WHEN NERDS LIKE TO COOK

Photography by Carlos Amoedo

Chef Eliot Hillis, along with longtime culinary partner Seth Parker, take their cuisine at Orlando Meats very seriously. Each dish is creative, often interesting, with such a profound profusion of innovative housemade elements that many aren’t even mentioned in the menu descriptions.

Grab a meal at Orlando Meats and you’ll quickly learn that what you see is not what you get, at least in the culinary complexity department. And, unlike in most such situations, you’ll be very glad. 

Orlando Meats — admittedly not a particularly alluring name — started as a butcher shop. Several years and two locations later, it’s a restaurant-retail combo in Winter Park’s spiffy Ravaudage mixed-use development (which means, unlike its previous digs, this one has ample parking). 

The space comes across as casual, with counter service and a sparse dining room enlivened only by cheerful paintings of chickens and steaks on the wall. The food, though, is what we expect in higher-end restaurants — and often don’t receive.

“Everything is made from scratch. Full stop,” says chef-partner Eliot Hillis. “We do buy some bread from Olde Hearth but make half the breads ourselves. We process the meats ourselves. We make all our own noodles. We make our own pizza dough.” 

He then goes into major food-nerd mode, tossing out details about enzymes, hydration levels and other science-related phenomena that somehow relate to what’s on the plate. I didn’t major in science but found his apparent knowledge impressive.

Orlando Meats is a restaurant-retail combo (above) in Winter Park’s spiffy Ravaudage mixed-use development. The dining room is enlivened by cheerful paintings of chickens and steaks on the wall. The food, though, is what you’d expect in higher-end establishments. For example, the Cumin Lamb Udon (below) is composed of housemade udon noodles tossed with lamb that has been seared and braised in a cumin-laced broth. Then it’s shredded, repacked into its own stock and chilled before being heated and served. For a contrast of flavors and textures, the meaty pasta is covered with crushed peanuts and fresh cilantro leaves along with scallion bits and jalapeño slivers.

Light meals, yes — mostly sandwiches, pizzas and pastas. Only each is creative, often interesting, with such a profound profusion of innovative housemade elements that many aren’t even mentioned in the menu descriptions. 

“Sumac is a very common Mediterranean spice, used every-
where but America,” notes Hillis. “Black limes, too. We make black limes here and use them in our recipes, but we don’t say anything on the menu. It’s not helpful for anyone because the cashier must explain what they are, which is scary and confusing.” 

Black limes, by the way, are small limes that have been blanched in saltwater and left to dry until they’re shriveled, brittle, lightweight and have a dusty black hue. They’re key to some Middle Eastern dishes, providing a distinctly sour flavor. 

See? That’s why it’s better to hand off tasty meals without anyone knowing why the flavor is deeper, more complex or more vibrant than you’d expect. Just enjoy and don’t ask too many questions — unless you’re genuinely curious, of course.

Anyway, you can also get food that you’ll understand at Orlando Meats, and I’ll get to that. First, however, let me tell you about the dish called Cumin Lamb Udon. It’s an example of how darn seriously Hillis and his long-time culinary partner, Seth Parker, are about what they do. 

During my first of two visits to Orlando Meats, I chose this entrée because it sounded like a specialty that I’d previously found only in authentic Szechuan restaurants. How, then, would a butcher shop that serves mostly American burgers and sandwiches handle this distinctive flavor combo? 

Do you know what? Those noodles are rolled and cut by hand. That means the folks in the kitchen stir together ingredients to make a thick and chewy Japanese-style wheat-based pasta dough. Then they slice it into long, thick strips and boil it to order. 

The breakfast selections at Orlando Meats include the Egg MeatMuffin (above left), which consists of eggs with bacon, garlic aioli on a Szechuan bun; and Chicken & Waffles (above right), which consists of fried chicken, dulce de leche, whipped cream and pickled strawberries on a brownie waffle.

The cutting? “That involves a Chinese thing that seems like it was built in a prison under duress,” Hillis says. “It doesn’t have any pre-set notches. It’s spartan. You have to play it like an instrument.” 

The chefs toss the noodles with lamb that has been seared and braised in a cumin-laced broth. Then it’s shredded, repacked into its own stock and chilled before being heated for your consumption.

And that’s not all. For a contrast of flavors and textures, the chefs top the meaty pasta with crushed peanuts and fresh cilantro leaves along with scallion bits and jalapeño slivers. You might balk at the $15 price tag. But in a table-service restaurant with a nice decor, the same dish would cost $25. And it might not be as good. 

Hillis and Parker never stop creating. Whatever you read here might be readjusted — or gone — by the time you visit Orlando Meats. In fact, regardless of popularity, it’s unusual for a dish to linger long on the menu. Indeed, some 750 dishes have come and gone since the out-of-the-ordinary eatery opened in 2017.

Lately, recognizing that they need to be practical as well as playful, the chefs changed the names of some forever favorites. The original monikers were clever, such as “Shake Hands with Beef” for what’s now simply called a roast beef sandwich. The name was also the title of a 1997 song by the funk metal band Primus, a fact that was lost on me and, I suspect, many diners.

Call it what you will, it’s obvious that this meaty masterpiece didn’t come from Arby’s. It’s made from a seared chuck roast cooked overnight sous-vide-style in garlic, spices and seasonings. The beef is then sliced, seared a second time and placed on “very clean butter bread” with a horseradish crema (a creamy sauce) plus mayonnaise, sour cream, salt and pepper. 

Likewise, the fried pork sandwich was long dubbed “The Danzer Two,” an obscure reference to the band The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza. Few got it — hence the name change. 

Yet simple names have an upside: Customers order more unusual items when they know what to expect. At Orlando Meat, sales of almost everything went up once customers could discern what they were ordering, says Hillis, who now saves his creativity for the kitchen.

Orlando Meats, as you might expect, has a signature burger. The “medium-rare burger” — so described on the menu because it’s only served medium rare — consists of house-ground beef, bacon, XO sauce (a condiment made from dried seafood), garlic aioli and provolone cheese served on a French roll. The patty was too rare for my taste.

