John and John’s – A Pizza Shop

My favorite new pizzeria in Orlando is John and John’s – A Pizza Shop (https://www.johnandjohnspizza.com/) in the SoDo area, south of downtown Orlando and mere moments from the incredible Sister Honey’s Bakery.  I’ve been twice since it opened in mid-August, but if it wasn’t across town from me, I would be a regular for sure.  I believe the titular Johns hail from Philadelphia, but their pizza is pure New York style — thin, crispy, large, foldable slices with the crispy crunch I crave and high-quality ingredients and toppings.  The owners are also involved with Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen, a great restaurant in Thornton Park near downtown Orlando, which boasts the best Philly cheesesteak in Orlando.  (It made my list of Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 in Orlando Weekly.)  More on that a little later!

Like all the best New York-style pizzerias, John and John’s has several pizzas available to order by the slice at all times, stacked behind glass like a museum:

And here are their slice prices, since those aren’t listed on the website with the rest of the menu:

These are the three gorgeous slices I ordered on my first visit to John and John’s.  On the left is an “upside-down slice” ($4.99), with red sauce, chopped garlic, crushed peppers, freshly chopped basil, and pecorino romano cheese.  There’s nothing like fresh basil on pizza!  I am a convert, and I just wish every pizzeria did this, or at least the good ones.   
I’ll tell you more about the other two slices below, but they were all masterful.  I wolfed them down on site while sitting on a barstool, since pizza is always better at the pizzeria.  As it steams in the box on your way home, it always loses some of that crispiness and just isn’t the same.

Here’s a close-up of the classic cheese slice ($3.99) I got customized with crumbled meatballs and caramelized onions (99 cents each).  That was an absolutely perfect combination of toppings more people should try. 

And here’s a close-up of the Mediterranean Blue slice ($4.99), a tribute to the Greek restaurant that was the former tenant in John and John’s space on Michigan Avenue.  The pizza is topped with slices of gyro meat, feta cheese, fresh tomatoes, red onion, and creamy, tangy tzatziki sauce, on top of the regular mozzarella cheese base.  It’s a breathtaking combination of flavors that really works.

On my second visit, I ordered a Spicy Swine slice ($6.99) with red sauce, mozzarella, sharp provolone, spicy Italian sausage, long hot peppers, and Calabrian chili oil, pictured next to a plain cheese slice ($3.99) to use as a “control.”  Both were outstanding, as always.   Note how thin the crusts are.  A lot of places skimp on the sauce and cheese, pumping out pathetic, puny pizzas where half the slice is plain crust, and they know who they are.  At John and John’s, the sauce and cheese extend pretty far to the edge of their slices, leaving very tasty, thin, crispy crusts you won’t be tempted to leave uneaten for any reason. 
I really loved the long hot peppers on the Spicy Swine slice, but only John and John’s and another favorite, Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, use them.  I’ve never even seen long hots for sale in a jar, and I love buying different jars of roasted, marinated, and pickled peppers to throw into sandwiches, salads, and pasta dishes.

After completely missing the pasta salad ($5.99) on the menu on my first visit (because I’m usually not going to pay attention to salads at a new pizzeria), I saw pictures online, felt the FOMO, and had to try it on my second trip.  It was outstanding — ditalini pasta (an underrated pasta shape, if ever there was one) in an Italian vinaigrette dressing with fresh tomatoes, onions, basil, black olives, and parmesan cheese.  It was served chilled, of course, and it was very refreshing.   
I’ll try anyone’s versions of pasta salad, macaroni salad, and potato salad, and this pasta salad did not disappoint.

This was the fried cheese plank ($6.99), a crispy, knish-sized square of melty mozzarella cheese, expertly breaded.  I couldn’t resist!  They had me at “cheese plank.” The cup of marinara sauce was boiling lava-hot, even hotter than the cheese.  But as it cooled, I dipped my pizza crusts in it, and there wasn’t a single drop left by the time I was done.

Check out that cheese pull!  This would have looked great on video, but trust me, nobody wants to watch me eat.

I had to bring home a 14″ pepperoni pizza ($) to share with my wife.  As in sync as we usually are, pizza is one thing we rarely agree on, but she really liked this.  How could you not?  It was still warm by the time I got it home since I drive around with an insulated “heat bag” in my trunk to keep takeout food as hot as possible, and it is a perfect example of New York pizza here in Florida.

This is the Chicken Leo sandwich ($14.99), with a breaded chicken cutlet, vodka sauce, fresh and melty mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and fresh basil on a crusty seeded roll.
I ate half of this sandwich for dinner, straight out of the fridge, and it was unbelievably delicious even cold.  I’m going to warm the other half in the toaster oven later this weekend for the full effect, but it is probably my favorite chicken sandwich in Orlando that isn’t of the Nashville hot variety.

And I couldn’t resist bringing home the classic Cavo’s cheesesteak ($13.99) to heat and eat later, since it is such a shining example of Philadelphia’s third-best sandwich (after DiNic’s roast pork and the standard Italian hoagie) and one of Orlando’s best as well.  I always refer to Orlando’s Thornton Park neighborhood as “Thornton No-Park” due to the distinct lack of parking spaces, so I don’t make it to Cavo’s as often as I would like.  Luckily, John and John’s offers the exact same sandwich, and it’s a lot easier to get in and out of, despite being even further from home and work.   The cheesesteak is packed with thinly sliced ribeye steak, sauteed onions, and melty white American cheese.  Surprisingly, it isn’t dripping with grease like some lesser versions I tried in Philly, but it is packed with flavor, even eating half of it cold, straight out of the fridge.  Like the Chicken Leo, I’ll definitely warm up the other half tomorrow.  Just like I did at Cavo’s last year, I forgot to request some kind of hot peppers on it, like those long hots from my Spicy Swine slice.  I knew I was forgetting something, but there’s always a next time.

I admit there are some restaurants I’ve never made it back to after writing my reviews, but John and John’s – A Pizza Shop won’t be one of them.  I see so many other local food lovers discovering this place and singing its praises online.  Sure, I could have written this review over a month ago, after my first visit, but I waited to join the chorus until I could go back a second time and try more things.  Across town or not, it’s far too good to stay away for long, and that’s really the mark of a restaurant that does everything right, if you’re willing to schlep to it and schedule your day around getting there and back.  If you think Orlando doesn’t have good pizza, first of all, you’re wrong, and you’re probably an elitist too.  John and John’s is one of our newest pizzerias, and already one of our best and brightest.  Just don’t forget that their sandwiches are top-notch too, and don’t sleep on the pasta salad either, even though it’s “hidden” in the salad section of the menu!

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Chain Reactions: Eataly (Chicago)

Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/) is like heaven for foodies: a massive Italian food store that contains several restaurants, from sit-down pastarias to wine bars to counter-service bakeries to grab-and-go snack shops.  As a result, it is kind of like a massive food hall, with so much to see and do, smell and taste, experience and indulge.  But most of all, Eataly feels like a temple to Italian food — truly a place of worship — and well worth a pilgrimage at least once.  There are ten Eataly stores in Italy (the first one opened in Torino in 2007), nine in North America, and eight elsewhere in the world.   I don’t know how different they all are, since I’ve only been to the Chicago Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/us_en/stores/chicago/) — first with my wife in 2014, and again on a recent business trip to Chicago.  I had to venture back there, to make sure that first visit wasn’t just a wonderful dream, but the kind of place where dreams come true.

It had been so long since my first visit, I had to explore everything in the store before deciding on my first bit of food.  I made my way to the second floor to a familiar kiosk that beckoned: the land of cured meats and cheeses.  I felt like a weary traveler who had finally made it to my destination, yet also feeling like I was home

Since I was just staying in Chicago for two nights, I couldn’t buy anything fresh or perishable or requiring cooking, but I’m sure some fancy Chicago locals bypass the local supermarkets and buy all their meats at this gleaming butcher’s counter.  You can’t see the price labels in this photo, but take it from me: if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.

Here’s a shot of huge tomahawk ribeye steaks, slowly dry-aging to perfection in a clear refrigerated case: 

The seafood counter was equally sumptuous.  On my first visit to Eataly back in 2014, I made an indulgent purchase of bottarga here: the salted, cured, pressed, and dried roe sac of a fish (usually gray mullet, but sometimes tuna).  I had read about bottarga before, and it sounded irresistible to me, as a connoisseur of the cured, a scholar of the smoked, and a professor of the pickled.  So many cultures created their own versions of this delicacy, and I’ve still never found it in Florida.  The bottarga I bought at Eataly made it back in my luggage without any problems, and it lasted months in the fridge, as I finely grated it over so many pasta dishes.  It added a salty, savory, umami flavor to everything, and pretty much melted in my mouth.  If that sounds good and not gross, I highly recommend it.

But all this browsing made me hungry, so I returned to the restaurant my wife and I dined at on our original trip to Eataly here in Chicago: the creatively named La Pizza & La Pasta.  You can’t go to a restaurant like this and not know what you’re getting!  They take reservations, but I arrived relatively late in the day, after a long training workshop and an architectural boat tour down the Chicago River, so I had my choice of seats and opted for a solitary barstool, far from any other diners.

