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Winter Park Wonderland

Prato in Winter Park

Park Avenue, the Rodeo Drive of central Florida, has new glitter, Italian-style.

Not the same old veal chop posh; here in Winter Park, the pasta Bolognese is sauced with duck ragu and foie gras butter. Not the same pizza either; the “Widow Maker” is topped with braised kale and a farm egg as well as sausage and cheese.

Benvenuto, al Prato, the newest creation of Brandon McGlamery, the wizard behind Luma, the hottest new address on Park. It’s a delicious demonstration of 21st century Italian dining, rustic to the palate and slick to the eye, and also evidence that Winter Park’s restaurant scene keeps growing no matter the economy.

Prato in Winter Park
Prato’s Bolognese Bigoli with Barolo, Long Island duck ragu and foie gras butter
Prato apparently means “meadow,” but the decor is a solidly urban combination of textures from rough brick walls to smooth old metals and dazzling post-industrial chandeliers, high ceilings, a long bar and Italian cafe chairs on the sidewalk.

While a vertical garden of ferns turns one wall green, it is the food that transports patrons from modern power-grazing to rural flavors and earlier times. The menu brags on its farm suppliers, from local fields to Iowa barns (for American prosciutto and speck). The kitchen prides itself on making mostardas, pickles and conserves and curing its own pork loin. Where vegetables in traditional Italian restaurants rarely go beyond sauteed escarole, Prato serves up butternut squash, parsnips, beets, sunchokes and every form of fennel, including its pollen.

The menu is long on small side plates, including half-orders of pasta (bravo!). The few entrees top out at $27, but every one has big punches of flavor and extra style. There’s Italian chili relish on the trout, spiced raisins with the rotisserie spare ribs and tart agrodolce with fritto of oysters and clams.

I was thrilled to find chicken livers here, on toast points sharpened with capers, sorrel and pickled shallots. Delicate ravioli of the sweet tropical “Laughing Bird” shrimp had extra edge from broccolini and garlic. Even polenta was gilded with mascarpone and brown butter.

The triumph for me was a newfangled cavatelli made with sweet potato in a light sauce of rabbit, chestnuts, currants and sage.

The wine list is savvy, sticking to Italy and a bit of Spain with an eye for affordability (most are $40 a bottle and under) and regional diversity (from Alto Adige to Sicilia).

This is the new Italian sophistication, rarely seen south of New York or north of Miami.

No surprise that it’s at home in Winter Park, which has long claimed to be the affluent antipode to Orlando’s tourist world. Indeed, Winter Park and nearby Maitland continue to add restaurants and pack in the diners whatever happens elsewhere.

French Accent

Le Macaron's Creme Brulee macaron
Le Macaron's Creme Brulee macaron
Although some of the old guard classics are gone, Park Avenue now has the good fortune of having three sources for fine French pastries with the addition of Le Macaron, a small chain based in Sarasota. The macarons are perfect confections — light, crisp shells around delicate centers in a sensuous rainbow of flavors from Sicilian pistachio and Belgian chocolate. The other two French pastry havens, by the way, are Sweet Traditions and Croissant Gourmet.


Beer & Beyond

On U.S. 17-92, the refashioned Winter Park Village (once an indoor mall) has added two lively choices to its menu from growing chainlets. From Tampa comes TAPS, a downtown-chic purveyor of craft beer and microbrews with endless taps and infinite cooler, wines by the glass and contemporary light bites. Across the way is Truffles Grill from Hilton Head, S.C., and Atlanta, with a slick setting for updated comforts from meatloaf and chicken pot pie to homemade pimento cheese, with a long list of wines to match. Not far up the highway is SoNapa Grill, a wine bar that came from New Smyrna Beach. SoNapa dedicates its menu as well as its wine list to California. Closer to Park gastropubbers, Ravenous Pig will open Cask & Larder, a microbrewery, oyster bar and smoker in August.


Splash of Sushi

A mile north of Winter Park Village is the ultimate tribute to the area’s draw. RanGetsu, Orlando’s first premium Japanese restaurant, moved to a dramatic new building in Maitland last year after 25 years on International Drive. The restaurant, born more than 60 years ago in the Ginza of Tokyo, now has a nightclub with the full range of sushi, bento boxes, Wagyu beef and a robata grill sizzling with sea scallops, chorizo and Japanese mushrooms.

Sushi at RanGetsu, Orlando