Pasta shouldn't be complicated. Spoleto, a new concept that opened recently near UCF with other locations coming soon, makes it so. That isn't to say that what it offers isn't good. In fact, I liked my food — and other aspects about the experience — at Spoleto a lot. I just wish it weren't so confusing. And it doesn't have to be, but I'll get to that in a moment.
Spoleto is another in the growing list of assemblage concepts, the quick-serve restaurants where diners select the ingredients from various columns to be assembled by a worker behind the counter as you watch. And in the case of Spoleto, while you wait, too. Spoleto calls this "Culinary Freedom." Keep in mind that freedom isn't free, but in this case it is reasonably priced.
There are five steps to assembling your meal here, all of them a basic price of $7.50. First you must choose a pasta. There is penne, available in "classic Italian," whole wheat or gluten free, which costs an extra two bucks for some reason, spaghetti, fettuccine or seasonal pasta, whatever that means. I chose fettuccine.
The second step is labeled "Get Creative" but should really be called "The Step Where You Can Screw Everything Up." Here you select up to six ingredients from a list of 27 to add to your pasta. That's too many, both in the number offered and the number the guest may select. Yes, it says "up to" six, but how many people are going to choose only one or two? Start throwing things in willy nilly and you may have a conglomeration of ingredients that have no business being in the same bowl. I honestly can't recall what I selected, though I know I chose only five and that was too many.
The next step is optional and includes added cost, which is why it is labeled "Choose Your Upgrades." You can select a giant meatball, sausage link or other protein. Just for the record, step two's list of ingredients includes some meat, so this isn't your only option to stay nonvegetarian. I went with the polpette grande for an extra $3.50.
Next is your sauce: pesto, marinara, bolognese, Alfredo or chicken broth. Follow that with seasonings that might include crushed red pepper, parmesan cheese or a crank of black pepper, hardly worth its own column, if you ask me. After that, you're done.
Except you're not. The ingredients that you choose are plopped into a skillet by your assembler and then heated and tossed over a hot plate while you watch. The young man who heated my meal looked quite nervous and move tentatively, as though it was the first time he'd ever done this, which, I suppose, is possible. Anyway, I was glad I had timed my visit when I did and didn't have any other guests ahead of me, otherwise this process bogs things down. The meatball was heated separately, in a pan placed into the Wood Stone oven behind the counter.
After all that, I must say that the result was satisfying. The ingredients that I chose were not overwhelming, the pasta was cooked a nice al dente, and the bolognese sauce I selected went well with the meatball. The meatball was indeed grande (are you old enough to remember "I can't believe I ate the whole thing"?) and had a good firm texture.
So it all turned out OK, but what is even better is that you don't have to go through all those steps to get something good, just look for the section of the menu labeled "Chef Specials" and choose a predetermined assemblage. In fact, I could have ordered the Spaghetti Polpette Grande that would have gotten me the pasta, meatball and burrata cheese (which is a $3.50 upgrade on the Culinary Freedom trail) for $10, a buck less than what I paid. Sure, I wouldn't get to add those six ingredients, but ultimately they didn't add much to the enjoyment of the dish.
Spoleto is a nicely designed space with brick walls, shelves stocked with Italian dry goods, and seating at individual or communal tables. (Nice touch with the integrated power outlets under the hightop dining tables. Despite the tentative young man who assembled my meal, the staff were all friendly and helpful, even going so far as to remove trays and used plates rather than expecting guests to bus their own tables.
Spoleto is at 12101 University Blvd., at the corner of Alafaya Trail, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-658-0593.