Here’s bonus news for our readers: Both chefs are local boys. Hillis and Parker were born in Winter Park, and each worked in local chef-run kitchens elsewhere in Central Florida before joining Orlando Meats.

Their culinary upbringings, however, were starkly different: While Parker grew up “eating canned vegetables and crap,” Hillis’s ethnically diverse extended family exposed him to Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean foods. Early Asian influences, he says, explain the “intense amount of fermentation” and the “noodle obsession” at Orlando Meats. 

The roast beef sandwich (above) is made with seared chuck roast cooked overnight sous-vide style in garlic and spices. The beef is then sliced and placed on a New England roll with horseradish crema, shallots and provolone. The personal-size Chicken Pizza (below) is very spicy, thanks to an unusual Japanese curry. The flattened chicken breast is battered, fried and coated in a chili oil and spice blend. Hillis likens the pizza crust to “an augmented focaccia.”

Fermentation? Orlando Meats’ corned beef sandwich swaps sauerkraut for kimchi, a Korean pickled cabbage. “Says Hillis: “Kimchi is a different cabbage and has a different flavor profile, but otherwise kimchi and sauerkraut are very, very close.” The corned beef is pickled in-house, of course. 

Hillis and his team have two other ventures going at the same time: Red Panda (Instagram
@redpandanoodle) is an Asian-themed pop-up restaurant that shows up roughly once a month outside local bars and serves several creative noodle dishes plus a composed salad and a dessert.

Separately, the culinarians hire themselves out as caterers to locals who want 18- to 20-course gourmet dinners for small groups served in their homes. “I adore incredibly overly indulgent Michelin behavior,” says Hillis, referring to the world-renowned Michelin restaurant guidebooks. 

Well, I’ve run out of room for more food details. I’ll skip the fancifully presented corn dogs with mozzarella — containing gooey cheese and swirled sauces — which are better for photographing than for eating. 

Ditto for the nice-enough chicken and waffles, although the chefs deserve kudos for the shredded brownie inside the waffle batter plus the French-style whipped cream on top.

Chicken pizza is an apt place to end. The personal-size pie is so spicy, thanks to an unusual Japanese curry, that I preferred it the next day, when the heat level had simmered down. The flattened chicken breast is battered, fried and coated in a chili oil and spice blend. Hillis likens the pizza crust to “an augmented focaccia.” I’ll be back for this as well as for the more traditional pizzas on the menu.

Orlando Meats’ chefs geek out on every detail and we get the benefit of their geekiness. We can stroll in, order at the counter and soon have a hot meal that seems simple but is really fancy-pants — if you know what goes into making it. 

Orlando Meats
1035 Orlando Avenue, No. 105
Winter Park
407-598-0700
orlandomeats.com

Art can be outdoors, too, even in and around swimming pools (above left). Hanging near the deep end is an untitled painting and floating in the water is Iris the Balloon Dog, both by Marla E, who was named Seminole County’s Artist of the Year in 2016. If the subject in the portraits (above right) looks familiar, then perhaps you’ve seen him around town. They’re of Mark Cosgrove, painted by Orlando artist Theo Lotz of Flying Horse Editions.

TOO MUCH ART? NO SUCH THING

Photography by Rafael Tongol

The Winter Park home of Laura and Mark Cosgrove is packed floor to ceiling with the most eclectic collection imaginable, including The Triumph of Samson Over the Philistines by an unknown artist after Guido Reni, an Italian painter of the Baroque period.

Works of art so permeate the Winter Park home of Mark and Laura Cosgrove that it’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s art and what’s not.

Those paintings and drawings hanging on the walls (or propped against them) are obviously art. But that dress draped over a mannequin? Also art. That inflatable dog floating in the swimming pool? Again, art. 

Those books lining the shelves? Mostly (but not necessarily) art. Those molded-plastic chairs placed in one of three themed gardens in the backyard? Art, but you’re nonetheless encouraged to sit on them. 

And those dainty cookies on the kitchen counter? Not art, so you’re welcome to have one. “I tried once to catalogue our collection on a spreadsheet,” says Laura with a sigh. “I just never finished it. One of these days we will.” 

Mark, founder of Cosgrove & Company, an investment banking firm based in Winter Park, and Laura, an attorney who heads the arts and entertainment division of éclat Law, a legal practice based in Altamonte Springs, became acquainted when they found themselves attending the same fundraisers, auctions, exhibitions and events such as Art Basel in Miami.

The couple married — and merged their burgeoning collections — in 2006, when Mark was 47 and Laura was 41. It was the first marriage for both. “That’s because we wanted to wait and get it right,” jokes Mark.

It’s nice, of course, to share a hobby with one’s spouse. But the Cosgroves are certainly more than hobbyists. Yet, they aren’t investors, either. They buy art that they like simply for the joy of having it in their home and in their lives.

You can’t turn around (or sit down) at the Cosgroves’ without encountering art. The image topping the fireplace (top) is Butungatanatulu by Cristina de Middel, a Spanish documentary photographer. The print hanging from the shelves to the right is Women with Amphora by groundbreaking French artist Henri Matisse. A backyard sculpture garden (center left) features intriguing (and usable) Magis Spun Chairs by Thomas Heatherwick. Elsewhere you might happen upon a circa-1960s drawing by Pablo Picasso (center) or an other-worldly roof fragment from a Spirit House in Borneo (center right). Walls are adorned by Family Hands of Fatima by Marla E (above left) and Spots Flying Off Dalmatian by Gandee Vasan (above right_, a painter and photographer from Sri Lanka. Most surfaces in the home are laden with art, including sculptures, glassware and whimsical objects that all have stories to tell.

A native of Buffalo, New York, Mark graduated from the State University of New York in Geneseo, where he majored in history and political science, and moved to Central Florida in 1982, where he earned an MBA from the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College. 

