LAKE BUENA VISTA
Disney Springs has swiftly become a playground or trial balloon for the country’s celebrity chefs. Art Smith, Masaharu Morimoto, Rick Bayless, Guy Fieri, Tony Mantuano, Wolfgang Puck and others are already on board, with names like José Andrés arriving at the party imminently. Because Tampa Bay residents are among the densest visitor demographic Disney has, it’s a service once in a while to hop on I-4 and see what’s cooking at the open-air promenades and lakefront setting that used to be known as Downtown Disney.
Patina Restaurant Group (Joachim Splichal and partners, with dozens of properties in California, New York and elsewhere) has gone in large, in January launching four concepts in a cluster in an area that used to be BET Soundstage Club and the Adventurers Club in the old Pleasure Island nightclub area. A lot of Patina concepts have an Italian bent, and three of these newcomers follow suit.
Many Disney properties come with a whole lot of theming, Imagineering and elaborate backstories. I may not be the target demographic for all of these elaborate and apocryphal family histories, but some in this group seem a little goofy to me. Maria & Enzo’s, for example, is a stately and gargantuan Sicilian restaurant saddled with a backstory of Maria, a baker, and Enzo, a pilot, falling in love, immigrating to Brooklyn in the 1930s and somehow leasing space in a now-shuttered airline terminal. M’kay. You arrive at the host stand and a stewardess or pilot will escort you to "your gate." (Occasionally folks get upgraded to "first class" and you get to sit in the fancy private dining room.)
Because now folks fly in their pajamas with those neck pillows adding a puffy high collar, it’s nice to have a reminder of the golden era of travel. But here’s what you really need to know about Maria & Enzo’s: gorgeously grand dining room, floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over Lake Buena Vista, and a menu of approachable but exactingly prepared southern Italian dishes. An added bonus is that nearly all of the servers are from Italy, part of the Patina Restaurant Group’s program to recruit employees to come for a year on a work visa.
We enjoyed an antipasti trio platter of velvety swaths of prosciutto, crisp-exteriored arancini stuffed with ground meat and sitting in a puddle of tangy tomato sauce, and a lovely spin on a caprese with soft fresh moz and sweet grape tomato halves with bright balsamic. Prices are moderate, not splurgy, despite the white tablecloths, and families are welcome. And what do you do after lunch? You have second lunch.
Adjacent to Maria & Enzo’s is the new Pizza Ponte, a fast-casual grab-and-go that has an unusual approach. It’s mostly Sicilian-style pizza by the slice: thick, puffy squares cut with cool-looking pizza scissors. (They also have huge rounds of thin-crust Neapolitan pizza.) The monster triangle slices (you fold them down the middle, start at the point and watch the grease dribble out the center of the crust side) read more like New York City street pizza: bright tomato sauce, mantle of salty cheese, good tooth resistance, not quite as fragile as a Naples original.
A glass case at the front of the airy, bright Pizza Ponte has all manner of temptations: salads, muffaletta, prosciutto de parma packed into textbook skinny baguettes, pasta and antipasti salads. What caught my eye, though, were a series of demure Italian cookies — marzipan almond, marzipan with a little jelly thumbprint, hazelnut with chocolate drizzle — and some seldom-seen Italian confections like baba au rhum and zeppole con panna (cream-filled doughnuts). The smell of rich espresso perfumes the air, an invitation to sit for a bit, recoup from the Florida heat outside and get chummy with a plate of pastries.
Before diving into the other two Patina properties, we took a walk to the nearby Wine Bar George, another newcomer to Disney Springs that opened May 19. Master sommelier George Miliotes has been one of my go-to wine experts for stories for a long time. The sommelier for Darden properties like Seasons 52, Eddie V’s and Capital Grille for years, the Florida native has encyclopedic knowledge but is always unpretentious and unfussy. This, his first independent venture, is something of a homecoming: He was part of the opening team of the California Grill restaurant at Disney’s Contemporary Resort and managed the venue from 1995 to 2002. (Fun fact: While there, he created one of the first "100 wines by the glass" lists in the country.)