The kind server brought out this wonderfully fresh, crusty bread with olive oil that was much sweeter and more flavorful than the kind I keep at home that regularly goes on sale at Publix.  I’m not sure if every party gets “table bread,” or if it came with the dish I ordered, but if you’re visiting Eataly, hopefully you’re not obsessed with counting carbs, so you should definitely take advantage and enjoy this brilliant bread.   

As a solo diner, I knew I couldn’t justify ordering two entrees, so it was difficult for me to choose.  My server helped me break a tie, so I went with a fresh pasta dish, tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($24), topped with real-deal parmigiano Reggiano, not the shaky-can stuff I’ve bought my entire life.   The fresh tagliatelle pasta was kind of eggy (not in a bad way, just not exactly what I expected), but the savory Bolognese sauce was awesome, with plenty of chunks of meat.  I get that this was a pretty basic choice, and I make “pasta and meat sauce” quite often at home, but it is real comfort food for me, and I wanted to see how Eataly’s kitchen would present such a timeless classic.  They knocked it out of the park, needless to say.

As an aside, here’s a photo I found of the dish I ordered here back in 2014, in those pre-Saboscrivner days: my favorite pasta dish anywhere, bucatini all’amatriciana ($21).  This thick bucatini pasta (long, hollow tubes) was not fresh like the tagliatelle I had just tried, but there’s nothing wrong with good quality dried pasta.  I think I prefer it, in fact.  All’amatriciana is served in a spicy tomato sauce with guanciale (cured pork jowl), and this version from La Pizza & La Pasta was perfect in every way, even better than the tagliatelle from this most recent visit.
I make pasta all’amatriciana at home as a treat once or twice a year, but since guanciale is hard to find, I usually substitute cubed pancetta, which you can find at Trader Joe’s, Publix, and even Aldi sometimes.  If you’re not into bucatini, pretty much any other pasta works well, except for weirdo choices like tri-color wagon wheels.  What is the deal with those, anyway?

After dinner, I wandered around the store a little more and gazed at beautiful Roman-style pizzas on display at the Pizza alla Pala kiosk.  I was tempted, but I had just eaten dinner, and I knew they wouldn’t be that great eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning.

But I saw these gorgeous foccaci farcita sandwiches, with cured speck ham, provolone, and arugula on fresh focaccia bread, and I thought “One of those would be awe-inspiring eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning!”  Maybe because I got to Eataly relatively late in the day, they charged me a much lower price for the to-go sandwich than what you see pictured, more like the price of an individual slice of pizza.   

Here’s an extreme close-up of the lovely sandwich.  Speck is very similar to prosciutto.  I could tell they brushed some olive oil on the bread, but I thought a tangy vinaigrette of some kind would have really put it over the top.  (But I think about that with most sandwiches.)

And to go with my beautiful Italian breakfast, I found an Italian brand of potato chips, San Carlo la Vita e Buona, with a flavor that was too interesting to turn down: mint and chili pepper!  If I recall, this bag was under $3.  Since I love trying new potato chip flavors and reviewing them in this very blog, I felt obligated.  I did it for YOU, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!

San Carlo was a bit stingy with the flavoring, a marked contrast against many American chip manufacturers that really cake it on there, but they tasted very fresh and potatoey, and the mint subtly shined through.  They were barely spicy at all. 

I also brought home a salami from the cured meat counter that sounded amazing (elk, pork, and dried blueberries?!), but it wasn’t worth the price I paid.  I would have loved to try so many more things at Eataly, but again, I was limited by what I could safely store in my hotel room and bring back in a carry-on bag, with TSA’s continuing rules banning liquids.  That said, if you ever find yourself in a city grand and lucky enough to have its own Eataly location, I implore you to make that pilgrimage and try it for yourself.  You will be tempted by all sorts of treasures, and it is just a pleasure to wander around and explore, treat yourself in one of the many restaurants, and bring back mouthwatering mementos, succulent souvenirs, and tasty trophies from your travels.

 

Alessi Bakery (Tampa)

Alessi Bakery (https://www.alessibakery.com/) first opened in Tampa in 1912.  That is older than any bakeries in Orlando, by several decades.  Founded by Italian immigration Nicolo Alessi, it is now run by the fourth generation of the Alessi family: Phil Alessi, Jr., who expanded the bakery and started a huge catering side to the business.  I think stories like that are beautiful, and I love supporting family-owned restaurants and businesses, especially with that much history behind them.  Orlando locals might have even tried Alessi’s baked goods without knowing it, because they make all the king cakes that Publix sells around Mardi Gras, at least here in the Orlando area.

I first discovered Alessi Bakery on a brief Tampa trip in 2017 and fell in love.  You can get overwhelmed browsing the gorgeous cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, cupcakes, breads, sandwiches, snacks, and prepared foods in the glass cases.  There is even a dining room for you to enjoy things right there, rather than packing everything up to go.

Here is an assortment of coconut macaroons, rugelach cookies filled with fruit preserves, and beautiful danish pastries I brought over to a gathering of Tampa friends back in March, our first time hanging out post-pandemic:

I also brought over four beautiful sfogliatelle pastries, an Italian bakery classic sometimes called “lobster tails.”  Light and crispy and flaky, these shell-shaped beauties are dusted with powdered sugar and filled with a slightly lemony custard:

And here is an assortment of Italian tea cookies I brought home for my wife after that March visit.  She loves these little dudes.  I remember cookies like this from small, mom-and-pop Miami bakeries from my childhood in the ’80s.  My mom always loved cookies like this too. 

This is another assortment of goodies I brought home: pound cake, New York crumb cake, zucchini bread, and multicolored birthday cake.  The pound cake slice at the top was by far the biggest hit.

Remembering this, we got two more wrapped slices of the pound cake on our June trip today:

I couldn’t remember what this thing was, but one of my good friends (who is also an Alessi fan, after I introduced him and his family to it) told me it is crème brûlée bread pudding.  He said it is his favorite dessert from here.  I’m sure I liked it too, because come on, look at it!

In addition to all the pastries and sweets, another Alessi Bakery specialty is scachatta, a kind of bread that looks like pizza and smells like pizza, but brother, it ain’t pizza.  It is a soft, yellow, egg-based flatbread (kind of like focaccia, but softer), covered with a slightly sweet tomato sauce full of very finely ground beef, but no cheese except for a light sprinkling of parmesan.  It is then cut into squares or rectangular slices and served at room temperature.  If this sounds weird, I cannot disagree with you, but it’s a thing, and it’s so much better than it sounds or even looks.  Saveur wrote a neat article about scachatta, and so did pizza blog Slice.  

This is a half-sheet ($19) that I bought to share with my friends when I caught up with them back in March.  Everyone really liked it.

When I returned to Alessi in June, I had to do one of my Saboscrivnerrific “Dare to Compare” experiments with the Alessi Bakery scachatta and the scachatta from Tampa’s other legendary Cuban bakery, La Segunda Central Bakery, which was founded three years later, in 1915.  I reviewed La Segunda back in October 2018 and tried the scachatta then, but for the sake of good food writing, I dragged my poor, patient wife to both bakeries back-to-back today and got a few items at La Segunda too.  The sacrifices I make for the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos out there!

Here is a photo I took back at home earlier today, with a small slice from a quarter-sheet of Alessi’s scachatta ($11) on the left, and a single slice of La Segunda’s scachatta ($2.29) on the right:
I love Alessi’s scachatta, really and truly.  But I have to give a slight edge to La Segunda here!  Their version was more savory and less sweet, and it had more flavor, perhaps due to the visible green pepper chunks in the sauce.  But I’d order either again, any time.

The only place to order anything remotely similar to scachatta in Orlando is at my favorite Italian restaurant, Tornatore’s — or to be more accurate, at their Italian market next door.  They serve an upstate New York delicacy called… STEAMED HAMS!  No, no, sorry, I kid.  Tornatore’s serves tomato pie — another soft flatbread spread with tomato paste and served at room temperature or chilled, but no cheese to put it into pizza territory.  It’s interesting how different regions came up with their own pizza-adjacent specialties.

Anyway, here is another delicious treat I’ve only ever found in Tampa: devil crab, a crispy croquette full of shredded, seasoned, savory crabmeat, coated in Cuban bread crumbs and deep-fried.  I had my first devil crab on my first-ever trip to Alessi in 2017, introduced a pescatarian pal to them back in 2018, and ordered two to share with my wife before our drive home from Orlando today:

In case you’ve never had a devil crab yourself, here’s an interior shot, to show it bursting with tender crab that melts in your mouth.  