He then became an investment banker in Miami and CFO of a company that pioneered CAD (computer animated drawing) for architects and building designers. In 1988 he returned to Central Florida, founding Cosgrove & Company and later becoming a partner in Capital Strategies, which specializes in mergers and acquisitions.

His various ventures prospered, but Mark had been collecting art for years. Due to the nature of his business, he says, funds tended to come in lump sums — especially early in his career. A windfall of any size was almost always followed by an art-buying binge.

“When I had money, I started buying whatever I could afford, but I never looked at it like an investment,” adds Mark, a philosophy that may sound incongruous coming from someone who made his living seeking lucrative investment opportunities. “It was always just about the art.”

Laura, on the other hand, is a third-generation Central Floridian. She attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she majored in political science, and then the University of Florida’s College of Law, after which she served as a clerk with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

She later joined Eidson Insurance — founded in 1943 by her grandfather, George — and rose through the ranks to become president and CEO. The agency was sold to Marsh & McLennan, one of the world’s largest insurance brokers, in 2012.

In 2018, Laura joined éclat Law, where the firm’s arts orientation — there’s a gallery in its lobby and its clients are drawn heavily from the creative sector — seemed ideal for an empathetic attorney who understood what artists needed to be successful. 

You can’t pigeonhole the Cosgroves, who also own a “Souper Dress” by Andy Warhol. Laura Cosgrove actually wore the dress once — although it’s usually displayed on a mannequin.

Laura enjoyed accumulating nature-focused, wildlife-related art, and says that the most meaningful work she ever bought was a painting of a giraffe while she was on a wildlife tour in Kenya. 

She can’t remember the name of the artist, who was an obscure local who sold his work at a roadside stand. But such a lapse is understandable for someone who’s more interested in art that pleases her than art that might impress the cognoscente with its pedigree.

Which isn’t to say that you won’t find works by famous creators — plenty of them — in the Cosgrove collection. Much of what they’ve accumulated — and continue to accumulate during vacation jaunts planned around gallery and museum excursions — is on display, although much is also stored away for lack of space. 

“We always have certain things we’re looking for,” says Mark. “But most of the things we buy we just happen to see and like — things that weren’t even on our radar. That keeps the hunt fresh.”

Consequently, the Cosgrove home contains paintings in all genres: drawings and etchings, works in glass, sculptures both classical and modern — and even a notable piece of clothing. 

For example, that dress we mentioned earlier is an Andy Warhol “Souper Dress,” silk-screened with Campbell’s Soup cans. Laura even wore this highly collectible example of pop art ephemera once and it fit perfectly — although it’s obviously too valuable to wear while enjoying a spaghetti dinner. 

Indeed, roaming from room to room at the Cosgroves’ is like taking a survey course on the history of art. There are paintings and drawings by Degas, Matisse, Picasso and Rembrandt, among many others whose names would be familiar even to casual viewers. 

The collection even includes a Yoko Ono creation, a small object wrapped by Christo and a vivid oil-on-canvas landscape from one of the Highwaymen, a cadre of African American painters who sold their works from the trunks of their cars back in the 1950s.

There’s no genre that the Cosgroves shun, but they gravitate toward works on paper. Mark’s favorite piece, he says after due consideration, is a gouache-on-paper piece by Alexander Calder. (“It has sentimental value,” he notes.) Or, on second thought, perhaps it’s an assortment of stencils by Henri Matisse. Who knows? It’s like asking parents which child they prefer. 

Both Cosgroves place French impressionist Claude Monet atop their respective lists. “He’s the master of light, color and impressionist composition,” notes Laura. “Plus, we’ve attended many exhibitions of his work and his settings are some of our favorite places to travel — France, London, Venice.”

When they explore arts fairs, Mark is always on the lookout for works by conceptual artist John Baldessari, who died in 2020. Laura is a fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988 and whose current exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art is the subject of an authenticity controversy. 

Although Basquiat prices make it unlikely she’ll ever own one of his works — a piece sold for $110 million in 2017 — Mark did recently present his wife with a Basquiat-imprinted dress, which she proudly rocked at a party celebrating the 2022 Winter Park Spring Sidewalk Art Festival.

As for currently active local artists, Mark likes the work of painter and photographer Peterson J. Guerrier, whose work has been displayed at CityArts in Orlando among other regional venues.

Laura is an admirer of paper and fiber artist Kelly Joy Ladd. The University of Central Florida graduate originally worked in oils but switched mediums after her husband developed a severe allergy to the chemicals in paint.

The Cosgroves are also aficionados of themed gardening. Their magical backyard consists of a Sculpture Garden, a Moroccan Garden and an Asian and European Garden, all interconnected by pathways. That means you’ll enter a different world around every bend. 

Art can be outdoors, too, even in and around swimming pools (above left). Hanging near the deep end is an untitled painting and floating in the water is Iris the Balloon Dog, both by Marla E, who was named Seminole County’s Artist of the Year in 2016. If the subject in the portraits (above right) looks familiar, then perhaps you’ve seen him around town. They’re of Mark Cosgrove, painted by Orlando artist Theo Lotz of Flying Horse Editions.

And peeking (sometimes subtly and sometimes not) from behind exotic plants and shrubs are works of art — often sculptures — that add to the ambiance. (Laura designed the Asian and European Garden after taking a pandemic-era Zoom course on gardening from Cornell University.)

As you might expect, the Cosgroves are involved in numerous arts-oriented organizations. Although both are members of the National Arts Club in New York, most of their volunteerism — arts-related and otherwise — is local.

Laura is advancement director for the Friends of the Mennello Museum of American Art and co-chair of the museum’s major capital campaign to expand its facility in Loch Haven Cultural Park. 

And she’s one of four co-founders of the Foundation for Foster Children, a nonprofit started in 2008 to improve opportunities for children in the foster-care system. Today, the organization helps hundreds of children annually, has a staff of more than 20 and a budget of more than $3 million per year.

Mark is past chair of the Rollins Museum of Art and is a member of the board of directors of Flying Horse Editions, the fine-art press of the University of Central Florida. 

