Rocco's Italian Grille & Bar

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Roccos bar

Ever since I first reviewed Rocco’s Italian Grille & Bar, in October of 2006, I’ve considered it to be one of the finest Italian restaurants in the area. And since I don’t get the chance to return often enough, I jumped at the invitation to dine there recently to try some of the dishes that owner Rocco Potami rotates through his menu.

Roccos burrata1

Potami started by serving my guest and me an appetizer of Bresaola, the air-cured beef that is a specialty of Northwest Italian, and fresh Burrata, often known as a creamier mozzarella. The cheese was topped with shaved Parmesan and fresh arugula leaves. Potami admonished us not to put any pepper on the burrata, which I probably would have done to perk up the mild cheese. But with the peppery notes of the arugula, nothing else was necessary.

Nona Social Bar + Kitchen

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Nona Social burger

Nona Tap Room is gone and Nona Social Bar + Kitchen has taken its place. Except for the variation of the name, I can’t see a whole lot of difference between the two.

It’s still a neighborhoody place that is more bar than kitchen. Still a bit on the small, cozy side. It still features a menu that is burgercentric. And the kitchen still can’t cook a burger to a medium-rare temperature. Or perhaps just refuses to.

Too bad because the burger I had when I visited recently, the Bacon Bleu, was a good burger that could have been better if it had been cooked properly. The patty was a decent size and had a nice char. It was topped with a smear of blue cheese that was half melted, plus a couple of thick-sliced bacon rashers. The bun was plain but fresh.

Rusty Spoon

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Rusty Spoon interior

In the nearly eight years since she opened her restaurant in downtown Orlando, Kathleen Blake has established it as one of the premier restaurants in Florida and herself as one of the area’s most prestigious chefs.

She was recently presented with the Beacon Award by the Foodservice Council for Women; is a leader in the national organization of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs; and has  been nominated four times for a James Beard Foundation as Best Chef South Region. And on Nov. 9, she will be one of the featured chefs at that organization’s annual gala, a $500-a-ticket dinner held at the swanky Pierre Hotel in New York.

And, like so many in the local culinary community, Blake is a generous contributor to area food events for charities, most recently as one of the chefs serving at Cows ’n Cabs (a delicious smoked mullet on fried cracker was her offering).

Still, with all that activity and civic participation, she, along with her husband, William, manages to keep the quality of the food and service at the Rusty Spoon top notch. And if she’s not at a local charity event or Manhattan fund raiser, you’ll find her, usually in her signature bib overalls, cooking in the kitchen of the Rusty Spoon.

Taste of Chengdu

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Chengdu sign

If you hear people call Taste of Chengdu the hottest restaurant in town, you should probably know that they may not be referring to its popularity, though popular it certainly is.

It’s also serving some of the hottest, as in spiciest, food you’re likely to find in Central Florida.

Geography geeks will recognize Chengdu as the capital of China’s Sichuan province. Culinary nerds will know that Sichuan cuisine (also sometimes spelled Szechuan or Szechwan) is known for its liberal use of fiery hot peppers, particularly the Sichuan pepper, which has an initial taste that is slightly metallic but then spreads like a wildfire through tinder. It does not make your tongue tingle, it makes it throb.

And that leads, I suppose, to its popularity. Yes, there is a certain sector of the dining public with a masochistic tendency to sear their tastebuds. They’d probably lick a branding iron just out of a campfire if it was sprinkled with Sriracha. But we’re also seeing a new appreciation for authentic Asian cuisine in general and Chinese food in particular. The west side of town has become the de facto home to many of the restaurants offering more than Americanized versions of Chinese dishes.

Shiraz Market

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Shiraz counter

The last time I was at Shiraz Market it was Torterilla la Mexicana. The name is different, the cuisine has changed from Mexican to Middle Eastern, but the experience is pretty much the same.

It’s a small storefront that’s mostly store. There are shelves of Middle Eastern canned and dry goods mixed in with everyday essentials.