Since we were sitting down to eat in Alessi’s dining room, I decided to try their macaroni and potato salads ($2.50 each).  I might not have bothered to drive back to Orlando with those mayo-based salads, with a 90-minute drive ahead (that ended up taking over two hours due to terrible traffic in the middle of a Saturday), but I’m so glad I treated myself to them.  This was one of the two best macaroni salads I’ve ever had in my life.  IN.  MY.  LIFE.  (The other is from Poke Hana, my favorite poke spot right here in Orlando.)

Both Alessi Bakery and La Segunda Bakery prepare fabulous sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, including Cuban sandwiches, yet another Tampa specialty, always served on Cuban bread and pressed in a plancha.  Yes, Miami people, I know Cuban sandwiches are a major Miami thing too.  I’m from down there, and I grew up eating them.  But Tampa did them first, due to an earlier Cuban population working in the cigar factories of Ybor City alongside Italian, Spanish, and German immigrants.  That’s how the original Cuban sandwich (called the “mixto” at the time) was born: a combination of Cuban roast pork marinated in sour orange juice, garlic, and herbs, Spanish sweet cured ham, Italian Genoa salami, and German mustard and pickles.  (The salami is a Tampa thing, specifically — Miami people are always outraged by it, except this Miami person.)

This is the hand-carved Cuban sandwich I brought home on my trip to Alessi back in March, with really thick slices of roast pork and ham.  It was good, but almost seemed like a little much.  I’m guessing this was the 12″ sandwich ($13.95).

On my June trip with my wife, I brought home the regular Cuban sandwich (a 9″ for $8.95, which is me showing unusual restraint), and I thought it was a lot better than the hand-carved version.  The pressed Cuban bread was less well-done, and the meats had a better texture with their thinner slices.  It was so much more pleasant to sink my teeth into, literally and figuratively.  Even eating it at room temperature, standing up in my kitchen immediately after driving back from Tampa, it was an excellent Cubano.

One thing to note about both Alessi Bakery’s hand-carved and regular Cuban sandwiches: they come with both yellow mustard and mayo, which was fine with me.  Some Cubanos are too dry, even with high-quality ingredients, and I think the mayo makes a fine sandwich lubricant here.  Also, even though the menu says they contain Genoa salami (Tampa’s gonna Tampa), neither of these Cubanos, ordered on two separate trips three months apart, had any.  (The Miami people are breathing a sigh of relief here, but I was looking forward to having a little salami, as a treat.)

I also brought this Italian sub ($11.95) home from my March trip to Alessi, and it was top-notch as well.  Thrill to the sight of Genoa salami (nobody can argue it is necessary in an Italian sandwich), ham, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, awesome hot pepper relish, oil, and vinegar on nice, soft, fresh-baked Italian bread.

Backtracking to Alessi’s Cuban bread, I brought this loaf over when I visited my Tampa friends in March, and everyone ripped into it with gusto.  The Cuban bread they sell at Publix cannot compare.  It doesn’t even come close.  I don’t think any Cuban bread I’ve tried in Orlando does, and I’ve been gone from Miami for far too long.

Once again, I wanted to DARE TO COMPARE Alessi’s Cuban bread to La Segunda’s, so during this busy morning of bakery-hopping, I bought a THREE-FOOT-LONG loaf of fresh La Segunda Cuban bread (left; a real attention-getter!), a new 18″ loaf of Alessi Cuban bread (center), and some buttered Cuban toast from La Segunda (right) for my wife, since she loved it so much on our 2018 visit when I reviewed it.  As you can see, La Segunda’s bread is double the length (and also thinner and softer), and Alessi’s is thicker and has more of a crackly outer crust.  By the way, that is a six-inch Cobra Commander action figure from the G.I. Joe Classified toy line, for scale.  COBRAAAAAA!  RETREAT AND EAT!   

Boy, that’s a lot of Cuban bread, you may be thinking, and you would be right.  I already know both Alessi and La Segunda are famous for their Cuban bread for good reason, and I have already enjoyed it in plenty of their sandwiches.  I will be making several sandwiches of my own in the week ahead, and because of some other ingredients I’ll be using, you will read all about them on The Saboscrivner in the next week or two!

In the meantime, if you are ever in or near Tampa, I’d say Alessi Bakery is definitely worth a special trip.  You can feel four generations of history and love in everything you eat there.  That’s a rare thing in today’s world, especially when so many experiences and sensations are fleeting and ephemeral.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot — the fresh lemonade is exceptional as well, especially today, driving home in temperatures over 100 degrees that felt like walking through warm Jell-O between the bakery and our little car.  If you go, don’t miss that lemonade, on top of all these other treasures!

Ray’s Deli & More

I really drove out of my way to find Ray’s Deli & More (https://www.raysdeliandmore.com/), which is the closest thing I’ve ever found in Orlando to the bodega-delis of New York City.  It is located at 6101 South Orange Avenue in Orlando’s Pinecastle neighborhood, south of downtown (and south of the SoDo district).  Once Orange Avenue splits apart into one-way southbound and northbound streets, you’ll find Ray’s in the middle.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside — just a generic convenience store with an outdoor table and a lot of signs in the window — but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by all the fresh, made-to-order sandwiches you can order there.

The menu is on the website, but I also took photos of the menu board above the counter.  You can right-click these photos and open them in a new tab for larger images.

Here is the deli case with plenty of high-quality Boar’s Head meats and cheeses you can buy by the pound.  (The prices are also on the menu board above.)  The top shelf also includes sides of potato salad, pasta salad, egg salad, and some slices of cheesecake and red velvet cake, among other things. 

The main reason I sought out Ray’s Deli & More was to try the legendary chopped cheese sandwich ($10.99), a New York bodega classic, referred to in so many hip hop lyrics.  They aren’t popular outside the five boroughs, but I recently learned that two different convenience store sandwich counters in Orlando offer the chopped cheese.  I recently tried the one that is closer to me, but that was after five separate attempts to catch them open for business.  Ray’s is across town, but it was totally worth the 45-minute schlep to the Pinecastle neighborhood south of downtown Orlando, because they were open for business during the hours they advertised, cooking up a storm, and the food turned out to be awesome.Imagine a cheeseburger and a Philly cheesesteak hooked up after a crazy night at the club, and the chopped cheese is their beautiful, greasy, cheesy love child.  It is two angus burgers chopped up on the flattop grill with onions and peppers, then placed on a sub roll with American cheese, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo, and then pressed on a panini press until the cheese melts.  It was still warm by the time I got it home, and it was awesome.  So satisfying!  I always love a good burger, but I find Philly cheesesteaks often disappoint (except for the one at Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen, which is the best one I’ve ever had in Florida, and it made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021).  This chopped cheese sandwich lived up to all the hip hop hype and combined the best of both worlds.  I loved it!

This was the very substantial Italian combo sub ($11.99), stuffed with Boar’s Head genoa salami, prosciutto, capocollo, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, and raw onion.  I stuck it in the fridge as soon as I got home and enjoyed half that evening and the other half the next day, once it was chilled.  I liked it a lot, especially once I got home and added some peppers and a splash of balsamic vinaigrette dressing to it.  The sub roll was very soft, almost like a large hot dog bun.  I don’t like rolls that are too crusty, but a slightly crustier roll might help bring this sub over the top.  No regrets, though.  I’m always happy to order an Italian sub anywhere, and I definitely recommend it!

Both sandwiches (and I assume all the others) came with a wee bag of chips (I chose Flamin’ Hot Cool Ranch Doritos for both, since I haven’t tried that odd flavor combo before) and a canned soda.  The convenience store has a huge selection of bottled and canned drinks, but the freebie choices were pretty basic: Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi, Mountain Dew.  Still, free is free!  I used to drink Mountain Dew A LOT, back in school, and a few sips from this can reminded me why I don’t drink much soda at all anymore.

Longtime readers, my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, know that whenever onion rings are available, I WILL order them.  These onion rings ($3.99) were just okay.  They reminded me of the ones at Burger King, but you get a huge portion of them.  They were limp and lukewarm by the time I got them home, but heating them up in the toaster oven the next day helped them get crispier and more satisfying.  Essentially, these were condiment delivery devices.  But still, RING THE ALARM!

Anyway, Ray’s Deli & More has this huge sandwich selection, plus prepared foods like several Italian pasta dishes, another case with some fried empanadas and other goodies, and they said they also serve breakfast sandwiches all day.  This could be another source for New York transplants to track down their classic bodega bacon egg and cheese sandwiches, among other things.  It’s a full convenience store with groceries, snacks, sodas, beer, wine, and all the accessories you might want to find at a smoke shop, too.  It has a lot more character than a Wawa or 7-Eleven, and it was busy enough that plenty of people already know how good it is.  I drove all the way across town to Ray’s for a chopped cheese, an Italian sub, and onion rings, and I didn’t leave empty-handed or disappointed.  The only thing this bodega was missing was a great cat, ideally one who takes a pet like no problem!