He’s also a playwright whose work has been presented at such local venues as the Blue Bamboo Center for the Fine Arts, and a trustee of the OnePulse Foundation, whose mission is to build a memorial to victims of the 2016 mass shooting at the downtown Orlando nightclub. 

Both Cosgroves are, above all else, arts advocates who believe — like many of us — that life is simply better when it nurtures and celebrates the creative spirit. But for Mark and Laura, there’s an even more personal aspect.

“We like creating a place where we love to be together,” says Laura. “And sometimes it’s not just about the art. It’s about the experiences that the art reminds us of.” 

“Winter Park’s downtown, neighborhoods and lakes serve up a daily menu of colors, shapes, light and shadows,” says artist Robert Ross, who gets many of his ideas while walking around the city. Photo courtesy of Robert Ross

WRITING’S LOSS IS PAINTING’S GAIN

“Winter Park’s downtown, neighborhoods and lakes serve up a daily menu of colors, shapes, light and shadows,” says artist Robert Ross, who gets many of his ideas while walking around the city. Photo courtesy of Robert Ross

Robert Ross gets most of his ideas for paintings during his daily walks. “Winter Park’s downtown, neighborhoods and lakes serve up a daily menu of colors, shapes, light and shadows,” says Ross, a native of Flint, Michigan, who majored in English and worked for 30 years in public relations. 

He had always loved art, but was determined for years to become an author. He chose to concentrate on painting after finding it difficult to sell poems and short fiction.

A life drawing class with Rima Jabbur at the Crealdé School of Art — where Ross is now an instructor — and landscape painting workshops with Philadelphia-based modernist Stuart Shils persuaded him to become an artist full time in 2013, after he retired from his job as an editor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. 

Since then, collectors have discovered Ross’s distinctive, often geometrically themed images at festivals and galleries throughout Florida. He’s also a regular at the Winter Park Paint Out, a plein air event sponsored by the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, and has been an award winner at the Winter Park Autumn Art Festival.

In 2020, Ross’s paintings were featured in an exhibition, Unique Perspectives: Paintings by Robert Ross, at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach. That same year, the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland displayed two of his oil-on-canvas creations during a pandemic-themed online exhibition entitled Hindsight 2020: Art of This Moment.

Ross, whose works often depict buildings or details of buildings, says he’s “especially drawn to the interaction of man-made structures with trees and the sky. In fact, the spaces between things often become the focus of my paintings.”

This issue’s cover image, which for Ross marks a bit of a departure, was the result of a walk with his wife, Claudia Thomas (also a painter), through the campus of Rollins College. “It’s our favorite place along our route,” he says.

There Ross saw several members of the college sailing team bringing in their boats after a sojourn on Lake Virginia. “I took photos of two of them working at the dock, which I found more interesting than a typical view of sailors on the water,” he says. Ross based the painting, entitled Striking the Sails, on the photos.

Ross has maintained a studio at McRae Art Studios in Orlando for the past decade. To see more of his work, visit robertrossart.com.

Abby Ober, in town for the Winter Park Paint Out, didn’t have to look far for a gorgeous setting. She just set up her easel behind the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, which sponsors the annual event.

HOME, SWEET HOME (FOR YOUR BOAT)

Abby Ober, in town for the Winter Park Paint Out, didn’t have to look far for a gorgeous setting. She just set up her easel behind the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, which sponsors the annual event.

Cover artist Abby Ober today lives and works in St. Michaels, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay. But she graduated from Rollins College in 1984 with a degree in fine art and has a special place in her heart for Winter Park.

As a student, she worked as a prep chef at the Park Plaza Hotel’s restaurant, then The Palms (later Park Plaza Gardens and now Bovine, which is unaffiliated with the hotel). And she always comes back for the annual Winter Park Paint Out, sponsored by the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens.

The issue’s cover image, with the self-explanatory title of Boathouse on Lake Osceola, shows the view across the lake from the Polasek’s grounds. If the artist’s style looks familiar, it may be because we also used Ober’s painting of the Park Plaza Hotel — where she stays during visits — on the cover of the Summer 2021 issue.

Ober, a native of Illinois, spent her youth abroad as the daughter of a foreign service officer and lived in Poland, Germany, Russia, India and Greece. She dreamed of becoming an artist since childhood and attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., following her graduation from Rollins.

After a career in advertising Ober moved to Pennsylvania, where she raised two children and began teaching art to adults and children — including those with disabilities — at Wayne Art Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

She also began a career as a fine artist, painting both in her studio and at plein air events across the country. She’s looking forward to returning to Winter Park for the Polasek’s 14th annual Paint Out from April 24 through 30.

Ober’s work has been featured in exhibitions and is held in many private collections. She accepts commissions and does many personalized paintings for homes and businesses. She may be reached through her website, abbyober.com.

SEEKING THE PROMISED LAND

“My father thought art was nothing that a man did,” says Robert Rivers, a native of Alabama who lives in Maitland and has taught at UCF since 1980. “Artists were sort of suspect. Football was a priority.” Photo by Rafael Tongol

Guntersville is a small (population 8,197) city in northeastern Alabama at the southernmost point of the Tennessee River, surrounded by 61,100-acre Lake Guntersville — the largest body of water in the state.

Its residents, like most Alabamians, are religious, politically conservative and forever defined by their degree of fealty to the football teams of either the University of Alabama or Auburn University.

It’s not the sort of place that you’d expect to produce many renowned visual artists, especially those whose thought-provoking works often depict the futility of war and pay horrifying homage to mystical mythologies of different cultures. 

Guntersville did, however, produce Robert Rivers, 71, a University of Central Florida professor of art whose epic 286-panel cycle of mixed-media paintings, The Promised Land, last year won the Florida Prize in Contemporary Art. (There were just 231 panels, and only 69 on view, during the concurrent exhibition, which was held at the Orlando Museum of Art.)