Wine Bar George is a stylish, light-filled, two-level space (big bar downstairs with a kitchen, an upstairs barrel room and second bar), with the fruit of the vine front and center. Miliotes thinks of what he’s doing in three sections. He’s offering eight wines on tap, in three different storage spaces so they’re the right temperature. Then everything that is in bottles is offered by the glass, bottle or ounce, the bottles vacuumed of air using the Vinfinity system to significantly extend their lives. And the third section is what he’s calling Outstanding by the Ounce. These are some of the world’s most exceptional wines, representing a unique opportunity to try things that would be out of your price range by the bottle. Chateau Margaux 1988, anyone, around $400 per bottle if you can find it? He has already sold a bottle and a half of it, one ounce at a time.
What is Miliotes excited about right now? Bone-dry rieslings and godello (a Spanish white grape) and gamays like the Morgon Cote du Py. Meanwhile, the wine bar menu has made waves already with its family-style dishes like wine-braised chicken or grilled whole Greek sea bass.
Walking back to the Patina properties, we were a little flummoxed by how to get into the next place, Enzo’s Hideaway. The fictitious story line is that Enzo, that Italian pilot married to Maria, was digging around and found abandoned Prohibition-era rum-running tunnels, which he turned into a subterranean speakeasy. The real-life story is just about as interesting: This new restaurant is set in the tunnels Disney cast members would use to get from one point to another in Pleasure Island without us regular mortals seeing them.
It’s a handsome space, very selfie-ready, with faux crumbling plaster and stone archways, with big communal tables running across the wide open room and a private wine room off to one side lined with oversized bottles. It’s inspired by Roman aperitivo bars, with an appealing and down-to-earth menu of pastas, salumi and salads. One of our favorite dishes of the day was a stunning but hearty chicken saltimbocca, its discs of chicken breast edged in prosciutto and kissed with sage, all of it set off with an array of roasted veggies (fingerling potatoes, artichoke hearts, sweet onion, etc.) and a gloss of pan juices. We polished off a couple of balls of gelato (one that reads like lush frozen rice pudding, another a creamy toasted hazelnut) before third-level sommelier Fabiano Zappacosta asked us if we’d like to try something special. Yes, please. He brought over an oversized bottle and a glass pipette: amaro blended with grappa, the fiery meal-ender softened by the herbal "digestivo." Delicious.
Through a secret passageway and the ladies’ restroom, we found the back entrance to sister property the Edison, a second location for the lavish industrial gothic-style nightclub in Los Angeles, the brainchild of Andrew Meieran. The theming for this one is that it’s a converted powerplant, with lots of wacky old mechanical artifacts, cogs, wheels and such, with four bars spread across two levels. After 10 p.m. it’s 21 and up, with aerialists, contortionist and musical acts to pump up the mood, plus an ambitious mixology program that seems smitten with absinthe and other exotica.
The bar menu is called the Catalog of Parts, a long read with lots of tantalizers. Food follows suit, with lively spins on bar classics. We opted for the DB’s Clothesline Candied Bacon, which is just what it sounds like: a clothesline with maple-black pepper candied bacon clipped to it. It’s an homage to celebrity chef David Burke, served with ramekins of fruity mostarda and spicy house-made pickles to put it over the top.
There’s hardly a bad seat in the house, a balcony level looking down on the main dining room, which becomes a dance floor after 10 p.m. Outdoor seating overlooks Lake Buena Vista, and the intimate Patent Bar, at the top of a flight of stairs under a gussied-up steam engine, provides a quieter spot for a tete a tete. With a drive back to Tampa ahead of us, we fatigued before the aerialist did her show. But the takeaway was that this quintet of newcomers at Disney Springs has further cemented its position as one of Central Florida’s most magnetic dining destinations.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.