I saw that the pizza he had selected was a simple one with just cheese and some basil leaves on it. I’m sure I would have gotten something with lots of meat if I’d chosen myself. For years, I thought the literal translation of the word pizza was meat and cheese with some crust under it.
The the simplicity of this pie allowed me to analyze it for its quality rather than its toppings. The crust was thin -- perhaps a tad thinner than you’d find on the better New York pizzas -- but not so much as to be crackerlike. Nor was it doughy. A very nice crust. It had a thin layer of sauce, well-seasoned with tomatoey notes. And the mozzarella glistened with an appropriate amount of cheese sweat. (There’s probably a better term for that, but you know what I mean.) And the simple basil leaves, slightly crisped from the oven, added a lovely herbal taste.
From the pasta list I was served the lobster ravioli, which featured chewable pieces of the sweet meat both inside and outside of the pasta pillows, swimming in a pink-tinged creamy sauce. I also had the saccottini tartufo, little purses (or sacs) filled with creamy cheese with hints of truffle essence. Delicious.
There’s more than just pasta and pizza on the menu. I also sampled one of the fish entrees, grouper Livornese, which features a lovely fillet smothered beneath a mountain of cherry tomatoes and olives, with a few capers thrown in for some extra salty tones. A nice low-carb alternative.
Sauteed clams and fried calamari were modest, but good, appetizers. The desserts of tiramisu and what the menu calls a chocolate souffle were both too good for my waistline’s good. The tiramisu was light but with a forward liquored flavor. The souffle was more like what other restaurants call a lava cake. When you come to think of it, an Italian restaurant has more of a claim to a volcanic reference than most others.
The atmosphere is casual, almost sports bar-like. But on many of the flat screen televisions that hang about the room, a series of quizzes about Italy and its culture keep bored patrons occupied. And the questions aren’t of the “What city was not built in a day” variety. They actually require some knowledge of the area; you may learn a few things.
One note about Big Italy for longtime Central Floridians, especially those who are bound to try good Italian restaurants: Nino Carrera is among the staffers. The name doesn’t ring a bell? I have to admit it didn’t for me, either. But when I found out that he was the Nino of La Fontanella da Nino, the very good Italian restaurant that occupied the corner location in Thornton Park where Graffiti Junktion now stands, I had fond memories of wonderful Italian dinners there.
And I was further heartened when I learned that the owners of Big Italy want to attract the local trade as much as the visiting crowds. That’s the way to go: think big.
Big Italy is at 5700 International Drive, Orlando. It is open for dinner daily. This link will take you to BigItaly.com. The phone number is 407-345-5566.