“My father thought art was nothing that a man did,” recalls Rivers, who lives in Maitland and has taught at UCF since 1980. “Artists were sort of suspect. Football was a priority.” 

In that regard, young Rivers didn’t disappoint — as a tackle and a linebacker at Guntersville High School, he competed for a 1967 state championship. He was inspired, he says, by Coach Bill Oliver, who had played defensive back for the legendary Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama.

“I thought maybe I wanted to be a football coach at the time,” says Rivers, whose refined twang would be instantly recognizable to fellow refugees of Sand Mountain, the sandstone plateau on which Guntersville is partially located. “I never thought I’d be an artist. But I drew all the time — mostly horses and football players.” 

In fact, it was Rivers’s father — a former Marine fighter pilot in World War II — from whom he may have inherited his artistic talent. “My dad could draw beautifully,” says Rivers. But the family patriarch would have been sketching missiles and rockets, not tortured figures trapped in snake-infested hellscapes.

The elder Rivers was an aeronautical engineer, one of many skilled technical specialists who found homes along the shores of Lake Guntersville when they were hired to work for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, located 37 miles to the northwest. Rivers recalls visits from Wernher von Braun, a neighbor and director of the space flight center.

Much about Rivers’s adolescence seemed idyllic. But much more of his time in Guntersville could have inspired a Pat Conroy novel. His father, he says, was a heavy drinker and often abusive. His mother, he says, was an even heavier drinker who could do little to control her husband’s volatility.

GOODBYE, GUNTERSVILLE

As soon as Rivers could get out of Guntersville, he did, enrolling at Auburn in 1969 and majoring in graphic design. “I sold it to my dad as becoming a commercial artist, which sounded more practical,” recalls Rivers, who found himself drawn to printmaking. 

“Printmaking requires that you pare down and discard the nonessential,” says Rivers. “It helped me focus myself down into the little furrows I was making on the copper surface. I saw the significance of that etched line.”

Naturally the Vietnam War captured his attention, as it did most college-aged young people in the late 1960s. Rivers was horrified by the My Lai massacre, in which a company of American soldiers brutally killed most of the people — including children and the elderly — who lived in a small village. 

As a result, he created a series of drawings inspired by the tragedy and found that his fellow students — especially in the more liberal confines of the art department — admired the work’s power.

Recalls Rivers: “I went from being this big dumb jock to being an artist who was taken seriously.” It marked the first time, but certainly not the last time, that he would return to dark themes that involved armed conflict, human suffering and man’s inhumanity to man.

Among his summer jobs during his Auburn years was an animal trainer at an attraction called Jungle Larry’s in Sandusky, Ohio. An animal lover, Rivers enjoyed caring for and training elephants and monkeys — and even performing with them in shows for tourists.

Although pursuing a career as an animal trainer crossed his mind, Rivers earned a BFA from Auburn in 1973 and started a decidedly more mundane workaday job as art coordinator at the Carpet and Rug Institute in Dalton, Georgia. 

There he designed brochures, annual reports and trade show displays — and found rather quickly that he disliked commercial art. But the institute inadvertently kick-started his career as a fine artist by sending him to the Chicago Merchandise Mart, home to a gigantic annual furniture exhibition. 

Rivers found little to interest him in the displays of tables, chairs, sofas and floor coverings. But a new world opened for him when he visited the Chicago Art Institute, one of the oldest and largest art museums in the world.

“That’s the first time I’d ever set foot in a real museum,” Rivers says. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a Goya painting, other than reproduced in books.”

Francisco Goya, a Spanish romantic painter and printmaker, is considered the most important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His paintings, drawings and engravings were often of asylums, riots, executions and bizarre animal-like creatures.

Rivers had always counted Goya among his greatest influences, but seeing his work in person was transformative. Upon his return to Dalton, Rivers says, his boss asked him to draw “two carpet fibers — one that’s happy because it’s clean and the other that’s sad because it’s dirty.” 

That, Rivers recalls, was the final straw: “I applied to graduate school the next day.”

He earned a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend the School of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he also played rugby. “I burned away any remaining commercialism in my art,” Rivers says. “I wanted to get as far away from that as possible.” 

After earning an MFA in printmaking in 1977, Rivers became an assistant professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Superior for two years until coming to the University of Central Florida — which had been Florida Technological University just the year before. 

The Alabama-born artist’s creative output was impressive. He had already created a series called The Hospital Prints — jarring, Goyaesque black-and-while images inspired by his mother’s hospitalizations (she died in 1974 from cirrhosis of the liver). 

Rivers also began sculpting thickly glazed and textured ceramic heads — none of them boasting, shall we say, classically beautiful faces — and creating a series of copper-plate etchings featuring animals and figures from mythology called The War Prayer, based upon a 1905 essay of the same name by Mark Twain (see pages 28 and 29). 

As it turned out, The War Prayer series — completed between 1984 and 2010 — thematically presaged The Promised Land. But well before that magnum opus got underway, explorations of tragic death had come to define Rivers’ work — and still does.

Here are two of 286 (and counting) panels from The Promised Land, which last year won the prestigious Florida Prize in Contemporary Art. The ever-evolving work was described by Coralie Claeysen-Gleyzon, associate curator at the Orlando Museum of Art, as “at once overwhelmingly terrifying and astonishingly beautiful,”

THE PROMISED LAND

Is Rivers, then, a prototypical tortured artist? If so, it’s hard to tell. Despite the grim nature of his subject matter, he’s genial and gregarious company — not what one might expect after perusing his portfolio. And he’s always up for an adventure.

In 1995, while on sabbatical from UCF, Rivers says he succumbed to “middle-aged craziness” and trampled across remote portions of South America. There he joined a perilous expedition along the 240-mile Biobío River, which originates in south-central Chile. He also scaled the mountains of Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia.

Rivers recorded his adventures in sketchbooks, which were bound by UCF’s Flying Horse Press into a series called The Handmade Books, several of which are now part of the permanent collections at, among other institutions, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Scottish National Gallery of Art in Edinburgh, where he had been a visiting lecturer and an exchange professor.