 

Mia’s Italian Kitchen

It has been almost two months since my wife and I enjoyed the bottomless brunch at Mia’s Italian Kitchen (https://www.miasitalian.com/), the sprawling Italian restaurant on touristy International Drive.  Fear not, startled Saboscrivnerinos — pants were worn by all.  Bottomless brunch means that every Saturday and Sunday, from 11 AM until 3 PM, diners can enjoy unlimited, all-you-can-eat food off the brunch menu for $26 per person.  It’s an excellent deal if you come hungry, ready to beat the house.  Thirsty folks can also opt for bottomless drinks for an additional $20 per person, which includes mimosas, bloody Marys, and sparklers, but we don’t drink, so we didn’t bother with that.

And just to clarify — the bottomless brunch isn’t a buffet setup.  You can order whatever you want off the brunch menu, and dishes that have standard prices next to them on the menu just keep coming to your table, all included in the flat brunch price of $26.  I’ve written before about how I’m not a big brunch fan because I don’t like overpriced breakfast food, but I sure do love huge quantities of Italian food.

I decided to start with the Italian scramble (normally priced at $13), with scrambled eggs, pepperoni, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, basil, rustic toast.  It normally comes with mushrooms, but constant readers know that I do not partake.  Anyway, this was a delicious combination, although it could have used some cheese.  I used to make simple, filling, healthy egg dishes all the time at home until my doctor told me that eggs are not my friend.  I always thought they were some of the healthier things I ate, but I have since cut back.  Like everything else this morning, these scrambled eggs felt like an indulgence.

My wife, on the other hand, loves mushrooms, so I still cook them for her quite often.  They are one of her favorite foods, so she couldn’t resist this house-made fettuccine al funghi (normally $19).  In fact, she called it one of the best pasta dishes she’s ever had in her life!  High praise indeed.  She loves creamy pasta dishes, and we are both suckers for fresh, al dente pasta, but I didn’t even taste this one.  Better safe than sorry!

I always gravitate toward pasta in tomato-based sauces, since when I think of “Italian” cuisine, my senses and memories all go to New York/New Jersey-style Italian-American food, with mountains of pasta in red sauce.  That’s what we grew up cooking at home and ordering from Italian restaurants in Miami.  So I had every intention of ordering the rigatoni alla bolognese (normally $20), with tender pasta in a slow-braised beef bolognese “gravy” made with San Marzano tomatoes, topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese.  It was terrific.  Loved it.  Whenever meats are braised until they’re tender, I’ll be there. 

And to accompany the rigatoni alla bolognese, I couldn’t attend bottomless brunch at Mia’s and not try the giant meatball (normally $13).  It’s a twelve-ounce, all-beef meatball stuffed with fresh mozzarella (or MOOT-sa-DELL, if you will), swimming in marinara sauce, topped with parmesan cheese, and served with more of that rustic garlic toast that I wished was a little softer.  I think everyone in the restaurant must order the giant meatball.  It makes a very dramatic appearance at people’s tables, and everyone is always shocked and awestruck by how giant it actually is.  It is a massive, monumental, mountainous meatball, indeed, and definitely meant to be shared.

There were plenty of sweeter, lighter options on the brunch menu too.  My wife ordered this berry waffle (normally $9), a pretty standard Belgian waffle topped with seasonal berry compote (we both would have liked much more of this) and a scoop of wonderful honey-marscarpone mousse, easily the best part.

She had also been very excited about the apple-ricotta doughnuts (normally $7), an order of six small cinnamon sugar-dusted doughnuts, which were really more like large doughnut holes, topped with rich crème anglaise.  We both liked these.  The texture was similar to sour cream cake doughnuts, also known as “old-fashioned” doughnuts, which are usually my favorite kind of doughnut.  They tasted like Autumn in the best possible way. 

And my choice for a dessert was something I always enjoy but almost never order: tiramisu (normally $7), the classic Italian layer cake of ladyfinger cookies, espresso, creamy mascarpone cheese, cocoa, marsala wine (I’ve never had it on its own, so I couldn’t detect it), and lemon (which I couldn’t detect either).  It was pretty great tiramisu, but even mediocre tiramisu is pretty great.

Believe me, we both felt like we had to roll out of Mia’s after that celebratory feast.  I don’t think we ate again that day.  Because it’s so decadent, we definitely don’t plan to make a habit of that bottomless brunch, but it was a nice way to spend a weekend morning.  It was also nice  to discover a new restaurant on that side of Orlando, since we’re hardly ever out that way.  I recommend it to locals and tourists alike, but think twice before indulging at Mia’s and then spending hours waiting in lines and riding crazy rides at the theme parks!

Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen

At this point in my food writing, I keep an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the restaurants I want to try — and so I can always quickly send menu links to the people I eat with the most, my wife and my co-workers.  One restaurant that had been at the top of my list for far too long is Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen (https://www.cavosbar.com/) in Thornton Park, a neighborhood near downtown Orlando that I recently called “Thornton No-Park,” due to the lack of parking spaces.  I dragged three co-workers down to Cavo’s for lunch on a relatively quiet Friday not that long ago, and we definitely had to drive around a bit before we could park, but it was worth the wait.

I’ve been reading so many raves about Cavo’s cheesesteak ($13), so I had to try it, even though I often find cheesesteaks disappointing.  Usually the meat is relatively low-quality and dissolves into a pool of boiling lava-hot grease and melted cheese that never cools down, making it literally painful to eat, on top of being messy.  But this was easily the best cheesesteak I’ve tried in Orlando, and probably the best one I’ve had outside of Philadelphia.  The freshly baked soft roll, adorned with sesame seeds, held up to the heavy load inside — tasty thin-sliced ribeye (the king of steaks as far as I’m concerned), melty white American cheese, and plenty of sautéed onions, although if you ask me, you can’t ever put enough sautéed onions on anything.  It lived up to the hype and made me realize I still do like cheesesteaks; I just hadn’t had a worthy cheesesteak in a long time.

One co-worker ordered a gorgeous-looking Reuben sandwich ($13), with the usual suspects: corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing (not Russian dressing, but still good) on grilled marble rye.  I know her to be a fan of Reubens, as am I, and she looked content.

My vegetarian co-worker got the vegetarian sandwich ($13), with fried eggplant, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, and roasted garlic basil vinaigrette on a fresh baked hoagie roll.  It looked good and smelled even better.  I didn’t ask her to try it, but even as a non-vegetarian myself, that looked like something I would really like.

Another co-worker who tries to eat healthy got the Cavo salad ($13), with spinach and romaine mix, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, artichokes, roasted red peppers, charred vidalia onions, garbanzo beans, kalamata olives, tossed with Cavo’s house vinaigrette dressing.  He added chicken for an additional $5.   He seemed to like it, and that’s what I call a salad!   

I got this plate of curly fries ($4) intending to share it with everyone.  They were awesome — maybe my favorite kind of fries, with a crispy seasoned coating and soft on the inside.  My beloved Arby’s serves fries like this, and so does Checkers.  But two of my colleagues ordered their own plates of tater tots ($4 each), leaving me with more fries than I expected.  It wasn’t a problem, though!

That night, when I got home from work, I enjoyed half of the classic Italian hoagie ($13) after it chilled in the fridge for a few hours, allowing the flavors to meld.  This beautiful sandwich included tavern ham, salami, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, sweet Italian peppers, pickles, and oregano vinaigrette dressing on the same kind of soft seeded roll.  Years ago, the pickles might have ruined the sandwich for me, and even though I normally wouldn’t order them on an Italian sub, my growing tolerance for pickles has turned into an obsession, so I thought I would try them.  They only added; they did not detract.  It was an excellent Italian hoagie — maybe not reaching the great heights of the Stasio sub, the LaSpada’s Famous hoagie, the Rocco from Manzano’s Deli, or incredible new hoagies from Pizza Bruno, but it is still a top-tier Italian sandwich here in Orlando. 

I liked the space and loved the food.  If only it was easier to park at Cavo’s, I would want to be a regular for sure.  As it is, it will have to be a rare treat when I’m in Thornton No-Park, along with other local favorites Mason Jar Provisions and Benjamin French Bakery.  But rare treats may be the best, because if you treat yourself too often, the ritual starts to feel more commonplace, and less special as a result.  But that cheesesteak… wow.  That was totally worth driving laps around Thornton No-Park, or maybe even taking a Lyft down there in the future.

Pizzeria Valdiano

I have reviewed most of my favorite pizzerias in Orlando, but one of my oldest favorites that I hadn’t been back to in a while is Pizzeria Valdiano (http://www.pizzeriavaldiano.com/) in the Winter Park Village shopping center, right next door to my favorite movie theater.  I hadn’t been to a movie in over a year and a half thanks to the pandemic, but back in July, I finally broke down and saw a new release I’ve been looking forward to for over a year.

Unfortunately the movie (Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins) was a colossal disappointment for this lifelong G.I. Joe fan and collector, but you know what wasn’t disappointing?  A quick lunch before the movie at Pizzeria Valdiano!

