Promising Italian eatery in Ivanhoe Village off to so-so start
Disappointment is much more disappointing when it dashes high-apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes. Before two recent visits to Ivanhoe Village’s newly launched Sette Italian, we were certain it was a surefire recipe for success. Owners Trina Gregory-Propst and Va Propst are a proven commodity. Their Se7en Bites Bake Shop is a bit of a thing here in O-town. Sette targets a local need; thoughtful trattoria-style dining. Razor clams were on the menu. There’s pasta made from scratch daily. An interesting wine or three. You’d have to be a fool (a fool!) to think that desserts would not be OTT scrumptious. I was certain I would be titling this review, “7th Heaven on Ivanhoe.” After dining there twice, I can’t. I just can’t.
Italian dining options in Orlando remain a rainbow of beige; a full spectrum of yawn inducing dullness. Think ghetto Olive Gardens, elevated Olive Gardens, and – well – Olive Garden Olive Gardens. At the end of the rainbow? A colorful anomaly or two. We do have quality pizzerias like Pizza Bruno, a few theme park splurgers like La Luce or Ravello, and stripped-down neighborhood noodleries like Trevi Pasta. But we still largely wallow in the same ole’ ole.’
Sette (pronounced “set-TAY”) promises different; an independent kitchen knocking out rustic Italian eats, casual but urbane, with a focus on food and drink rather than mamma mia window dressing. A downhome take on la dolce vita.
Despite a simmering excitement, we gave Sette several weeks to smooth edges before giving them a go. Some of you will know its location at the corner of Virginia and N Orange Avenue as the former home of Stir. We know it as the restaurant graveyard. It’s seen more good grub come and go than a bulimia convention. There were four of us on our first visit and it didn’t take us long to learn the challenges the parade of past eateries must have faced.
If you have the option, don’t drive to Sette. Lyft there. We drove. Twice. The parking lot is far too small to accommodate dinner crowds so we were forced to navigate an urban maze of park-here-and-die signs before finding a remote spot near North Quarter Market. It was a 15-minute walk from car to table, which we would have enjoyed if it didn’t make us 15 minutes late for our rezzie.
Color us optimistic. We booked at a startup restaurant vibrating with fresh outta the box buzz during the heart of weekend dinner service after almost every early table had just dropped orders. What could go wrong? Sette was deep, deep, deep in the weeds when we arrived. It was heaving. The walls were literally throbbing.
Have you seen A Quiet Place? Sette is the opposite. During peak hours, it’s incredibly loud – disturbingly loud. Like sonic warfare, discombobulating loud. Like blasting The Clash into the Vatican Embassy loud. Like “am I’m getting old?” loud. Like turn the wait staff’s brains to tapioca loud. Like loud. Our waiter looked like he’d just been subjected to the Ludovico Technique. Eyes darting, sweat pouring, pleasantries sputtering.
To make matters infinitely worse, an adjacent table of sun-dressed shiny things were wailing like undead spider monkeys. Conversation was nearly impossible – on a weekend, plan on screaming and lip-reading. Our advice? Book early, on a school night, or swap the unrelenting din of the inside dining room for the unrelenting humidity of outside Orlando. Requesting an al fresco table on Sette’s terrace is a safe bet if you’re into the whole listening to other people thing.
While deciding on wine, we mimed our desire for a bread board ($11) to our waiter. We were brought two bread boards. Marcel Marceau we are not. No biggie, the second was quickly comp’ed and with Se7en Bites’ baking pedigree we figured we’d made out well. Nope. There were some OK bites on the board, but none of us liked the basic Italian bread at Sette. It has a uniformly dense texture from crust to crumb that resembles stale. This was the case across most dishes and during two separate meals. The good stuff included a decent focaccia with rosemary that became very good when dipped into the olive oil bath in which excellent olives were submerged. A crisp flat bread was tasty when topped with a roasted garlic confit. Marcona almonds? Always good. But, we remained thrown by the lack of wow with the bread bread. Not the treat it should be. Plus, $11? The beyond excellent bread board at Ravenous Pig costs $8 (granted, minus the Marconas).
In keeping with its name, Sette (Italian for seven) offers 7 fancy cocktails, 7 red wines, 7 white wines and 7 hodge podge wines (cava, prosecco and such). All wines are available by the bottle and glass, which we always love to see. It’s a narrow list but one that includes some genuinely interesting labels like the Sicilian Tenute Delle Terre Nere ($63); a minerally mouthful of liquefied volcano dust. Twenty minutes elapsed between ordering it and our first sip, but – hey – makes the heart grow fonder (or at least the thirst grow stronger). It seems they were having issues finding it. We figured it would be where they keep the wine, but what do we know. Again, no biggie, right? Bread was a little boring and time will surely sort the mysteries of Sette’s disappearing wine. Bring on the food.
We ordered three starters to share; razor clams, eggplant meatballs, and sausage and grapes. I was thrilled to see razor clams on the menu. They never made it to the table. 86’ed by 8PM. Razor clams became mussels.