But his paramount achievement thus far — and certainly his most expansive — is The Promised Land series, which was inspired by the 2010 death of his nephew, Thomas, a service member in Afghanistan, from the blast of an improvised explosive device.

Rivers received the tragic news from his older brother, the soldier’s father, also named Thomas. “I didn’t fully comprehend what he meant at first,” Rivers says. “They’ve lost Thomas? Well, I asked, can’t they just find him? Then I realized that he had been killed. Operation Enduring Freedom, they called it. I painted my first panel that night.”

The first image in what would become an ongoing series was of a sleeping soldier with a snake coiled around his body. 

The Promised Land, as described by Coralie Claeysen-Gleyzon, associate curator at the Orlando Museum of Art, “is at once overwhelmingly terrifying and astonishingly beautiful,” filled with ethereal wounded soldiers who journey through a barren underworld and encounter severed limbs, thorny plants, open graves and pits that may be portals to the afterlife — along with an odd assortment of mammals and reptiles.

Snakes are a continuing motif in The Promised Land, as well as in earlier works by Rivers, who traces the iconography to his upbringing on Sand Mountain. There, pockets of snake handlers still worship while dancing in the spirit and grasping writhing serpents, who sometimes lose their patience and inflict fatal bites on the faithful.

In fact, the TV news magazine Dateline NBC aired a report on northeast Alabama snake handlers in 2005. Recalls Rivers: “Steve Lotz [then chair of the UCF Art Department] saw it and said, ‘Well, Robert, that explains a lot of things about you.’”

The panels in The Promised Land — each more than 5 feet wide and nearly 3 feet tall — are rendered in graphite, red pencil, oil paint and washes made of tea and rust-colored acrylics that give the impression of dried blood.

Rivers records his ideas and travel adventures in sketchbooks (left), some of which have been bound by UCF’s Flying Horse Press into a series called The Handmade Books. A versatile multimedia artist, Rivers keeps the tools of his trade (right) in a spacious studio above his garage.

Viewed individually or en masse, the symbolism in these panels can be interpreted many ways. But Rivers says that sometimes messages are discerned in his work that he doesn’t intend to convey.

Sometimes, though, he does. He certainly doesn’t dispute Robert Croker, one of his former professors at the University of Georgia, who says: 

“[The Promised Land] is both a tribute to Thomas and a rumination of death in general, by violence in particular; the fragility and persistence of life; the uncertainty of an afterlife; the innocence of youth and the intensity with which our lives are bound to one another, regardless of the circumstance.”

Rivers does, however, dispute the notion that he harbors overarching political opinions about the 20-year war, which ended last August when President Joe Biden withdrew troops. About 2,500 American service members had died and about $2 trillion (mostly borrowed) dollars had been spent only to result in a rapid Taliban takeover.

“I definitely didn’t want to send a political message,” says Rivers — at least not about that specific war. “I just wonder why we keep sending our kids over into situations like that.” If gently pressed, he’ll go this far: “I think that once we got bin Laden, we should have gotten out of there.”

The Florida Prize in Contemporary Art, which comes with $20,000 in prize money, is awarded following an exhibition of works by the state’s 10 most progressive artists as determined by the museum’s jurors.

Last year, jurors included Aldeide Delgado, a Miami-based independent curator and founder/director of Women Photographers International Archive, and Aaron Levi Garvey, director and curator of Long Road Projects in Jacksonville and chief curator and program director of Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation in Brooklyn, New York.

Rivers earned the nod from the judges, but the $2,500 People’s Choice Award, voted on during the Florida Prize Exhibition Preview Party, was won by Orlando painter Matthew Cornell.

After he began teaching at the University of Central Florida, Rivers began sculpting thickly glazed and textured ceramic heads such as Laughing Woman. None of his sculpted works could be described as celebrations of physical beauty.

“Winning the Florida Prize was one of the best nights of my life,” says Rivers. “A beautiful museum with beautiful people. It was a fantastic honor, and I was overwhelmed.” 

Rivers was also overwhelmed by an unexpected appearance at the ceremonies by his brother, Thomas, whose son is memorialized in The Promised Land. “I didn’t know he was that good,” commented Thomas after viewing his brother’s display.

Rivers’s art has been displayed all over the world, and selected collections are housed in the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery, both located in Washington, D.C. His work can also be found in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Gallery of Art in Edinburgh, Scotland.

These days, Rivers continues to teach — he was relieved to have mastered the technology required to teach remotely, which is hardly ideal for art instruction — and continues to turn out Promised Land panels from his spacious second-floor garage studio attached to his home in Maitland. 

Rivers, who rekindled a lifelong love for horses, began riding jumpers in 1997. Through his interest in horses, he met Peggy Stevens and the pair married in 2008. Together, they operate Brookmore Farms, a horse boarding and training facility in the Lake Howell area of unincorporated Winter Park.

In fact, at press time he was recovering from a near-disastrous accident in which the horse he was riding fell on him and broke his collarbone, then trampled his hand with its hoof. Luckily, none of the small bones were broken.

Just as important to Rivers, though, the horse was uninjured. “As for me,” he says, “I just forced myself to paint with my left hand for a while.” 


Twain wrote the The War Prayer in 1905, but it wasn’t published until 1916.

‘BLAST THEIR HOPES, BLIGHT THEIR LIVES’

The War Prayer series was inspired by a controversial Mark Twain story.

One of Robert Rivers’s most powerful series of prints was inspired by The War Prayer, a short story (or prose poem) written by Mark Twain in 1905 but not published until 1916, six years after the iconic and irascible writer’s death.

Twain, who usually thought nothing about speaking his mind regardless of who might take offense, knew that this scathing indictment of blind patriotic and religious fervor would stir up a career-damaging frenzy. So he chose not to publish it in his lifetime.

“I have told the whole truth in [The War Prayer],” Twain told a friend. “Only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.”

