The CulinEars at Walt Disney World Resorts opened its newest restaurant last month without much fanfare. Certainly less fanfare than when the restaurant that previously occupied the space opened. That was Kouzzina by Cat Cora at Disney's BoardWalk, and with the celebrity chef and her extended family in attendance, Disney threw an opening that had all the accouterments of a Greek party except the plate breaking. At least not any intentional plate breaking.
That was back in 2009, though it hardly seems that long ago. The announcement that Kouzzina would close was made in March of last year, and it finally happened in the fall. Cora eventually made an announcement that she still hoped to do other projects with Disney, but the end of the current contract would allow them to focus on a new concept for the space. So, essentially she was saying that they were breaking up but would still be friends.
The concept that Disney wanted to focus on is Italian, and the restaurant is called Trattoria al Forno. So it is apparently giving up on trying to bring more innovative and creative cuisines to the masses and essentially crying uncle. Or in this case zio. You'll recall that the first restaurant to occupy this space was Spoodles. Words like taramasalata, harissa and tabbouleh sent the unadventurous diners screaming towards Le Cellier in Epcot with its safe menu of steak and potatoes. Even Kouzzina's menu was a little too Greek to some people, I suppose.
Trattoria al Forno is safe. Even the name is innocuous — it basically means a restaurant that serves food baked in an oven. The menu, thankfully, goes beyond plates of spaghetti and meatballs and features more authentic Italian fare, plus the all-necessary pizzas and even a t-bone steak that will undoubtedly save many the walk to the Canada pavilion.
I attended a media luncheon recently (the restaurant is open only for breakfast and dinner) and sampled a number of items, most of them nicely prepared and presented. We started with an antipasti platter of various cured meats and salume along with olives, tomatoes and mozzarella, which is made in house.
We were also served two of the pizzas that are offered on the regular menu, the Truffle Cream with Asiago, Pecorino and Fontina, a sort of quattro formaggi, and the Fennel Sausage, Salame Piccante and House-pickled Peppers. The latter, despite its ample toppings, was a bit disappointing because the crust was dried out. The Truffle Cream was much better, but I think I would have raised an eyebrow at the $16.99 and $18.99 prices if I'd been presented a check.
For my entree I chose the Braised Beef Bolognese, a prettily presented dish of house-made cavatelli, which look sort of like grub worms, but try to to think about that. The sauce was thick and had a deep-red hue. It was well seasoned, though the hunk of beef that it covered was ultimately a tad dry.
My table mate offered me a taste of her Wood-grilled Shrimp, which had garlic and capers and a bit of anchovy infused butter on a bed of polenta. I liked that just fine.
A sampling of desserts included a delicious Lemon Panna Cotta with fresh berries and an almond crunch. And miniature cannolis with chocolate filling on one end and pistachio cream on the other.
I like the atmosphere of the restaurant very much. As with the previous tenant, the large open kitchen is a major focus. Press materials point out three distinct dining areas, but you'd be forgiven if you don't see the distinction — it's basically one large, open room with only different types of seating from one area to the other.
The centerpiece of the middle space, which is directly in front of the kitchen, is a large china hutch, which is meant to give the room a homey touch. That fits in with the back story — all Disney restaurants have to have a back story. This one states that the restaurant occupies the space that has been owned by a family who operated a boarding house and tavern there for decades. I asked one of the Disney reps in attendance if the family was living there when it was Spoodles. "Yes," came the reply, "and so was their daughter Cat."
Touche, or whatever it is they say in Italian.
Trattoria al Forno is at Disney BoardWalk. It is open for breakfast and dinner daily. The Disney restaurant reservation number is 407-939-3463.