Exist it did for more than 17 years at I-Drive’s Mercado complex until the imminent demolition of that venue forced the restaurant to move. Earlier this year Bergamo’s took over a space in Festival Bay that had been occupied for a mercifully short time by Murray Bros. Caddyshack.
That an independently-owned restaurant survived, perhaps thrived, for so long is impressive for our town. I should note that they did so with no help from me. When I reviewed the restaurant in 1990, and again in 1995, I experienced nothing I could recommend. The food was marginal at best, and the entertainment was amateurish – neither was good enough to put up with the other. But while few locals patronized the restaurant, it did just fine with its unique concept and a weekly refreshment of unsuspecting tourists and conventioneers. It didn’t require the recommendation of the local critic.
So it probably won’t matter to them that I think the new Bergamo’s is quite good. The singers demonstrate extensive vocal training and perform with professionalism, more so than in their table-waiting duties, but they manage to do both well enough. The servers, and even the hostess, take turns on the stage in sets that start at the top of the hour and last about 30 minutes. They sing songs that range from show tunes to arias to ballads, and most had lovely voices that at times brought chills.
The food was less thrilling but certainly better than anything I ever sampled at the old place. Most of it was acceptable, perhaps only mediocre in another venue but boosted a bit by the ambience and entertainment.
Best of the entrees I sampled was the petite veal chops ($25.95) served with a Marsala sauce with porcini mushrooms and mashed potatoes. The chops were about the size of lamb chops but with the characterisitc tenderness and milky taste of veal. They were served with delicious baby carrots and zucchini, but the potatoes were hard and dry.
I also liked the black linguine ($($29.99), pasta colored with squid in with other parts of the cephalopod sauteed with shrimp in a tomatoey sauce dotted with spicy bits of red pepper flakes.
But the braised beef ribs ($29.99) were disappointingly dry and stringy, and the polenta that accompanied had a hard crust.
Among the appetizers, crispy risotto croquettes ($9.99) were a little too crisp and were nearly blackened and hard. Seared scallops ($9.99), however, served with al dente cannellini beans and radicchio, were big, plump and cooked perfectly.
Seafood antipasti platter ($17.99), our server told us, was comprised of whatever the chef had in the kitchen, and that’s exactly how it appeared. There was a small stack of crumbled salmon, a few shrimp, sauteed calamari and raw tuna that was completely devoid of flavor. It was worth the cost.
The bread pudding ($9.99) was the best of the desserts I sampled. It was made with batonettes of bread that had transmogrified into a creamy custard. Limoncello cheesecake ($8.99) was dry and lacking much of a lemony flavor.
There is an impressively extensive wine list focusing on Italian varietals. By-the-glass options are not quite as numerous.
The new venue is perfect for Bergamo’s concept. The main dining room is a large rotunda with seating on the main floor surrounding a centrally located piano and a raised area with more tables for an in-the-round setting. The opulence of flowing fabrics and dramatic lighting might be over the top for other restaurants but are appropriate here. One thing you might not notice, at least not with your eyes, is the use of wood panels, hung at the direction of an accoustical engineer, to optimize the sound. Even with the most booming baritone at full voice, conversation is still possible.
But please don’t talk while the performers are singing. Sit and listen and appreciate something that is uniquely Orlando. And a restaurant that is finally worth recommending to the people who live there.