The story’s premise: An unnamed country goes to war — perhaps, it has been speculated, the Spanish-American War — and dutiful citizens attend a church service to call upon God to grant them victory and protect their troops. 

Suddenly, an “aged stranger” appears and announces that he is God’s messenger. He tells the congregation that he has been sent to speak aloud the second (but unspoken) part of their prayer — the part that wishes suffering and destruction on the enemy. 

What follows is a gruesome description of the horrors of war, spoken in the pious language of a preacher beseeching the Almighty. Writes Twain, upon the prayer’s conclusion: “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”

Rivers first heard The War Prayer on PBS in 1981, when it was dramatized in The Private History of a Campaign That Failed, a fictionalized account of Twain’s brief stint as a Confederate soldier. The prayer was spoken by actor Edward Herrmann.

“I was just blown away by the language,” says Rivers. “I went to the library to find a copy. I used some of the lines from the poem as titles for my prints. The sentiments really spoke to me.”

One of Robert Rivers’s most powerful series of prints was inspired by The War Prayer, an essay written by Mark Twain in 1905. Although the writer typically cared little about offending readers, he chose not to publish The War Prayer in his lifetime because he knew that it would cause a furor. Rivers first heard the work on PBS in 1981. “I was just blown away by the language,” says Rivers. “The sentiments really spoke to me.” Monsoon (above left), Hercules at Rest (above right) and Bouncing Betty (below) are part of the artist’s War Prayer series.


The War Prayer was first published in Harper’s Magazine — as World War I raged — and remains in print today, as relevant as ever. It is considered to be one of the most powerful antiwar commentaries ever written and presages Rivers’s Promised Land series.

THE WAR PRAYER

Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it. For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

While many omakase restaurants stick to Japanese specialties, Soseki has no such rule. Several courses, however, are single-sushi creations. Beverage pairings are available, as are wines and sakes by the glass or bottle.

CLASS WITH SOME SASS

Photography By Julia Fletcher and 86 Media Company

Michael Collantes is chef and co-owner (with his wife, Jahaziel) of Soseki, a tiny restaurant that serves seriously creative cuisine with a heaping helping of good humor.

The snobby yet respectable Michelin Guide will rate Orlando-area restaurants soon. The prestigious, red-covered book reviews the food and the ambiance, of course. But its notoriously persnickety judges also take note of everything that enhances the dining experience — including the tiniest service details. 

They’ll find a plethora of special touches at Soseki, a subdued Winter Park restaurant with a bold reputation. You might arrive in your night-out finest expecting a hushed multicourse gourmet experience. You’ll get that, of course, but with a dash of humor to lighten the serious culinary hijinks. This place is worth a splurge.

Upon being seated at one of Soseki’s 10 seats, which face the open kitchen where chefs artfully plate the food as you watch, you’ll feel as though you’re in a very formal place. At least I did — so much so that I was judgy about one couple’s ratty casual apparel. 

Yet by the second of 16 courses, when a heavily tattooed Asian chef with spiky orange hair bellowed food descriptions — with jokes — it became clear to me that Soseki is fun, not frou-frou.

“Her name is Rio,” the chef thundered, naming the cleverly titled dish that he said was developed around foie gras along with Brazilian flavors and textures. 

And there was this: “Microphone Czech One Two,” the punny moniker for a stunning course with Eastern European influences that features the world’s creamiest egg yolk and a bitter bite of sauerkraut along with a marvelous mushroom soup. 

I think, in truth, I only caught about a third of what this culinarian, who calls himself Chef de Cuisine CJ, said; his Japanese accent is thick. I later reviewed my written notes and listened to an audio file (on slow playback), and still couldn’t understand very much. (I fact-checked with other team members later.) 

I did manage to pick out the words, “cracker, potato, garlic, onions, caraway seeds and mushrooms” — or maybe it was “Madonna,” but I doubt it — and “finishing with a sour cream.” 

It didn’t matter. Not a tad. Chef CJ was hilarious, and his food was daring and delicious. I mean, how many times do you murmur to your dining companion, “Did you taste that egg? I mean, did you taste that egg?”

A savory dish dubbed Thufferin’ Thuccotash consists of duck meat flavored with baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend, along with succotash and corn espuma — a chef-made foam.

The creativity, the presentation, even the patter — they’re all part of the plan at Soseki, a year-old restaurant owned by Chef Michael Collantes and his wife, Jahaziel, who handles the books, decor and other non-food elements of the operation.

Collantes started out in New Jersey, visiting Florida every summer until relocating to Winter Park at age 13 and graduating from Winter Park High School. Both Collanteses are second-generation Filipino Americans and parents to a pair of young children. 

The couple also owns the way-more-casual counter-serve concept Taglish, which earlier this year opened its second Orlando-area outlet. And they have plans to keep expanding their empire — and Orlando’s culinary offerings. 

If that weren’t enough, these super-busy millennials also run 86 Media and On the Site Media, providers of videos and such for construction and real estate companies.

Hidden in an enclave behind Fairbanks Avenue with an entrance tucked into a parking lot between Wine Barn and Austin’s Coffee, Soseki is a destination for fine dining — but with spunk.

“These are our real personalities,” Collantes says. “Yes, we polish up the scripts of what we’re saying about each dish because, of course, this is a little bit of a performance. We want to be high-end, to present luxury without pretentiousness. We want guests to feel taken care of, as they would at a dinner party.”

Those scripts aren’t the only polished pieces of the Soseki puzzle. There are drawers at each seat filled with an assortment of attractive forks, spoons and chopsticks so visitors can choose their own utensils. 

“Down to the last detail, we want this to be an immersive experience,” adds Collantes. “We want there to be something to talk about on the way home, such as, ‘Oh, did you see the little birthday card they snuck into the drawer?’” 

A fun, funky mix of carefully curated music adds to the atmosphere. You’ll hear lively jazz followed by an “of-the-moment mingling of deep classics and dish-specific surprises,” says General Manager and Beverage Director Benjamin Coutts. Hey, details matter. Soseki is what’s known as an omakase restaurant, kind of like Kadence in the Audubon Park Garden District. A Japanese word, omakase is translated as “entrust,” and in this context means “chef’s choice.”