Here is one of the best slices of New York-style pizza in Orlando ($3.85), nice and crispy with melty cheese and garlicky, oregano-ey tomato sauce, the perfect New Yawk slice:

And one of my favorite slices of Sicilian pizza ($4.35), perfectly thick,  crunchy and fluffy at the same time.  Could this be the best Sicilian pizza in the city?  Top two or three, without a doubt!

Pizzeria Valdiano is the only pizzeria I know of in Orlando that serves a “Grandma” pizza — a Sicilian pizza without mozzarella cheese on top, just parmesan.  This is a single Grandma slice ($4.35), with the same blend of fluffy and crunchy attributes, and even more robust sauce.

Look, people have strong opinions about pizza, I get it.  I do too.  There are definitely trendier pizzerias, some of which I just love.  If you want Chicago-style deep dish or a fancy double-decker pizza, Brad’s Underground Pizza (now in a permanent location!) has you covered.  If you want Neapolitan-style, you can’t do better than Pizza Bruno.  But for the two kinds of pizza that are closest to my heart due to nostalgia, New York and Sicilian, there are only a few worthy options, especially if you prefer to order by the slice, as I do: Del Dio, Antonella’s, Paradiso, and right here at Pizzeria Valdiano.

Being next to the movie theater brings me even more nostalgia and warm feelings.  I’ve always loved going to the movies, especially catching an early weekend matinee and following it with a nice lunch out.  For so long, this theater was my tradition, to be followed by either a hoagie from nearby LaSpada’s or a couple of slices from Valdiano right next door.  I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable enough to return to seeing movies in the theater, minus this one unfortunate miscalculation, but at least the pizza was as good as ever.

 

 

 

Christo’s (Sanford)

Sometimes I find out about a restaurant, read everything I can about it, and pore over the menu months or even years before I’m able to go.  This usually happens when a place is far from both home and work, when I can’t just jet off there whenever I want, and when takeout or delivery are unrealistic due to distance, so I need to plan a special trip to go.  Sometimes those trips end in disappointment, and other times they end in unbridled joy and obsession.  The following review is based on two separate visits to a restaurant, one for dining in and one for takeout, and it definitely runs the gamut of emotions.

Longtime readers know how much my wife and I both love diners, and any Orlando residents know that truly good diners like the ones they have up north are extremely rare down here.  So when I first heard about Christo’s (https://christossanford.com/) in quaint, historic downtown Sanford, it had my curiosity.  Then I began to study the voluminous menu online, and it had my attention!  It was a huge menu full of classic American food, along with the Italian and Greek dishes that many northern diners boast among their offerings, and a huge selection of freshly-baked desserts.  To quote Stefon, “This place has everything!”

There aren’t enough restaurants where you can get burgers, pizza, gyros, barbecue ribs, fish and chips, pasta, Italian subs, all kinds of fried apps, wings, breakfast (only on Sundays), pies, and a cheesecake of the day.  Some people might look suspiciously at a restaurant like that, where the menu’s ambition may exceed the kitchen’s reality, where they spread themselves too thin instead of focusing on and perfecting a few core dishes.  But the allure of the diner is that variety, where you can get waffles, a Reuben sandwich, spanikopita, calzone, or even lobster, at any time of day, and you know they’ll all be good.  And at Christo’s, rest assured, they are gonna be GOOD.  (Editor’s note: Christo’s does not have lobster, but they do have crab cakes!)

The dining room appears to be built inside of an old bank, with the area where the vault used to be in the very back of the long room.  It is a little dark in there, which I appreciate.  I hate feeling blasted with light in restaurants, like we’re being examined on a slide on a giant microscope.  Christo’s had a homey, relaxing feeling, like a restaurant my parents would have taken us to when I was a kid in the ’80s, without feeling like a Southern “down-home-cookin’-corn-pone-y’all” kind of diner.  I liked it immediately, and my wife and I both liked our server Arielle, who was so sweet and patient and welcoming, despite being super-busy.  I keep reading stories about service in restaurants being bad due to the pandemic, and places being short-staffed due to staff quitting for more lucrative jobs and due to abuse from customers.  I’m sure that all happens, and anyone who is rude to hard-working people in the service industry is deplorable and worthy of the deepest contempt and merciless social consequences.  But I digress.  I just meant to say that Arielle was slammed, but she provided us the best service I’ve experienced in a restaurant in a year and a half, since before COVID-19 changed everything forever.  (I know some people will be interested, so I mention it here: none of the staff members were wearing masks on either of these visits.)

One thing I had been excited about trying at Christo’s was the fresh-baked pepperoni bread.  It isn’t a stromboli (because they have those too), but just fresh, fluffy, crusty bread with pepperoni slices and cheese baked into it sounded delightful.  Guess what, folks: it was.  I usually don’t like bread that is too crusty, where the crust shatters into shards when you bite it, occasionally carving up your gums like a ninja on the rampage.  This was an ideal crust that was crackly, but not overly hard or crunchy.

I was tempted by other apps, but I feel like I made the best possible choice in Greek nachos ($11.49), a Herculean portion of crispy, fresh-fried pita wedges (definitely not those rock-hard, bone-dry, bagged pita chips) smothered and covered with a veritable Mount Olympus of sliced gyro meat, crumbled feta cheese, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, thin-sliced red onions, kalamata olives, and chopped pepperoncini peppers, then topped with a layer of creamy, tangy tzatziki sauce.  Folks, this was legendary, or at least mythical.  If only Homer was still around to write about these Greek nachos… or maybe they should have called them Natchios.  (Any other Daredevil fans reading this?  If so, make your presence known!)
Much to my pleasant surprise, my wife liked these Greek nachos too, but I loved them.  Fearless readers, I might go out on a limb and say that this is one of my favorite restaurant appetizers of all time, and not just in the Orlando area either.  I can’t recommend or rave about these enough!  And the portion really is huge, so a group could happily share it, or someone could easily make it into a filling, fulfilling meal.

My wife always appreciates a nice sweet breakfast, so we made sure to go on a Sunday, the one day Christo’s opens earlier than 11 AM and serves a breakfast menu until it closes at 3 PM.  She ordered white chocolate French toast ($10.99), which came with six thicc slices of fresh-baked challah, dipped in white chocolate egg batter and grilled until it was golden.  She loved it, as I suspect most people would, but everything was so filling, she could only eat two of the smaller slices then and there.  Everything heated up very well back at home, which is a bonus.

I couldn’t decide between a burger and a sandwich, so Arielle recommended Christo’s Chicago beef sandwich ($9.95), which she said would be “more festive than a burger.”  Folks, I’ll take any festivities where I can get them, especially these days!   The sandwich includes thin slices of bottom round topped with sauteed onions (and mushrooms, which I asked her to hold), baked on a crusty roll with mozzarella and brick cheeses and served with au jus.

“AU JUUUUUUUUS!
AU JUUUUUUUUUS!
Do you hate him, ’cause he’s PIECES OF YOU?
(Nobody will get or appreciate that, but I only write this blog to amuse myself, so mission accomplished.)

Anyway, it was a fine sandwich, but really could have used a vegetable and something spicy.  The pickled giardinera vegetables that go on an authentic Chicago Italian beef sandwich would have brought this one over the top.So what’s all the other stuff on the plate, you ask?  Well, at Christo’s, sandwiches and burgers come with chips and a pickle, OR for an additional $4.49, you can get it Fat Boy Style.  I have nothing but love for the Fat Boys (RIP, Buff Love and Prince Markie D!), but Christo’s had the ingenious idea to include a single onion ring, a firecracker fried cheese ball (with firecracker sauce!), and either fries or potato salad in their Fat Boy Style option, and how could I refuse?  Yes, this is a Ring the Alarm! feature because I ate a single onion ring, and it was a fine one — hand-dipped into homemade beer batter and fried to perfection.  You know this onion ring was made with care, pride, and love, and didn’t come frozen in an industrial-sized bag from somewhere.  The firecracker fried cheese ball was a blend of five cheeses dipped in batter and fried into a perfect little golden globe (don’t sue me, please).  The firecracker sauce was creamy and tangy, barely spicy at all — definitely not as spicy as spicy mayo that comes with sushi and poke.  Anyway, you can get a full appetizer order of the firecracker fried cheese balls for $8.49, a full order of the onion rings for $6.99, or a smaller “entree side” order of the onion rings for $3.99, which is good to know for next time.

And because you can get fries almost anywhere but I was already eating plenty of fried stuff, and also in a Greek diner, I chose the potato salad, and I was so glad I did.  Greek-style potato salad is served chilled, but instead of mayonnaise, it includes vinegar, and I love vinegary salads.  It was so delicious, I just loved it.  (As an aside, German potato salad is also awesome and vinegary, but it is served warm and includes bacon.  Get some down the street at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, our favorite restaurant in Sanford.)

Like the diners of my dreams, Christo’s had a long glass refrigerated display case near the front, full of freshly baked pies and cakes.  It looked like a birthday-style cake with rainbow sprinkles baked in and more on top, a key lime pie, and a blueberry cream pie in the front.  It’s harder to tell exactly what wonders were on the lower level.

