Mama Della's? Mama Mia!!
I have found the Italian eatery of my dreams in Orlando, Florida.
Now, Orlando is a place jam packed with Italian restaurants. A quick glance through the menu cards and brochures in the hotel lobby revealed at least a dozen within a mile or two of the hotel. There are all the usual chain places, like Olive Garden and Maggiano's Little Italy. The main thoroughfares are crowded with everything from upscale ristorante to downscale pizzerias. But the crown jewel of Italian cuisine is hidden in a place many would not think to look.
Loew's Portofino Bay Hotel is a luxury resort located at 5601 Universal Blvd., adjacent to the world-famous Universal Orlando Resort. Like so many facilities in this theme-crazy town, it is a themed hotel. In this case, the hotel is designed to emulate an Italian villa. Buried fairly deep inside the facade are a number of Italian eateries; a gelateria, a pizzeria, a market deli, a trattoria, and a couple of more upscale ristorante. It was one of the latter that brought mio cucina di sogno Italiana to life; Mama Della's Risorante.
At first, I was afraid the place wasn't going to pass my personal “Italian Restaurant Test.” (I ask for a menu or I request or confirm reservations in Italian. If I get a blank stare and a nervous smile from the host or hostess, the place is on the downslide to potential failure.) I approached the hostess. She greeted me with, “Buona sera.” So far, so good. “Buona sera,” I replied. “Abbiamo prenotazioni per tre.” (“We have reservations for three.”) After the dreaded blank stare and nervous smile, she asked, “Do you have reservations?” Oooooo! That hurt!
But, as it turns out, she was about the only person in the place who didn't speak Italian. The waiters, the strolling musicians, even “Mama” herself, all spoke fluent Italian – embarrassingly more fluent than mine, which, under the circumstances, I didn't mind at all.
Once you get past the non-Italian speaking hostess, you are transported to “Mama's house.” The idea here is to give the impression of eating in a typical Italian home, presided over by a typical Italian “mama.” The furniture is simple, some pieces are even mismatched. The walls are papered with homey printed wallpaper. My party of three was seated near the front of the restaurant, which, although very busy, did not give off a vibe of being rushed or bustling. Every aspect of service was conducted smoothly and efficiently, enabling diners to relax and soak up the ambiance.
The menu represented mostly southern Italian fare, the stuff most American palates are most familiar with. (If you are looking for northern Italian specialties, look around the corner at “Bice.” I probably will next time.) Our party shared bruschetta as an antipasto and also enjoyed a couple of baskets of delicious assorted rustic breads, served with butter for the American palate and with a wonderfully buttery roasted garlic and olive oil spread for the more traditional Italian tastes.
I am not an oenophile, but one of our party was and he pronounced the wine list to be quite impressive. An excellent Kenwood pinot noir delighted those who chose to imbibe. I was content with my Peroni Nastro Azzurro, a nice, smooth imported Italian birra.
She-who-accompanies-me-through-life was ecstatic over her perfectly cooked, perfectly sauced, and perfectly seasoned Ravioli di Aragosta, (Lobster Ravioli), the specialità di sera. I was very pleased with my rich and creamy Fettuccine Alfredo, although I was a little disappointed at the “Americanized” preparation. Note to the kitchen: real Italians don't use cream. Solo il burro e il parmigiano-reggiano, per favore.
Our companion was deeply devoted to his Frutti di Mare, a dish comprised of grilled shrimp, scallops, corvina fish, linguini, spinach, garlic and olive oil in a creamy roasted tomato sauce.
Although, the concept of abbondanza is more Italian-American than traditional Italian, the portions at Mama Della's are just about perfect. No little tiny spoonfuls of food on small plates, but no heaping platters of comestibles, either. The plating and presentation are balanced perfection. That said, there was still enough to share around, and my fair lady contends that the buttery, soft, rich, delicious scallops she sampled were among the best she's ever had.
Yes, there was room for il dolce. Our friend was not acquainted with gelato, and I was most happy to introduce him to the cioccolato. My wife, who never met a chocolate she didn't like, loved the torta di cioccolato. Our resident wine connoisseur was charmed by the exquisite twenty-year old port that capped off his meal. Oh, and grazie to our waiter, Luis, for the extra portion of the delightful little palate cleansing galleta amaretti. They were wonderful.
Adding to the overall enjoyment of the entire dining experience was the trio of strolling musicians who wandered through the restaurant singing Italian folksongs, love songs and arias. Their rendition of La Donna e Mobile sent our opera-loving companion into paroxysms of bliss. They stopped at various tables, chatted, and asked for requests. When I requested Volare, they told me I had to sing it with them. I don't think they thought I would. Sorpresa! And I sang it in Italian, too! Friendly and talented, the cantanti were a perfect compliment to a perfect evening.
Mama Della's is open daily for dinner at 5:30 p.m. It is a full service restaurant. Casual attire is acceptable, but dress nice and make Mama happy. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 407-503-DINE (3463). Parking is available in the Portofino Bay Hotel parking lot. Validation is available for those not registered at the hotel. Private dining arrangements can be made for groups of up to seventy.
So, next time you're in Orlando, make sure you take the time to visit Mama Della. She'll be glad you did – and so will you.