PHOTOGRAPHS BY RAFAEL TONGOL
You want to open a restaurant in Winter Park. So, you think Park Avenue, right? The sidewalks have foot traffic. They’re busy with shoppers and diners — carefree collegians, harried businesspeople, moneyed retirees and ladies who lunch.
Park Avenue also has competition, and plenty of it — both along the city’s signature thoroughfare and nestled on its humbler side streets.
That’s why Hugo Passos, one of Braccia Pizzeria & Ristorante’s three owners, constantly uses the word different when describing his establishment. “We knew we needed to be different, to have something different,” he notes.
Passos and his partners, all Brazilian natives from Fortaleza and Recife, were leaning toward an Italian menu, which made the challenge even bigger. “Winter Park has a lot of Italian restaurants,” Passos says. “So we had to be completely different from them.”
A pizza’s a pizza, a pasta’s a pasta, correct? Not at Braccia. While the menu has a few familiar items, it’s most distinctive culinary twist is that nearly every item mixes Italian, Brazilian and random other flavors.
Oh, plus this: The menu’s foundation is a light bread used for dips and for pizza crust. It’s neither Italian nor Brazilian. It’s — say it with me — different.
This isn’t the thin crust of an artisan pie at Prato or a purposely well-done one at Anthony’s Coal-Fired. It’s nearly golden, just shy of flakey. It’s also light.
“Customers like that they can have the taste of pizza but not feel heavy,” Passos says. Even so, most diners order a pie apiece on the first visit — but split one and add a salad thereafter. At 12 inches, there’s plenty of pizza to go around.
Don’t stop reading if you aren’t interested in pizza. The Braccia team has made every effort not to be viewed as a pizza joint, despite the 16 savory and sweet offerings on its menu.
“We’re not a pizzeria,” Passos insists, despite the obvious presence of the word “pizzeria” in the restaurant’s moniker. “We’re a unique restaurant concept with octopus, carpaccio, steaks and homemade ice creams.”
Four substantial non-pizza entrées are offered, including a ridiculously satisfying rack of lamb with mint, mashed potatoes and a red wine reduction. The salmon entrée is grilled and served with pepper jelly and housemade brie ravioli. Pastas and appetizers round out the menu.
For starters, you might try a bruschetta made with fresh tomatoes, or “casquinha,” which is basically wedges of that proprietary pizza crust. The baked dough is sprinkled with rosemary and served with a choice of dips, such as eggplant or gorgonzola.
The kitchen is small, so chef-owner Bartolomeu Lins can’t offer unlimited options. “But we want to accommodate everyone, and some people don’t want pizza,” Passos explains.
Lins makes the dough from scratch, but that’s not all. “We make the pomodoro sauce for the pizzas and pastas, we make the pesto, we make the churros and we make the ice cream,” Passos notes. “You are not going to find these in other Italian restaurants.”
The written menu should be clearer. It uses words like “schiavo,” “sardela” and “catupiry” without defining them. Our server knew answers to some questions, but not all.
When we pointed to three casquinha dips, asking, “Which of these three dips is which?” she hesitated. “That one is tomato with anchovy [the anchovy, though tasty, isn’t mentioned on the menu], the pink one is pepperoni, and — um — I don’t know what the middle dip is.”
Since the restaurant was otherwise empty, she might have gone into the kitchen to ask.
If you visit Braccia not expecting a traditional Italian or Brazilian meal, you’ll find it to be a refreshing change from the ordinary. The food is fun, particularly the shrimp with catupiry pizza — assuming you like garlic.
This bestseller enhances the tomato sauce, shrimp, mozzarella and herbs with catupiry — a creamy, almost ricotta-like cheese from Brazil. Catupiry is a main reason so many social media reviewers say Braccia’s pizza seems authentically Brazilian, except for the crust.
The Portuguese pizza is an interesting choice as well. Here, the basic cheese-mozzarella pizza combo is piled high with turkey ham, hard-boiled eggs, onions, green olives and oregano. It’s curiously addicting; we had our leftovers for lunch the next day.
Not sold? How about a pizza topped with shiitake mushrooms? Or Canadian ham with mango chutney? Or brie with apricot? Or smoked sliced calabresa sausage with black olives?
Of course you can always have a simple mozzarella or margherita pie, or a pasta such as penne with prosciutto and pesto sauce. Chocolate, banana and guava pizzas are available for dessert.
While Passos has lived in the U.S. for nearly 13 years — and in the Orlando area since 2011 — his partners, friends from Brazil, saved for two years before moving to Central Florida and getting down to business.
They arrived in the spring, found a location and opened the eatery in July. While Passos mans the front of the house, his partners, who speak little English, handle the kitchen (Lins) and the finances (Eduardo Nobre).
The trio spent three months renovating the space that had previously been occupied by the raw-foods restaurant Café 118°. And the hard work shows.
Inside, the dining room is warm yet stylish. Fake grass partially covers a brick wall. Original paintings by a Brazilian artist add color. There are cage-like bamboo chandeliers, made by yet another Brazilian artist, and the tabletops are crafted from reclaimed wood by an artist in New Jersey. Bossa nova tunes play in the background.
As lovely as the interior is, in nice weather you’ll be drawn to the patio. It’s reasonably quiet since Braccia is off the main drag, on Morse Boulevard, yet it offers enough people-watching to help with lulls in conversation. On Friday and some Saturday nights, there’s live music — bossa nova, of course.
To attract attention, Passos has employees hand out samples on the corner and distribute flyers redeemable for a free glass of wine with a meal. “It’s a challenge, finding a way to get people to give us a try one time,” he says.
It’s tough to predict which Park Avenue-area restaurants will make it past the first year and which won’t. With its unusual foods and welcoming ambience, Braccia has a real shot.
Price won’t be much of an obstacle for diners. Pizzas start at $11.90, and are large enough for leftovers. Other entrées are pricier; lamb with red wine and fish en croite are $26.90, while salmon with brie is $24.90. The most expensive item is filet mignon at $31.90.
Pasta dishes are generally $12.90, with an upcharge for shrimp, chicken and steak. Salads range from $7.90 to $12.90, and appetizers from $4.90 (an extra helping of antipasto) to $14.90 (schiavo octopus).
And, Braccia has this going for it: It’s different.
BRACCIA PIZZERIA & RISTORANTE
153 E. Morse Blvd., Winter Park
407-636-9918 • bracciapizzeria.com