Moving on down, there was one slice remaining of a gorgeous flaky apple pie, a slice of blueberry cheesecake in the back, and the cake on the top right was either a carrot cake or a hummingbird cake, topped with nuts and cream cheese icing.  On the lower deck, there was a cake with cherries on it, some kind of chocolate cake, and an intriguing-looking orange cake I made a mental note of.

Further down, there were freshly baked cookies and pastries, as well as chocolate-dipped wedges of baklava in the top left there!

My wife usually gravitates toward anything chocolatey, so she really surprised me by expressing interest in that beautiful blueberry cream pie ($6.99), which would have been my top choice anyway.  It wasn’t overly sweet, and the crust had a nice saltiness to it, to offset the tangy cream and tart berries.  I liked it more than she did, but we both liked it.

Since it’s summer and blueberries are in peak season, at least somewhere, I made a case that we had to compare the cream pie to the blueberry cheesecake ($7.99) too.  This one wasn’t overly sweet either.  It almost reminded me of yogurt, in that it had a subtle tangy tartness that wasn’t just from the berries.  The graham cracker crust was more crumbly than firm, but it wasn’t moist or buttery like the graham cracker crusts on some cheesecakes and key lime pies, and wasn’t salty either.  I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but everything about the blueberry cream pie was better than the cheesecake.

Funny enough, my wife’s favorite desserts were the freshly baked cookies we brought home: snickerdoodles and sugar cookies ($2.50 each).  Back at home, she said they were soft, but not like raw cookie dough either — they were nicely chewy, but still had a bit of a crumble, just like you hope for.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Christo’s, and I really wanted to write a review while it was all fresh in my mind, so I returned after work today and brought home a large takeout order, using a very generous UberEats gift card a sweet friend had given us.  This way, I figured my wife and I would have enough leftovers to last through most of the weekend.

Christo’s makes much of their pizzas, and my wife asked me to bring her a personal pizza with Italian sausage, mushrooms, and green peppers ($11.99).  I splurged and took the 417 (a toll road) home from Sanford to ensure the food would still be as hot as possible, and the pizza was still warm!  I had a slice after picking most of the mushrooms off it, and it was a pretty chewy crust, but had a good flavor from the sauce, cheese, and toppings.  I prefer a crispier crust, though, whether it’s thin New York-style pizza or thick, rectangular Sicilian-style.  My wife thought it was okay, but her favorite pizzas in town are from Pizza Bruno and that rare bird, Brad’s Underground Pizza.

Most people who know me or read The Saboscrivner know that Italian subs are pretty much my favorite meal.  I had to try Christo’s version, the Italian Lunch Box ($9.99) to compare it to my favorite subs and hoagies in Orlando.  It was okay, with salami, pepperoni, ham, mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions on a soft hoagie roll, but no roasted peppers or drizzled Italian dressing, as promised on the menu.   I think the roasted peppers and Italian dressing would have helped it immensely.  I’m kind of a sub aficionado, and I think they need the tanginess of peppers — either roasted reds or something spicy, like hot pickled cherry peppers, or both.  Subs also require the lubrication from a condiment, like some kind of oil and vinegar, or better yet, a vinaigrette dressing.  As it is, I’ll leave the Italian subs to the experts, but props to Christo’s for offering one in the first place.

Ribs?  At a DINER?  Yep, “Need-A-Bib” ribs were on the menu, so I ordered a full slab ($19.99), just for the heck of it, knowing we could share them and they would last us a few meals.  These were substantial spare ribs, not tiny little baby backs, uncut and fall-off-the-bone tender (which most barbecue pitmasters would argue isn’t ideal).  They definitely weren’t smoked — most likely par-boiled and finished on the grill, then brushed with a sticky, sweet, and slightly smoky barbecue sauce.  But they were still tender and tasty, despite not being traditionally smoked, and weren’t fatty or greasy at all.   

I got a choice of two sides with the ribs, so I opted for those really good onion rings as well as fried macaroni and cheese, because why not, right?  The fried mac and cheese came in the form of two large, thick triangles, covered with crispy brown breading and dusted with parmesan cheese.   

Here’s a cross-section of the fried mac and cheese and one of the firecracker fried cheese balls that come with the Fat Boy Style orders:

We went a bit nuts on desserts as well.  Restaurants, take note: if you want to tempt us, put pies and cakes in a glass display case, or better yet, under glass domes, like they always have in diners in old movies.  We are suckers for seeing them up close and on display like that!

Continuing the blueberry dessert trend from our previous visit, it looks like we got a double slice of a blueberry cake ($7.99, but it’s a large portion that needs to be shared).  The cake itself was on the dry side, and we both wished it had more blueberries, but the cream cheese icing was a real winner.  It was much better after we left it in the fridge to chill for a while.  I like my cake chilled, and usually my pie as well.

I am also a mark for any orange desserts, so after seeing it on our last visit, I brought home a slice of orange cake ($7.99), intending to make it last a while.  The cake itself was slightly more moist than the blueberry cake, but it had a good subtle orange flavor, and once again, cream cheese icing.  Not bad, but one of these days I’m going to have to return to Christner’s, the really nice steakhouse that serves a mandarin orange cake that is one of my all-time favorite desserts.  I haven’t been there in many years, so I’ve never written a review.

And finally, Christo’s apple pie is so pretty, I had to get us a slice of that too ($6.99).  This is one that looked better than it tasted, I must admit.  Do you remember reading how I wished the Chicago beef sandwich had some spicy marinated giardinera vegetables and the Italian Lunch Box sub had some hot peppers and a vinaigrette dressing?  They would have been much better sandwiches with some spicy elements added.  Well, you know what WAS spicy, but we both wished it wasn’t?  This apple pie.  It had a lot of cinnamon in it — like, a ridiculous amount of cinnamon that had a hot, spicy bite to temper the tartness of the apples.  It wasn’t overly sweet either, which was fine, especially after I overdosed on apple pie judging the 2018 National Pie Championships here in Orlando, but mama mia, that was a spicy pie!
So that’s Christo’s, one of the best diners I’ve found in Florida.  We tried a lot of stuff because I got all swept up in the excitement of discovering a new diner with a big ol’ menu, and I wanted to write a thorough, exhaustive review after all the anticipation of finally getting out there.  Some things were terrific (I can’t rave enough about those Greek nachos!), others were fine, and some were a little disappointing, but that’s diners for ya, and that’s life as well.

Since Sanford is half an hour away from home and even further from work, I don’t see myself returning all that often.  But it is definitely worth a try for anyone hanging out in Sanford, especially among all the other trendier restaurants and hip breweries and wine bars along First Street.  It’s a family restaurant — not cutting-edge or foodie-hipsterish in any way — but that’s part of Christo’s charm.  I think it’s cool just by being an unpretentious, old-school diner with a huge, ambitious menu.  I think any diners would have a difficult time going there and not finding something good to eat, especially if you’re dining with a party of people with strong opinions.  If you’re anything like me, you might feel a little overwhelmed by all the choices, but overwhelmed in the best possible way.  And if we’re lucky, life can feel a little like that too.

AdventHealth: 30 Days of Hospital Dining

Wait a minute… is The Saboscrivner really going to review the food at AdventHealth, Orlando’s largest chain of hospitals?  Yes, but I have a good reason.  My wife had a major surgery in May that necessitated spending nine days in AdventHealth Orlando, followed by another three weeks in AdventHealth Winter Park.  It was heavy and scary stuff, and I didn’t want her to go it alone.  I am so grateful that my employer allowed me to take a leave of absence from work, and that both hospitals allowed me to move in with her and spend every post-surgical moment at her side.  (Both of us are fully vaccinated.)  So we both lived in hospitals for 30 days — from May 11th through June 10th — and that meant eating a lot of hospital meals.  This massive review may prove useful if any of my readers, or any of their family or friends, are ever hospitalized in an AdventHealth facility, or even if you end up visiting anyone there.  But I hope you all stay healthy and safe and never have to come here, unless it’s for a positive reason, like having a baby or getting a cool prosthetic or something.

AdventHealth is a faith-based nonprofit that claims to have “nearly 50 hospital campuses and hundreds of care sites in diverse markets throughout nine states” (see https://www.adventhealth.com/who-we-are).  Despite the health care company’s strong Christian values and mission, everyone is welcome and included — staff, patients, and visitors alike.  I can say with confidence that the doctors, nurses, and therapists took exceptional care of my wife, when she needed it the most.

Now onto the food!  Both hospitals have cafeterias for the staff and visitors, and there is some surprisingly good food to be had there.  It tends to be more flavorful than the food served to the patients in their rooms, which tends to be blander, with less salt and fewer herbs, spices, and strong flavors.  The much larger AdventHealth Orlando has a much larger cafeteria, the Welch Cafe, which puts out the most options at lunchtime, the busiest time, and far fewer things to choose from in the evening.  There is an Italian station that has pizza, pasta, and rotating specials, a sandwich station where you can get a custom-made sandwich, a salad bar, a fresh sushi station, lots of pre-packaged “grab and go” options, sweets, and a lot more.  With some options, there is a price per pound and you pay whatever your meal weighs, and others have fixed prices.