One one side of the shop is a counter with some refrigerated items. And behind that is a menu board displaying the few items available to order and eat at one of the rustic tables in front. There are the usual kebabs and gyros but there are a couple of more interesting items, such as the Gheymeh that I selected.

Stasio's Italian Deli & Market

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Stasio exterior

I sort of get the impression that Stasio's Italian Deli & Market is a work in progress and that the people doing the work aren't exactly sure themselves what the final product will be.

But for all the tentativeness in the air, the food that I've sampled so far is solidly good.

I dropped in for an order to go because one of the things that is still uncertain is whether Stasio's wants people to dine in. There's a marble ledge at the windows for people to eat at, and a couple of outdoor tables. But it definitely isn't a linger-over-dinner spot.

Stasio interior

The menu is mainly sandwiches, though a couple of hot items, including a baked ziti dish, were pointed out to me at the counter, which is where one places an order. I chose the sandwich named after the place and another called The Package.

Poke Hana

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Poke Hana bowl

Poke popularity proceeds apace.

Poke, pronounced poh-kay but not spelled with an accent mark, because Hawaiian, is the meal in a bowl option that usually features fresh raw fish as its prominent protein.

Poke Hana is one of the more recent entries among the the local poke providers. It occupies a rather spartan but colorful spot in a storefront on East Colonial Drive in the Mills 50 district. One supposes the decor is meant to approximate a beachside shack somewhere in Hawaii. There are long narrow tables (too narrow, really, for two people to sit across from one another) with yellow and white metal chairs that no one would ever look at and think, "Boy, those sure look comfortable." Touches of neon, ceiling fans with a rattan look, and a projector splashing a video of surfers on one of the walls completes the Maui-like mien.

Jinya Ramen Bar

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Jinya black

With the popularity of ramen at a height, it was only a matter of time before we'd see a chain noodle its way into town. It happened with Vietnamese, it's happening with poke, so why not ramen?

Jinya Ramen Bar is the company with a new franchise in Orlando, its first in Florida (oddly, the website lists the names of the cities for locations in other states but the Florida listing is Thornton Park). It took over and remodeled that space in Thornton Park Central that had briefly been Verde Cantina and, before that, a Tijuana Flats.

Jinya kitchen 1

As with many chain operations, Jinya's corporate connections bring advantages and disadvantages. It brought money to turn the space into a moody urban noodle bar with an open kitchen inside the front door, a central bar with seating on three sides, and a sunken dining room at the back.

Nothing I sampled at Jinya on my two visits was less than acceptable. Some things were delightfully better than I expected, some less so.

Muzzarella Pizza and Italian Kitchen

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Muzzarella pizza

This is good pizza. No, this is very good pizza. Dare I commit to say that this is the best pizza in town? I'll need more research, but it's certainly among the best.

It's Muzzarella Pizza and Italian Kitchen on Lake Underhill Road just past Goldenrod Road on the east side of town.

Muzzarella dining

It's a small storefront operation with an open kitchen at the front where pies are displayed in clear cases, just as you might find in a New York pie shop, and a small dining area down one side of the narrow space.

I had called in an order to pick up, a pizza called Assisis, which had sausage, bacon, meatballs and pepperoni. I suppose it got its name from the saint, who also loved animals, though I don't know if he had them on pizza (though he was Italian, after all). I also ordered a Meatball Sub and a cup of Pasta Fagioli.

Bem Bom

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Bembom sign

Bem Bōm's Francisco "Chico" Mendonça is the latest chef to use his popular food truck as a conveyance to a land-bound restaurant. He recently opened a wheelless version of Bem Bōm, which features a Portuguese menu, in a freestanding building in Audubon Park.

The food truck business has proved a bumpy road for many who have tried and failed. Bem Bōm, however, has enjoyed a healthy popularity since 2012 and was once featured on Food Network's "Eat St." Heck, Bem Bōm has lasted longer than that tv show.