Vegetarians will likely enjoy Sette’s roasted eggplant meatballs (a pork and beef version is also available – both $11). Served in a small skillet, it makes for an attractive plate – the balls propped atop polenta and crowned with tomato ‘gravy’ and a dollop of ricotta. I personally found it yummy enough, but far from a world beater – I spent too much time gnawing on leathery eggplant skin. However, those at our table who abstain from four-legged critter meat were swooning and it’s likely a plate we’d order again. Actually, we kind of did. It was a bread board déjà vu. We were brought two despite ordering one.
Sausage and grapes? A dead simple winner of a dish ($11). Blistered grapes, sausage and fennel. Pork loves fruit. Grapes are not my jam. Something had to give. It was me. I loved the fennel aromatics and how the sweetness and slight acidity of the grapes cut the fattiness of the sausage. Harmony. This is a dish I haven’t seen elsewhere in Orlando and it makes for a solid shared starter. And, yes, I just wrote ‘grapes are not my jam.’
If you’re familiar with our food scribblings, you know we think Orlando has a mussel problem. What invariably arrives at restaurant tables are bowls of the bland, previously frozen, artificially-colored-coral variety. Far too often they also arrive as a texturally funky, foul smelling heap o’ mess. Not so at Sette. The quality of the mussels ($15) on our first visit was fantastic. Fresh, clean nuggets of white-fleshed meatiness properly steamed to just-open. They were swimming in a broth the first bite of which was like heaven. Second bite? Ahem. A detour.
Bite one of anything spectacularly rich can be spellbinding. Bite two? Almost as good. It’ll take you to bite three to realize that flavor suffers. At bite four, your body starts to say “no más.” Sette’s mussel broth is very good; deep and redolent with basil. It’s also so beyond rich it knocks you back on your heels. Cut the cream and/or butter in half and you’d be looking at one of the better mussel dishes in town. As is, it’s best eaten by a team.
After duplicate meatballs and bread boards and a mussel broth that seemed to segue into butter soup, a mid-course Cucina salad ($9) was a welcome respite. Crisp and bouncy romaine, cucumber, tomato, goat cheese, pine nuts, and garlic parmesan croutons perfectly dressed with a slightly sweet champagne Dijon vinaigrette. An easy salad to like and a necessary exhale.
Beyond razor clams, I was most looking forward to Clam Linguini ($21). When done right, there’s nothing better. On the palate, Sette’s version is a BIG plate of pasta. The fatty smokiness of pancetta, butter and oil smacks you in the face. The small neck clams that dotted the plate were fantastic, the scratch pasta spot-on toothsome. But, like the mussels, it was so crazy rich that I felt like I was fighting my way through it after the first several bites. A less heavy hand would’ve turned what was a winning foundation of fennel, saffron and lemon white wine sauce into something damn near magical.
With linguini and clams, pancetta is always an optional extravagance. When we include it at home it’s normally crisped slightly to render out some of the fat. Here the fat seemed to fully work its way into the sauce. Same with butter. This is a dish that can benefit from a small pat of butter, but it suffers from much more. We hope Sette works to refine this plate as it has a lot of promise; with a dash more subtlety and balance, it could be one of the better pasta bites in town.
The polar opposite of rich was Chicken Lambrusco ($23). Just poorly executed. Braising is a relatively dummy proof technique. It’s a follow by numbers process that’s typically only derailed by impatience. Braising should never result in dry meat and our chicken was dry as a bone. It looked like it took a quality sear but never enjoyed a full Lambrusco braise. Accoutrements (carrots, potatoes, polenta) were perfectly fine, but the focus of the plate let them down. Would have a hard time taking a chance on ordering this again.
The star of our first meal was easily scratch Mushroom Pappardelle with seasonal wild mushrooms, pistachios, Calabrian chilis, and shaved parmesan. Everyone at the table was competing for bites. Anyone who’s seen the Orlando Eats crew attack a table knows the ugliness of what we call ‘sharing.’ This was as satisfyingly meaty a dish as any ragù. At $25, it’s also one of the more expensive items on the menu. Not much to add here. Order this. Only gripe is that the parmesan used (and used across all dishes we tried) is too mild and moist for our taste. Would love to see them use half the parmesan with twice the flavor.
Despite four big stomachs fed by four big mouths, there was simply no room for dessert at the end of our first visit. We left with a hefty bag of leftovers and mixed bag of hot takes; a little happy, a little sad, puzzled by some missteps, painfully full.
We strategized our second visit based on lessons learned during the first. This meant booking on a weeknight, booking earlier, and arriving intentionally hungry. We still wanted to try the razor clams and felt genuinely silly for not indulging in a sweet or two.
Although we arrived at 6:45PM, Sette’s parking lot was once again full. Luckily, we found a close street side spot but at the price of a scratched rim. C’est la vie. The cost of being a culinary nomad.
Just two of us on the second visit; Munch and I. A surgical strike. We started with a very good gin cocktail; Hendricks, vermouth, Italicus (bergamot liqueur) and fresh lemon. We immediately ordered razor clams. We were immediately told they were too difficult to source and were no longer on the menu. Ugh. Razor clam pipedream dead. Mussels part deux.
