Prato – Winter Park, FL
Returning to ones old stomping grounds is often accompanied with a certain nostalgia. However the most fun part of visiting your old town, is discovering everything that’s changed since you’ve been gone (sorry Kelly, no royalties for that one). I recently had the chance to visit the town I most think of when people ask me where I’m from, Winter Park, FL. Mr. Crumpton, being the great friend that he is, brought me back there to show me one of the latest additions to Park Avenue, Prato.
I left Winter Park in 2003, back then, the only Italian restaurant in the area worth mentioning was Enzo’s on the Lake, which to this day stands as one of the best Italian eateries I’ve ever visited. Needless to say, Prato has brought a much needed culinary vibrance to an area which, apart from a few examples like The Ravenous Pig, has been somewhat bland in the restaurant department.
The restaurant decor and design is top-notch, with much attention paid to detail. They nail a sort of hipster rustic feel that may cause some eyes to roll, but I thought it felt sincere and I thought it was fantastic. The sincerity was proven when our waiter, Zach, informed us that all the ingredients were locally and sustainably sourced as much as possible. If the sourcing wasn’t impressive, he then told us that the menu changed EVERY day, at least in some shape or form. Now that is no small task, even for the finest restaurants.
After our group looked over the menu, it was agreed that we’d gladly order every single item, a rarity to be sure. Sadly none of us were born with the last name Hilton or Trump, so we had to make our choices. For me, the soft shell crab app caught my eye immediately. Logan and our wives added more apps with a couple of Caesar salads, the veal breast pancetta and the soft fried farm egg with pork belly. All were excellent choices, the crabs didn’t impress anyone but myself, so I happily consumed them. The veal breast came with this awesome tonnato sauce and slices of some of the freshest beets you’ve ever seen. I’m not a beet man, but this dish was delicious through and through. The soft fried egg and pork belly came with a watermelon rind mostardo. This is the kind of dish I’d have every day for breakfast if I were born into those families mentioned earlier, it was luxurious and decadent, but tapped into that familiar eggs and bacon memory that your brain seems to remember so well. The winner of the app competition in my opinion, were the Caesar salads. Seriously. I know it’s just a simple salad in most eateries, usually an afterthought. This Caesar however, was so fresh and so crisp with one of the best dressings I’ve ever tasted. It had to have been homemade to order because you could taste every ingredient, the Parmigiano, egg, lemon juice, and the anchovies!
Caesar salad holds a special place in my heart. Allow me to tell a small tale before we move on to entreés. Back in 1994, when I was just beginning to explore the world of food, I was on a family vacation in the Bahamas. We were staying at the Ocean Club in Nassau (the hotel where Casino Royale was filmed) and were eating dinner at the hotel restaurant. Up until this point, I had never ordered a salad, but something in my brain made me think they were delicious whenever I saw my parents eating them. So I mustered up the courage and ordered a Caesar salad and a steak Diane. The waiter returned minutes later with a finely appointed hand cart with a large wooden bowl and all the Caesar fixin’s. He proceeded to assemble the dressing right before my eyes, smearing the fresh white anchovies against the bowl with a spoon, squeezing the lemons and even letting me whisk as he created the emulsion. When I took my first bite, I was hooked. It was one of those moments that changes your life forever, and with that simple dish, I became a full-fledged food lover.
Now where was I, ah yes the entreés. Thankfully, Prato has the foresight to know that people like Logan and myself like to try as much of the menu as possible without filling up the point of discomfort. That’s why they provide the option to order half portions of all their pastas. I took full advantage of this and chose the bolognese tagliatelle with duck ragu and foie gras butter (sound familiar?) and the special sweetbread-rabbit fagottini with pistachio and sage. Both were absurdly delicious, the bolognese was fantastic, a little spicy a little sweet with a hint of nutmeg. Unfortunately with these types of pastas, the foie gras flavor tends to stay in the background, but it was memorable nonetheless.
The fagottini, despite its strange name, was amazing! Even more amazing was that a pasta-holic such as myself, had never heard of this type of noodle before. Fagottini are shaped like little pyramids and are filled with whatever you desire, in this case, sweetbreads and rabbit. The noodles were cooked perfectly, which can be difficult with filled pastas. The sweetbreads and rabbit combo created a wonderfully savory flavor with a nutty finish. This was naturally accented by the crunchy pistachios and finished with the sage and butter sauce.
Around the table the entreés were as follows: Mediterranean branzino with heirloom tomatos, fennel and a vegetable medley, veal scaloppine with the traditional accompaniments of crispy capers, meyer lemon and polenta and to round it all out, the Salsiccia pizza with Calabrian sausage, broccoli rabe and provolone picante.
I was fortunate enough to sample all of this before it was devoured by my family. The branzino was a beauty to behold. Bright white fish swimming in an heirloom tomato broth, topped with fresh beans, corn, onions and garlic. The flavor matched the appearance, the pearly fish flaked away and melted in your mouth accompanied with the electric zing of the tomato broth. The veal was another winner, pan seared to a golden brown and perched atop a mound of creamy polenta. The meat was tender and juicy, and was definitely the star of the dish with all the other ingredients playing perfect supporting roles. The pizza finished up the savory dishes in fine fashion. Whenever you bring the freshest ingredients together and pile them on top of kneaded dough to be baked, it’s going to impress. The salsiccia was no exception. The bitter broccoli rabe was a great counterpoint to the unctuous flavors from the sausage and provolone.
Zach returned with the offer of dessert. It’s always easy to spring for the sweets when the meal so far has been so fantastic. Instead of choosing between their delectable options, we came to a consensus, “all three!”, I proclaimed. This added to Zach’s already beaming smile, who was having just as much fun watching us enjoy the meal as we were having eating it (well maybe not AS much but almost, he was definitely a welcome addition to our table whenever he stopped by to check on us).
The small platter arrived with our sugary treats, first was a light tiramisu, creamy, sweet and slightly bitter from the espresso, next was an espresso budino with chocolate mousse (the actual description was much fancier but sadly I’ve forgotten it) and lastly a mascarpone cake topped with peach, plum and nectarine with crème fraîche and streusel. None of the desserts survived the onslaught.
Prato had done it. It had served this boy a homecoming meal to remember and added its name to my pantheon of Italian eateries. How could it not? There were no failures, no missteps and no mistakes, at least none that I saw. Zach’s service was outstanding, very friendly and most importantly knowledgeable. Prato is the real deal folks, they’ve single-handedly raised the bar for restaurants in Orlando and possibly the whole southeast. Hopefully they can keep this performance up in the long term, as both Logan and I intend on returning many times in the future.
♦ Jimmy T.