Just Close Your Eyes
and Think of
Of all the flavors of Rome, the city itself might be the most intoxicating. Add a dash of la dolce vita to your pasta alla gricia and it goes from simple staple to mama mia manna from heaven. But separate the food from the fountains – eat it with a detached palate – and a good deal of the Eternal City’s everyday fare doesn’t venture far from middling – especially in the central touristy bits.
If you’ve travelled to Rome, you know. Most visitors wind up spending time in the sprawling jumble of al fresco cafes that frame every significant piazza. Hawkers, menu pictures, a sad man painted silver. We’ve been there. A glass of ho-hum vino, a plate of ho-hum antipasto, we pay our pane e coperto, watch the day unfold and all is right with the world. Honestly? It’s in these moments we’re most content to give mediocrity a pat on the back. To wallow in the perfection of imperfection.
Rome’s Flavours – a small, casual Italian eatery in Winter Park – benefits from a similar dynamic and suffers from some of the same shortcomings of its piazza-orbiting brethren. A bit of irrefutable restaurant math: As the number of tourists taking up tables goes up, the quality of food goes down. And although we know Winter Parkies frequent Rome’s Flavours, a large swathe of its clientele seems spit from the transient tourist throng that trawls Park Avenue. It makes sense. The restaurant’s leafy environs, sidewalk tables and easy smiles offer welcome respite for weary, Birkenstock-and-sock clad feet.
Is it worth sitting down? Sure. Sunshine, friendly staff, puppy dogs, people watching, and a glass of prosecco is a damn fine recipe for happy. Will you be equally happy with the food? If the planets align.
We hate to knock small, independent eateries – especially amicable ones giving it their all. We’ll do it, but we hate it. And, we won’t be knocking Rome’s Flavours. Much. It does quite a few things right. It also does quite a few things wrong.
Let’s start with what we liked, move on to what we thought needed tweaking, and wrap by touching on what we would have loved to have fed the labradoodle under the adjacent table.
Rome’s Flavours has quite a bit going for it. There’s the location. Owners are highly engaged and involved. Service is spot-on. The wine list is just deep enough to be interesting and, true to its name, the menu actually offers Roman flavors. It has also managed to somewhat avoid the siren song of playing down to the tourist palate.
Aggressive eavesdropping of neighboring diners revealed that if they were served bathtub chianti and Stouffers French Bread pizza they’d be Yelping poetic. It’d be tempting for Rome’s Flavours to Sysco its way to the bank. Instead, it has committed to a time-consuming effort that’s also its most visible strength; scratch made pasta, pizza dough and gelato, all of which are very good.
Pasta is clearly the best reason to pay a visit. On our last, the owner, Pino, was gently hanging freshly cut fettuccini to dry on dowels. The fettuccini is the foundation of a shrimp & pistachio dish tossed in olive oil that we’ve ordered, eaten and enjoyed several times. The pasta toothsome, the shrimp plump, the pistachios adding crunch and substance. If your ideal Italian meal swims in meaty red sauces and salty cheese, skip it. It’s an exercise in subtlety.
A Sicilian-influenced starter of seared tuna encrusted in pistachio was straightforward and tasty, pairing well with gravelly glugs of a decent by-the-glass arneis.
Rome is the birthplace of Fettuccini Alfredo. Popular in Italy, popular in Ohio, decadent as Caligula on spring break, and something we never, never, never-ever order. We ordered it. We enjoyed it. As cheesily creamy as expected but not ickily so and benefiting from the earthiness and textural variation of added ‘shrooms.
House made gelato is delicious even if it arrived a touch dense from its freeze. We ordered amaretto and coconut, the latter benefiting from large slivers of meat. Beyond gelato, all desserts are house made and worth trying. Munch made a chocolate soufflé disappear before I could pick up my fork.
Hard to find much fault with any of the above but digging deeper into the menu revealed that things can get dicey at Rome’s Flavours when its kitchen ventures beyond the dough.
Pizza takes up a portion of the menu, is served oblong, cut into squares and features a typical Roman crust – thickish with a hearty crisp. Eating it finally proved my father right – the crust was, indeed, the best part. We ordered a “Via Sicilia” with eggplant and found its cheese and San Marzano saucing relatively flavorless, the center of the eggplant slices bordering on raw. We had it boxed up so we could introduce it to the wonders of a home toaster oven.
A scoglio special was love/hate on a plate. It arrived looking like the beau idéal of one of my fave bites – seafood pasta – a bit of seaside Sorrento come stateside. If only I’d been content to eat with my eyes. It featured more of the lovely house made fettuccini, gorgeously subtle saucing and lively, briny clams, but it was entirely let down by mussels that had deteriorated to mush or evaporated altogether, an anemic bit of octopus and a tragically overcooked langoustine.
Truffled risotto with porcinis was a yawner. The arborio a touch too al dente, the porcini’s a tad flavorless – mushroominess reliant on truffle oil.
Like Alfredo, Amatriciana is Roman(ish) in origin – birthed in Lazio. At Rome’s Flavours, the sauce is served over pappardelle, which was – warm up the chorus – excellent. The saucing? Not so much. A touch sweet and lacking the trademark depth normally imparted by guanciale or pancetta (or – eek – bacon if that’s what you have on-hand). The use of Grana Padano in place of traditional pecorino likely aided in thinning the flavor. This is a sauce that should eat a tad fatty and deeply deep. It didn’t.
So, we’ve arrived at the bad-bad. The good-good is that there’s only been one bad-bad.
An octopus appetizer was barely edible. Shrivelled, slimy, and just unappetizing to look at. I devoured it while smiling. The spiting of Munch, who had wisely suggested not gambling on it, outweighed all other considerations.
OK, let’s wrap this baby up.
Like most large metropolises, Rome is a solid restaurant city. It’s also one of our last considerations in Italy if food is our first. Give us Florence, Venice, Bologna – hell even Parma, Palermo, or Siena – before la capitale. Similarly, if food is priority number one, Rome’s Flavours doesn’t sniff the company of our Orlando mainstays. But, on certain days – be it in Rome or Winter Park – we just don’t fucking care.
If you’re like us, you have a home and away palate. The home palate is logical and laser focused, scoffing at the faintly overcooked scallop. The away palate is a multisensory gyration – a muddle of taste and emotion – dancing wildly to the synaptic overload sparked by unfamiliar places and idyllic settings. The away palate scallop is birthed by Venus and sings Puccini like Renata Tebaldi.
There’s far better Italian restaurants in Orlando than Rome’s Flavours – more than we care to count – but there’s far, far worse places to while away an afternoon. Order a warm plate of scratch pasta and a cold glass of pinot grigio, sit back and soak in the leafy surrounds, turn on your away palate and pretend you’re lazing the day away in a faraway piazza. You won’t find perfection here but you might find an hour or two of genuine content.