Photographs by Rafael Tongol
Maestro Cucina Napoletana looks like a theme park’s idea of a trendy trattoria. Its white Carrara marble-topped bar extends onto the Park Avenue sidewalk, inviting a sip of barbaresco in the open air. A logoed pizza oven — cute but contrived — is installed at the rear of the cozy dining room.
But don’t let the somewhat gimmicky ambiance fool you, miei amici. When it comes to cuisine, this place is the real deal. Chef Rosario Spagnolo has legions of loyal fans who are sure to turn up wherever he’s in the kitchen. And, believe me, he’s been in a lot of kitchens.
His most recent venture — which he co-owns with a silent Brazilian investor — serves such splendid fare that regulars include many native Italians.
“They’re looking for specialty Italian food, so they come here,” the affable Spagnolo says. “I have nice relationships with our customers. Some of them still recognize me from 1989.”
Spagnolo has indeed been simmering red sauces and tossing pastas in Central Florida for 28 years. This time, his eatery has a narrow focus: All the food is inspired by Naples, his home town.
From flour used in pizza dough to tomato sauce that tops eggplant parmigiana, every item is prepared as it would have been in Napoli homes and restaurants. “It’s like rustic food — not too expensive, with a lot of flavors,” Spagnolo says.
Let’s talk about those flavors. Little more than fish, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and parsley comprise the spigola al forno — a whole roasted Mediterranean sea bass, also known as branzino.
But don’t confuse simplicity for blandness. Cut through the charred skin — which itself is a must-eat treat — and you’ll find luscious, fork-tender white flesh.
A small lemony-garlicky dressing is all this entrée needs. At $24.50, it’s a mighty fine value, plated with fresh herb-topped vegetables and either roasted potato slices or a wedge of mashed-potato pie.
You needn’t spend even that much to finish your meal bursting to croon “O sole mio.” The pastas, priced from $12.50 to $16.50, will win your Italian-fare-loving-heart just as easily.
For the gnocchi alla Sorrentini, the kitchen makes its own potato-based dumplings before tossing the tender morsels with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil.
For a heartier option, try the cannelloni gratinati. The house-made pasta is filled with ground beef, salami and mozzarella, and topped with sauce and cheese before baking.
Sure, you can get a similar dish at any neighborhood red-sauce joint. But this one is better by miles — guaranteed.
That fancy oven, an imported red-tiled Marra that bears Maestro’s name in white-tile letters, represents a $30,000 investment. It uses gas to keep the temperature at a feisty 800 degrees, and bakes a pizza in about 90 seconds.
And the pizza isn’t of the trendy variety. Don’t even think about toppings that you wouldn’t also find on the other side of the Atlantic. “These are all traditional Neapolitan pizzas,” Spagnolo says.
In fact, the dough is made from Caputo flour, and every pie is hand-tossed. Maestro’s pizza maker and its chef de cuisine are experts; both are natives of Naples and have worked for Spagnolo for at least 15 years.
You can’t go wrong with any Maestro pizzas. But our crowd would readily re-order the one topped with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, cherry tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. It could feed two, and at $16.50 or $20.50, it’s a reasonably priced meal on Park Avenue.
Except you’ll almost certainly weaken your budget resolve and start with at least one appetizer. Who could resist?
The meatballs — tasty beef and veal orbs, baked then simmered in a rich simple tomato sauce — are a must. “They’re very old-fashioned,” Spagnolo says. “A little garlic, some breadcrumbs and eggs.” That’s it.
The sauce itself is a revelation, consisting only of San Marzano tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, parsley and basil. “Some people think the more you put into a sauce the better it tastes, but that’s not true,” Spagnolo insists.
I’m convinced. He should bottle and sell the stuff — I’d stock my pantry.
Happily for diners, Spagnolo uses the same red sauce with the eggplant parmigiana appetizer. The dish consists of little more than fresh eggplant slices dipped in flour and egg wash, fried until golden, then layered like a lasagna with mozzarella and fresh basil before baking.
Spagnolo moved to Winter Park from Naples in 1988. He has owned Bravissimo, which went through several incarnations, and later Allegria, which he sold and is no longer in operation. In 2004, he opened Terramia, which is a popular Italian restaurant in Altamonte Springs.
Maestro and Terramia share a wine list of 100 labels, nearly all Italian, with 30 available by the glass. The menus, however, are different. Terramia’s choices span the Italian peninsula, while Maestro sticks to the one southern city fronting the Mediterranean Sea.
Both restaurants have a warm feel. “I always do warm,” says Spagnolo, 56, whose son, James, is Maestro’s general manager. “I like cherry wood and marble and granite.”
The friendly surroundings match Spagnolo’s personality, so don’t be shy about introducing yourself when you stop by for, say, rice-stuffed peppers or a beef braciola rolled with Romano cheese and herbs.
You’ll surely be back — so you might as well get to know the family.
Maestro Cucina Napoletana
528 S. Park Avenue, Winter Park