We split mussels to start and each ordered a Caesar Salad ($9). The mussels were equally tasty this go around even if one or two weren’t as fresh. The salads that followed featured full-of-life greens and a “liberal” amount of creamy Caesar dressing heady with garlic. Between mussel broth, mouthfuls of dressing, and bites of dense bread we were already getting full. Not even multiple glasses of a lovely Antinori Vermentino ($13/glass and listed as “vermente” on the menu) could keep our pumps primed. This says a lot. I am a big eater. My grandfather was lovingly referred to as ‘the garbage disposal.’ After he passed away, his sobriquet was passed down to me.
Next. Eggplant Parmesan ($19) with pesto cream bucatini was a flabby bit of ho-hum. I’m not a huge fan of fried-into-oblivion, Italian-American eggplant parm, even when it’s dolled up a bit as it is at Sette. I much prefer the non-breaded varieties found over on the Boot. To me, the planks of eggplant at Sette seemed as if they were cut too thin for frying. The result was basically fried breading given form by a fine layer of eggplant glue; a mouthful of crispy and chewy made edible by a very good tomato sauce.
After three or four bites of the accompanying pesto cream bucatini I was utterly donezo. Yes, it’s pesto cream bucatini. I knew what I was getting myself into, but this was soupy creamy. Marie Antoinette creamy. I wound up taking half of it home, mixing it into a vat of freshly cooked rigatoni the next day and – with a salad – wound up creating a very flavorful meal for three.
Munch ordered the Market Fish; fresh fish, small neck clams, and pesto in broda. Funny, we’re not sure if Sette meant brodo instead of broda? Brodo is more of a broth, where broda can mean swill or dirty water. We’re down with both. Broda’s cuter. Regardless, Mahi was the market fish on both visits, and although I enjoy Mahi on occasion, I would’ve liked to have seen Sette mix it up a bit. Throw us a tilefish curveball. Anywho, pesto and fish. Not a classic combo.
Two of the most overused ingredients in kitchens across the country are basil and garlic. Pesto fuses the two into a hydrogen bomb of flavor. It was layered an inch thick on top of Munch’s Mahi like icing on a cake. We assume the Mahi (slightly overcooked), clams, and “broda” were good, but how would we know? The pesto was also good and everything tasted of pesto.
Our second-visit strategery paid mixed dividends. Arriving early during the week does reduce the noise level to manageable. But, we once again found ourselves too full for dessert. Or did we? No, mam. Not this time. We’d come too far. Our gluttony would not be foiled by personal health concerns. We ordered lemon olive oil cake to go and rushed it home like it was giving birth. Unfortunately, like the Italian bread, we found the cake itself flat and overly dense. Its buttercream icing was delicious, however. Downer.
So, that’s that. What are we left with? Mixed feelings and mental odds and ends. The odds and ends: Service was good overall. Waitstaff seems to still be awkwardly settling in but have been capable. Owner, Trina, brings a calming, friendly presence to the dining room bustle. She personally checked on our table during both meals. Hosts have been accommodating. The menu and wine list are pointed in the right direction. Certain bites show what the kitchen is fully capable of. The physical space is inviting – both indoor and out. They definitely need to up the quality of the bread. Finally, there’s the three issues we’ve harped on in this review; parking, noise, and the heavy handedness on display in many of Sette’s dishes.
Personally, parking feels like a goes-with-the-territory problem. Ivanhoe Village is an increasingly urban neighborhood with increasingly urban hassles. If the food and vibe are right, it won’t be a serious obstacle to those serious about food. Again, if. I have friends who hate going on parking safari even for excellent food, so any minor hassles need to be made worth it.
The noise? Don’t know if Sette has the budget or breathing room to explore baffles or acoustic wall panels, but if they do, they should. If a pleasant dining experience is equal parts enjoying your companions and stuffing your face, then (at least on weekends) Sette fails to satisfy half of the equation. Excessive ambient noise may not slow restaurants down in the beginning, but it can be a killer over the long-haul.
The last fix seems surface level simple, but we know kitchens. Change doesn’t come easy. As mentioned, the richness of some of the food at Sette could be a problem for many. Hear me out. I enjoy rich Italian food. Cacio e Pepe or truffled capellini with parmesan cream? Count me in. But the combo of portion size and richness in certain dishes at Sette can be obnoxious; a caricature of comfort food.
A starting point would be to acknowledge that this is really family style dining. Meaning, there would be benefit to having waitstaff hip diners to the fact that a little bit of the food goes an awfully long way. Order half of what you think you might eat and share, share, share. Setting expectations early would go a long way. Beyond this, a lighter touch in the kitchen would likely skyrocket the flavor and staying power of Sette’s food.
In sum, Sette shows some promise. However, we’re putting future visits on hold until its further along in fulfilling it. If they can turn down the volume and tone down the rich, we promise to be the first to turn back up.