I’ll admit to having some trepidation about a Stefano’s Trattoria without Stefano. The LaCommares sold the popular Winter Springs restaurant about five years ago to F. Alejandro Martinez and I worried that it was Stefano, his wife, Marie, and their children who added an extra ingredient that made it all so delicious and delightful.
But after a recent visit my qualms have been calmed. Stefano’s Trattoria is every bit as good as it was in the early days, the food is still expertly crafted with a satisfying homeyness and served by a staff that treats every guest like a member of the family.
LaCommare left much of his menu and recipes behind, and it’s a substantial menu. Yet I find that I always gravitate to the same items. So my companion and I started with an appetizer of Calamari Fritti, wonderfully crisped rings and squidlets served with a marinara dipping sauce.
The tomatoes of the Pomodori Caprese were fresh and firm – why can’t I find tomatoes like those at the market? – with creamy slices of fresh mozzarella decorated with basil confetti.
Entrees come with a loaf of bread to tear and share plus a choice of soup or salad. I used to advise getting the soup over the salad, but now it’s more of a tossup. I liked my split pea soup, but my companion’s salad was crisp and fresh and the house-made blue cheese dressing was quite good.
Pollo di Stefano features chicken, yes, but also an equal amount of sausage chunks along with big, thickly sliced mushrooms plus bits of prosciutto, black olives and pepperoncini. It’s all sautéed in white wine tinged with lemon and garlic and reduced to a saucy thickness.
I chose the Vitello alla Bolognese, a dish that always leaves me scratching my head a bit. In most Italian restaurants, at least in America, Bolognese refers to a meat sauce. But this dish has no meat sauce. Instead, it features a breaded veal cutlet topped with prosciutto and melted mozzarella. There were more of those meaty mushrooms, and although the sauce at first looked to be the same as the one in the Pollo di Stefano, it was a well-executed marsala. (Just know if you order this that you're not getting a meat sauce on pasta.)
Entrees also come with a side of pasta. My friend got the penne with the house marinara, thick and tomatoey, but I upgraded, as I usually do, to the thick and creamy Alfredo. Both were winners.
Now, consider that we got a loaf of hot, fresh bread; soup or salad; an entree of a substantial portion; and a side of pasta, to boot, then consider the price: each entree was $17. And they were among some of the pricier items on the menu. Along with the fine quality, this has to be one of the best food bargains in town.
We didn’t really need dessert but we accepted a block of Tiramisu to go. Firm, with creamy mascarpone and topped with fine espresso dust. Quite tasty.
The decor has a farmhouse feel with sun-dappled walls, framed paintings of assorted Italiana and landscape murals. Tables are covered but flatware is served in a rollup paper napkin. Linen would be nice, but I refer back to the price point and decide that paper is just fine. Oh, and throughout our dinner a pianist was playing in the lounge, the notes wafting through the restaurant. Nice touch.
Service was first-rate, knowledgeable and natural.
I first reviewed Stefano’s Trattoria in 1990 when it was located on Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (in a structure that was originally the home of Boston Fish House). The LaCommares also sold that restaurant, also along with the name. But that buyer didn’t keep up the quality. And after it closed, they were able to use the name again when they opened in Winter Springs in 2006. When they again sold the restaurant and the name, I feared the past would be prologue. But Martinez has maintained the restaurant nicely. If there has been any change at all, it has only gotten better.
Stefano’s Trattoria is at 1425 Tuskawilla Road, Winter Springs. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-659-0101.