Tornatore's celebrates 12th anniversary

Written by Scott Joseph on .

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And just like that, I found myself back at a restaurant, sitting at an inside table, a mere 381 days from the last time.

It’s not like I’ve been shirking for the past 54 weeks. Throughout the pandemic I’ve maintained an out put of an average of two restaurant reviews each week (about double that of any other local publication, I might add). But just as restaurants shifted to takeout and delivery service, I, too, adjusted my reviews to focus on the new way we dined out, which meant dining in. But now, nearly 10 weeks past my second vaccination, I think I’m ready to get back in there.

Please note, I’m not yet advocating for a full return, at least not for everyone. Those who are not vaccinated are a risk to others, especially to restaurant servers, who tend to be younger and who therefore have not yet been eligible to receive a vaccine. That will change in early April when the state of Florida lowers the age of eligibility to age 16 beginning April 5. But even so, it will take weeks for the newly eligible to schedule the first shot, and then to schedule the second dose approximately four weeks later, unless they’re taking the one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Then, a two-week wait for the vaccine to have full effect. In other words, we’re still a couple of months or more away from optimum coverage, but it is finally feeling like it is possible.

So it was a treat to have a preview of what may be to come. And for my first outing, I couldn’t have done better than the 12th anniversary celebration at Tornatore’s Cafe & Pizzeria.

The Hampton Social

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It might be enough for the Hampton Social, a new restaurant at Pointe Orlando, to be all atmospherics. Its mien is a coastal yacht club with a stressful casualness, a yacht club whose members wear unscuffed boat shoes.

It’s about lounging. It’s about sipping. It’s about schmoozing, seeing and being seen. And after a year of not seeing or being seen except through a computer screen, that might be plenty.

That Hampton Social also serves some pretty decent food makes it all the more enjoyable.

Outpost Kitchen, Bar & Provisions

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Outpost Neighborhood Kitchen opened in the neighborhood of College Park in early 2015 – hardly seems that long ago.

It closed in June, earlier than it wanted to prior to a planned move to another location. The dining restrictions imposed because of the pandemic were cited at the time as the reason for the premature closing while the new location was in the early stages of construction. I’m sure the fingers of its fans were crossed in hopes that it would indeed reopen.

It has.

Aurora at the Celeste

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Aurora Celeste

A new hotel, The Celeste, opened last fall on the edge of the UCF campus. And as is often the case, with the new hotel came a new restaurant, Aurora at the Celeste.

If you were just passing through Aurora, perhaps on your way to a function on the tailored event space lawn just off the restaurant’s patio, you might dismiss it as little more than a perfunctory coffee shop, there only to serve basic fare to weary guests; the decor does little to dissuade that notion.

Doshibox Korean Kitchen

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Collab Kitchens is one of the area’s many new ghost kitchens – also known as virtual kitchens, dark kitchens, virtual restaurants and other monikers. This one, started by the owners of Bento Asian Kitchen, Jimmy and Johnny Tung. Their term for the type of business that offers kitchen space to multiple entities for takeout and delivery only is collaborative cooking, hence the name of this operation.

One of the new tenants cooking collaboratively there is Doshibox Korean Kitchen, specializing in doshirak, a sort of lunchbox meal with multiple items served in trays, sometimes stacked. They’re known in Japan, not so coincidentally, as bento boxes.

Doshibox’s doshirak meal is served on an aluminum tray with seven separated compartments. Kind of like a larger version of a frozen tv dinner, except the food is fresh and it’s all more than edible. In fact, I enjoyed the food I fetched from Doshibox so much that I could see myself indulging in a craving for its japchae noodles, Korean fried chicken or even one of its rice bowls. Although immediate gratification of such a craving might be problematic. But more about that in a moment.

Mamak Asian Street Food UCF

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You can’t tell it, though you’d know if you could see the smudged keys on my computer, but I just finished the leftovers of the food I got last night at Mamak Asian Street Food UCF, an east side version of the Mills 50 Malaysian restaurant. And every little bite of noodle, rice and meat and every little drop of sauce and broth were just as delicious today.

When the downtown Mamak opened in 2014, most people, including me, assumed it was trying to profit off of the popularity of Hawkers, which had opened three years earlier (right about this time 10 years ago; seems like it’s been around longer, no?). Both restaurants’ concepts are based on the premise of Asian street fare and, technically, both names mean the same thing. Mamak is the word for food stalls or the people who hawk the food from them.

But Mamak gained its own following with the quality of its food, and based on my just-finished meal from the new location, it may just out hawk Hawkers.

Big Fin Seafood Kitchen

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For the first time since it opened in late 2009, Big Fin Seafood Kitchen has a new chef.

His name is Eric Enrique – we share the burden of having two first names – and he moved to Big Fin from Eddie V’s, just down the the Restaurant Row road. I’ve always considered seafood to be Eddie V’s forte, so I was anxious to see what Enrique would bring to Big Fin.

Tap Room at Dubsdread

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I’ve been a fan of the Tap Room at Dubsdread since it opened nearly 19 years ago. I first fell in love with its burger – and awarded it the Critic’s Choice Foodie Award for many years – then became a fan of its weekends-only prime rib. It was nice to have a place to go for good prime rib without having to put up with the arrogance of Hillstone’s management. (Seriously, do they go through special training to learn how to act superior?)

And then Tap Room upped its game on high-quality steaks and seafood making it a more well-rounded restaurant. And I’m not the only one who noticed the consistency in quality. Besides accolades from most other local publications, Tap Room at Dubsdread has received national recognition, including TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence, OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Award, and, in 2019, it was on Kayak and OpenTables list of the 25 Restaurants in the World Worth Traveling For in their "Will Fly for Food" compilation.


Shantell's Just Until

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During February, Scott Joseph's Orlando Restaurant Guide is featuring restaurants that are Black-owned or that have Black chefs in observance of Black History Month.

It seems fitting to end our monthlong focus on Black-owned restaurants with Shantell’s Just Until because of its location in Sanford’s Georgetown neighborhood. The area was established by the city’s Black business owners during in the 1880s during the Jim Crow era. Last year, Georgetown was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Despite the impermanence of its name, Shantell’s Just Until feels like an anchor of the neighborhood. At least it did when I visited on a balmy evening recently when when the owner, Shantell Williams, herself was seated at a table outside. My dining companion, dog and I took a table next to a large brick planter filled with colorful flowers. Nearby in a tall tree, an osprey stood watching over the restaurant.

The menu is a bit more Caribbean than it is Southern soul. My guest chose the jerk chicken and rice for an entree and I selected the fish & chips. I had a choice of tilapia or catfish but that’s really not an option – catfish is the only appropriate answer in this setting.

Grandma's BBQ

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During February, Scott Joseph's Orlando Restaurant Guide is featuring restaurants that are Black-owned or that have Black chefs in observance of Black History Month.

I like this story.

The food truck known as Grandma’s BBQ was started by an actual grandma, Marcia Owens Ballard. Ballard was employed by the Orange County Public School System and also worked in daycare.

According to the website, Ballard would also prepare food for the families she worked for, and after getting so many requests to cater events, she decided to buy a food truck and go into business. (This is not terribly different from how 4Rivers Smokehouse came to be.)

That was 14 years ago and Ballard is no longer with us. But her grandson, Deodrick Ballard, continues to run the business and keeps the truck moving around to spread Grandma’s joy.