I should also note that AdventHealth, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, used to only serve vegetarian food, and only in recent years started serving meat.  They do not serve any pork at all, though — not in the cafeterias or the in-room meals for patients, and not even at the Wendy’s across the street from AdventHealth Orlando.  So you’ll see a lot of beef and/or turkey substitutions for pork products, and at least one of them ended up being really good.

My wife was in AdventHealth Orlando for a total of nine days, so I ate in the Welch Cafe a few times.  Here are some of the highlights:

BWAAAAAAH!  BWAH BWAH BWAAAAAAH!
RING THE ALARM!  I had surprisingly great onion rings with my very first meal at the Welch Cafe, sleep-deprived and full of fear after delivering my wife to the hospital at 5 AM to be prepped for surgery.  After waiting for hours outside the surgical wing, I figured I might as well keep up my strength and eat something that tasted good.  These onion rings ($1.75, priced out at $7.29 per pound from the burger bar) were better than many others I’ve had around Orlando, believe it or not.   

For me, pasta is comfort food, so I indulged three times with different types of penne pasta in red sauces.  This first one, which I ate on Day One while my wife was under the knife, was kind of like penne in an alfredo sauce, but I also asked for a warm blanket of marinara over the top.  I seem to recall some pieces of tender chicken in there too.  I was worried sick about her and felt guilty eating, but I knew I would have passed out or succumbed to a stress migraine if I didn’t have something substantial.   

On two subsequent Welch Cafe visits, I got different versions of baked penne with ground beef ($4.29), both of which hit the spot.  You can’t go wrong with hearty baked pasta dishes like this:

This was a pre-made meatball sub (a very reasonable $4.99) that was much better than I expected. 

At least during the busiest hours in the middle of the day, you can get a custom sandwich made at the deli counter.  The one time I indulged, I opted for pastrami on a sub roll (a little over $7), with creamy horseradish sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, banana peppers, and jalapeño peppers, and the nice lady even pressed it on the grill (note the grill marks in the sub roll).  It wasn’t any kind of ideal pastrami sandwich like Katz’s Deli in NYC or Orlando’s own Pastrami Project, but it was savory and spicy and messy in the best possible way.  That blend of flavors and textures provided a much-needed brief reprieve from the stress of that particular day at the hospital.  And as far as I’m concerned, that is the main goal of pretty much any sandwich.     

Yes, there is sushi available in the Welch Cafe, and yes, I had to try it.  There was a sushi chef making it fresh every day, at least around lunchtime, and then they would remain in the “grab and go” cooler for the dinner crowd.

It was pretty much on par with grocery store sushi, and I figured if it gave me any problems, I was already in a hospital.  This was the sushi sampler platter I chose.  It looked pretty, and eating it felt luxurious, like I didn’t even deserve to be enjoying something this nice while my wife was resting and healing several floors above me.

The sampler ($10.89) included some tuna and salmon nigiri, some California rolls wrapped in tuna and salmon, and a volcano roll topped with crispy rice, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.  Like I said, it was fresh, and it was luxurious.  I haven’t had any sushi since then, but just looking at this picture, I’d get something similar again without trepidation.

The Welch Cafeteria even had desserts!  I had to try the tres leches ($2.49), and it was perfectly fine, if not up to the standard of Miami’s legendary Cuban restaurant Versailles:

At one point, I brought this cookies and cream cheesecake (probably also around $2.49) back up to our room to share.  It was also fine, but I think my wife would have enjoyed it more under almost any other circumstances:

After nine days there immediately after her surgery, she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation unit in AdventHealth Winter Park for almost three weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy.  It is a much smaller hospital, with a commensurately smaller cafeteria in the basement.  The onion rings definitely aren’t as good there — kind of soggy — but on this day, the special was a surprisingly spicy and tender beef dish that was probably braised, or maybe even cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.  I liked it quite a bit.  My wife didn’t want anything to do with it.

I always crave hot dogs around summer holidays, and usually buy a pack around those times of year to cook at home.  We spent Memorial Day in the hospital, so I grabbed this simple all-beef hot dog ($2.79) from the basement cafeteria that day.  It tasted a lot like a Costco hot dog, but not as cheap, as big, or quite as good.  With packets of yellow mustard and relish, it transported me away for a few brief bites to an imagined backyard cookout with friends, before I found myself back at my wife’s hospital bedside.

On one of the last days before she was discharged, the cafeteria offered a gyro as a daily special ($4.79).  I have a hard time turning down gyros anywhere, so I had to try it.  The processed, seasoned, sliced gyro meat (usually a blend of beef and lamb) was topped with shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes, served with a tiny cup of creamy, tart tzatziki sauce, and served on a warm flatbread-style pita, it was comfort food.  Nowhere near as good as Orlando’s best gyro at Mediterranean Deli, but still better than many of the other meals I had eaten over this past month.  These onion rings ($2.69) were slightly better than that first bunch, too.

But the highlight of this cafeteria was the customizable 6″ personal pizzas for $3.99, made to order with the ingredients of your choice, and then baked in a tiny, powerful oven and presented to you two or three minutes later.  These were better than they had any right to be from a basement hospital cafeteria!  (Technically, they were underground pizzas, but a fella named Brad has built his brand around that moniker.)

I went all out with beef sausage, turkey ham, turkey pepperoni, red onion, jalapeño peppers on my pizza.  When it came out of the oven, the gentleman brushed the crust with garlic butter, and upon my request, drizzled it with balsamic glaze.  It was a damn fine pizza, I have to admit.  

I brought a couple of those basement (not underground!) pizzas back for my wife, who preferred them to most of the daily trays from Nutritional Services.  Longtime Saboscrivner scholars may remember she isn’t into tomatoey sauces, so I would order her pizzas to be brushed with a garlic butter base, and then I’d request beef sausage and mushrooms on them for her.  

So that’s what hospital staff and visitors can eat, but what about patients in their rooms?  Well, Nutritional Services delivers three meals a day to patients, and they offer a surprising amount of choices.   I tried to figure out a pattern for weeks, and then in our final week, they brought us the actual menu, which I have photographed here.  (Right-click and open them in new tabs for larger images.)

If someone from Nutritional Services manages to catch a patient in her room (between physical and occupational therapy appointments, in my wife’s case), they will take her order for all three meals for the next day, entering her choices on a tablet.  If not, the patient will just get whatever the daily specials are.  Since my wife really has to be in the mood for specific foods even when she isn’t distracted by chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and new pain from grueling therapy, I ended up helping her eat a lot of meals she wasn’t in the mood for and didn’t want anything to do with.  Also, I obsessively saved condiment and seasoning packets in our room, much like I imagine prisoners doing to make prison food more tolerable.

Do yourself a favor — if you are admitted as a patient at AdventHealth, ask Nutritional Services for a printed menu, so you can see what all the options are at all times, since they don’t always tell you every single thing you can choose from.  That way, you can also be more prepared when they come to your room to take your order.

These beef sausages, one of the Nutritional Services option for patients’ in-room breakfasts, are the same ones you can get sliced on your cafeteria pizzas.  They might not look very appetizing, but I really liked these, and even my wife embraced the greatness of the beef sausage by the end of her stay.  They were very savory, with a different texture than standard pork breakfast sausage, not as greasy, and not nearly as heavy with sage either.  I would order these in my beloved Waffle House or at another breakfast joint if they were available, or even buy them at the store to make at home.

Sliced brisket with chimichurri sauce, always served with a soft corn souffle (I amused myself by calling it “corn pone,” a term that cracks me up for no real reason) and green beans.  I make much better green beans, but I actually liked this quite a bit, and even my wife did too.

Chicken tenders.  A little bland and way too small to satisfy, but perfectly adequate, especially with some Ken’s honey mustard dressing as a dip.

Macaroni and cheese and baked sweet plantains.  My two favorite sides with any lunch or dinner orders.  I would always try to remind her to order them for me, or request to substitute them instead of boring sides like the plain white rice pictured above.  The mac and cheese was similar to what you would get at a lot of barbecue joints and Southern “meat and three”-style diners or cafeterias.  Of course I’ve had better, because this is a hospital, but I’ve had much worse.  These came with an eggy “spinach patty” that my wife kinda sorta liked, but it didn’t do much for me.

A cheeseburger that had that Burger King flame-broiled taste.  It was a little dry and not terribly juicy, but I appreciated having the general flavors and textures of a cheeseburger for the first time in a month.

My wife also ordered several vegetarian Beyond burgers as alternatives to the daily specials, which meant I ended up finishing several Beyond burgers throughout our stay.  We both used to like those, but I think we burned ourselves out on them for all time.

Lasagna rollatini, with ricotta cheese inside.  Like I said, my wife famously doesn’t like tomatoey sauces, but we quickly learned these are too dry and pretty bland with sauce served on the side, or not at all.  At least I thought they were definitely better with the sauce on them.  With just a few days left in her stay, we learned from the brochure that she could have been requesting the lasagna roll-ups with pesto sauce all along, but we never got to try that.

Chipotle chicken breast, served with yellow rice and “fajita vegetables.”  The chicken was always dry, but it had a little bit of heat, and I would eat it because she never wanted anything to do with it.

Mojo cod, served with white rice, black beans, a whole wheat roll, and more of those plantains.  Not her thing at all.  Not really mine either (but for the plantains), but I always ate it until I convinced her to request other stuff on mojo cod days.

In those final days, once we had the Nutritional Services menu and knew there were other options to choose from, my wife ordered me sandwiches with soups, while she drank Ensures and ate snacks I brought to the room from Trader Joe’s.  She knows how much I love sandwiches.

A cold roast beef sandwich on marble rye with three-bean chili.  I liked both, especially adding a bit of mustard to the sandwich.  The chili reminded me of a vegetarian version of Wendy’s chili, so not the worst thing in the world.  It also provided amusement for both of us later.

A cold turkey and havarti sandwich on marble rye, improved by yellow mustard and mayo, with chicken noodle soup (never my favorite soup):

I didn’t remember to photograph all the meals, but these were a few that (unfortunately) showed up more than once:

Sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots.  She couldn’t even deal with the smell of this one, but I thought it was okay.  I do stand by the controversial take that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is bland and boring AF.

Bruschetta chicken breast (dry), covered with diced tomatoes, and served with unsauced penne pasta, underdone brussels sprouts, and splashed with balsamic vinegar.  This could have been a much better dish than it was.  I make pretty good brussels sprouts at home by oven-roasting them, and the few times I had this meal, it inspired me to improve my brussels sprouts game even more.

Spaghetti and meat sauce with broccoli.  I ate it every time because she wouldn’t, and I can’t abide by wasting food.  I love spaghetti and meat sauce.  I couldn’t bring myself to love this spaghetti and meat sauce.

Pot roast.  Just like a lot of people’s pot roast, you can chew it forever and nothing happens.  It made me want to experiment with pot roast when we got home, to try marinating and braising and using ingredients like bold Italian vinaigrettes and jars of spicy pickled giardinera vegetables.

Nutritional Services also offered desserts and snacks.  None of the baked goods were great, but I rekindled my lifelong love of orange sherbet, and now I feel the need to buy some to keep in the freezer at all times.  (No, Megan Draper, it does not smell or taste like perfume!)  And I taught my wife the joy of using graham crackers to scoop up vanilla pudding.

So that’s pretty much it.  I also brought in takeout for us a few times, but for 30 days, we lived in these two AdventHealth hospitals and mostly ate hospital food.  Some things were surprisingly good, or at least better than you would expect.  Others were much, much worse.  I’m glad that she was discharged just over a week ago, and now I’m able to go grocery shopping again, to cook for us again, and to take my wife out to eat wherever we want again.  I sincerely hope you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos never have to spend this much time in the hospital, so you never have to try most of these meals for yourselves, but I also hoped this would be an interesting look at some of Orlando and Winter Park’s most “exclusive” dining.

Antonella’s Pizzeria

Don’t listen to New Yorkers — there really is good pizza to be found in Orlando!  I grew up in Miami eating three kinds of pizza:

  1. New York-style pizza — large, crispy, thin, foldable slices with melty, elastic cheese, dripping orange grease.
  2. Sicilian pizza — thick rectangular slices with crispy crust and bottom, and soft, fluffy interior.
  3. School lunch pizza (always on Thursday) — also rectangular, but flat and crispy like a flatbread, and the cheese could usually be peeled off in one solid sheet.  This was not good pizza by any standard, but we loved it as kids, and I still associate Thursdays with “PIZZA FOR LUNCH!  PIZZA FOR LUNCH!” chants.

But anyway, to this day, my two go-to pizza styles are New York-style and Sicilian.  Even though I like other kinds — Neapolitan pies, coal oven pizza, even St. Louis-style pizza, crackery-thin with gooey Provel cheese — those two are my lifelong favorites, and there are plenty of good pizzerias around Orlando to get New York-style pizza.  I’ve already reviewed several of them, but a few of those, like Pizzeria Del Dio and Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria, also offer the harder-to-find rectangular Sicilian pizzas.  I’m happy to report that one more pizzeria offers both styles, with two convenient locations on opposite ends of Winter Park: Antonella’s Pizzeria (https://www.antonellaspizza.com/).

Antonella’s original location is on Fairbanks Avenue, between New York and Pennsylvania Avenues, right near Rollins College and tony Park Avenue.  I ate there once, many years ago, but I can’t find the photos I took of that quick lunch (a slice of pizza and an Italian sub), although I’m sure they were awful photos.  The newest location that opened earlier this year is much closer to my work, on University Avenue, just east of Goldenrod Road.  It’s a small, modern, cozy space, and I look forward to lingering there for more leisurely work lunches in the months to come. 

Here is Antonella’s lunch menu, which is not listed on the website with the regular menu.

On my first visit to the new location, I ordered takeout for myself and my work “lunch bunch,” starting us out with a half-dozen garlic knots ($5.95).  These were darker than I like, but they had plenty of garlic, butter, parmesan, and herbs to add rich, pungent flavors.  They also came with a dipping cup of marinara sauce, as all garlic rolls should.

I always have to try a plain slice at any New York-style pizzeria to use as a benchmark and a “control.”  This slice was $3, and it was outstanding, just as it was on my first trip to Antonella’s older location a few years ago.  Nice and crispy, large enough to fold, tangy red sauce with the slightest sweetness, and the cheese had a good “pull” to it.   

Another co-worker and I each enjoyed a slice of Sicilian pizza topped with pepperoni ($4.50 each,or $4 without the single topping).  This is definitely some of the best Sicilian pizza in Orlando.  The rectangular slices are aren’t as wide as Del Dio or Paradiso, but they are long and thick.  (BWAH HA HA!)

One co-worker asked for a slice of pizza bianca (mozzarella and ricotta cheese with no red sauce; $3.75) and a plain Sicilian slice ($4).  She seemed to love them.

Meatballs are another one of my Italian restaurant benchmarks, so I had to try Antonella’s version (a side of two meatballs, cut in half so it looked like I got four, for $5.95).  They were very soft, tender, yielding, flavorful, and I got much more of that good sauce to dip my crusts in. 

On a second trip, I brought some takeout home so my wife could try Antonella’s food.  I got another slice of pizza for myself and more garlic knots for us to share.  I also got one of her go-to Italian dishes, eggplant rollatini ($15.95).  This thin-sliced eggplant dish is rolled up with ricotta cheese, then breaded, fried, topped with red sauce and mozzarella cheese, then baked to melt the cheese.  She prefers it really light on the sauce, and they did it her way:

It came with a choice of pasta, plus soup or salad.  She told me to choose, and I went with the pasta e fagioli soup of the day, good old “pasta fa-ZHOOL” with ditalini pasta, white beans, onions, carrots, celery, and herbs in chicken broth with little bits of chicken.  It was delicious! 

One of our favorite Orlando Italian restaurants of times past was Wolfie’s PizzaMia on Orange Avenue.  We loved it with all our hearts, and our hearts ached when it closed.  Since then, Chef A.J. Haines has found a new home making Southern comfort food and occasional fresh pasta dishes at Mason Jar Provisions, but at Wolfie’s, he introduced us to the wonders of arancini, a ball of risotto stuffed with meat, rolled in bread crumbs, and fried until the outer surface is crispy, the rice inside is soft and almost creamy, and the seasoned ground beef in the center is warm and welcoming.  Antonella’s version of arancini ($4.95), served with a side of that robust red sauce, did not disappoint.

It reminds me a lot of my beloved Cuban papas rellenas, but instead of a baseball-sized ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with picadillo, you have the creamy risotto in arancini.  Also, there were peas in with the seasoned meat, unlike the picadillo in a papa rellena (which sometimes includes olives).

Finally, anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows how my absolute favorite things to eat are cured deli meats, especially when assembled in an Italian sub.  I had to try the Antonella’s Combo hero ($10.95), with ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and house dressing on a soft sub roll, served cold (although you could get it hot too). 

It tasted good, because of course it did, but there are bigger and better Italian subs elsewhere in the city, and I have sung their praises often: LaSpada’s, Manzano’s, Stasio’s (which occasionally serves huge and awesome square slices of Sicilian pizza), and Tornatore’s (which also boasts excellent New York-style pizza).  I would have liked a better meat-to-bread ratio in this hero sandwich.  I’m not sorry I tried it, but next time I’ll stick to Antonella’s wondrous pizza, which is definitely some of the best in Orlando.  Come in and try it for yourself, and I’m sure you will agree.  I hope even transplanted New Yorkers will be pleasantly surprised.