The intermezzo dish (above), meant to shake things up halfway through the repast, included a transforming “parsnip milkshake” in the bowl with toffee, orange, a ring of dried parsnip and an oblong cookie called langue de chat. “Microphone Czech One Two” (below) is the moniker for a stunning course with Eastern European influences that features the world’s creamiest egg yolk and a bitter bite of sauerkraut along with a marvelous mushroom soup.

Meals are prepared in view of the two handfuls of diners that the space can accommodate, all of whom are seated on the opposite side of a long counter. Everyone eats the same fancy-schmancy dishes. Beverage pairings are available, as are wines and sakes by the glass or bottle.

While many omakase restaurants stick to Japanese specialties, Soseki has no such rule. Several courses, however, are single-sushi creations. And very interesting ones at that.

Among those sampled during our recent visit included a slice of toro with soy, buri and sansyo, which is ground dried leaves of the prickly ash tree. That’s the same tree that produces Szechwan peppercorns. 

Another sushi offering was a lean and delicate shima aji — also known as horse mackerel — with a garlic ponzu dressing. Beyond that, you’ll be taken on a culinary expedition crossing borders, even continents, in the most exotic and intriguing of ways.

The final savory dish, dubbed Thufferin’ Thuccotash! (yep, another pun), involved duck meat flavored with baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend, along with succotash and corn espuma — a chef-made foam. 

The intermezzo dish, meant to shake things up halfway through the repast, included a transforming “parsnip milkshake” in the bowl with toffee, orange, a ring of dried parsnip and an oblong cookie called langue de chat.

My takeaway: Don’t try to understand the food at Soseki — just eat and enjoy.

I could go on, describing all 16 dishes served during our sitting, but never mind. Your menu will be different. The Soseki chefs change it up every month and use locally raised ingredients and fish caught in Florida. 

“We found someone who’s absolutely passionate about sourcing and dispatching local fish in the proper way, so we’re getting some of the freshest fish ever,” says Collantes.

Calling the entire process “collaborative,” he adds that the small team’s different backgrounds make for joyous culinary surprises. “I would never have thought to pair red wine with the last fish courses, for example.” 

That was Coutts’s idea, he says, as was using custom ceramic plateware and weighty spoons: “You don’t know why it feels better, but just something about the weight of the spoon makes it feel like, ‘Wow!’”

Upon being seated at one of Soseki’s 10 seats, which face the open kitchen where chefs artfully plate the food as you watch, you’ll feel as though you’re in a very formal place. Soon, though, you’ll realize that the restaurant is more fun than frou-frou.

There are more small but impressive extras. For example, each guest receives a logoed plastic pouch in which to store face masks during the meal. And the florist who operates the area’s Pick Me Up Flower Truck has offered to provide flower arrangements with a Japanese aesthetic. 

“We’re just building these connections with local partners who can cast a vision for us,” says Collantes. “For a little restaurant, it’s really exciting.” 

Collantes studied culinary arts at Valencia College and traveled around the country during four years with the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group. He has worked in kitchens led by Joël Robuchon and Eric Ripert, among others. He was also culinary director for The Bento Group, which operates more than 20 Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi
restaurants throughout Florida.

Chef CJ, whose real name is Tadateru Tokudaiji, has a longer culinary CV, with stops at more than 210 restaurants, several of which boast Michelin stars, in 35 countries. (“I’m Japanese, but I don’t cook Japanese,” he points out.)

The two men had crossed paths over the years, and Collantes was thrilled to snag the “quiet legend in the fine-dining scene” for Soseki. The well-traveled chef was attracted to the idea of creating a small restaurant where inventive dishes are prepared from scratch. Others on staff are happy to handle the raw fish.

Business has been good. Good enough, in fact, that the Collanteses have upgraded their floor — originally slathered with garage paint — to a sleek natural stone that complements the light woods. 

The clientele consists of people who don’t mind paying $225 per person plus tax and tip, and another $75 for the optional beverage pairing. There are even regulars for whom special-occasion pricing is applicable any random night of the week. 

But don’t try to call for reservations. You can’t, because there’s no public phone number. Reservations must be made online at sosekifl.com.

While many omakase restaurants stick to Japanese specialties, Soseki has no such rule. Several courses, however, are single-sushi creations. Beverage pairings are available, as are wines and sakes by the glass or bottle.

While Collantes is clearly proud of his Winter Park roots, he delights in hearing guests exclaim that when they’re at Soseki, they feel as though they’re no longer in Central Florida.

“When people couldn’t travel during the pandemic, they were missing these types of experiences. The best compliment to me is, ‘This place feels like I’m in San Francisco, or New York.’”

Yet, it’s just minutes from home. 


Soseki
955 West Fairbanks Avenue, Winter Park
sosekifl.com

Sanderson says his paintings reflect how he sees the world. If that’s the case, then his world is a vibrant place indeed. Notes the artist, who lives in Lake County but finds inspiration in Winter Park: “I just paint whatever brings me happiness.”

BOLD AND UNBRIDLED BRUSHWORK

Sanderson says his paintings reflect how he sees the world. If that’s the case, then his world is a vibrant place indeed. Notes the artist, who lives in Lake County but finds inspiration in Winter Park: “I just paint whatever brings me happiness.”

Edward Sanderson Jr. sold plenty of paintings during the Winter Park Autumn Art Festival, held last October. Buyers were drawn to his buoyantly colorful cityscapes, many of which depicted downtown Winter Park.

Among the many attendees drawn to Sanderson’s display was Theresa Swanson, group publisher and director of sales for Winter Park Magazine, who purchased a print and asked the artist about his career.

Sanderson, a 54-year-old resident of Clermont, said his paintings had been adopted as the official posters for art festivals in Casselberry, Celebration, Heathrow and West Palm Beach. 

His goals, he added, included creating the official poster for the spring Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival and having his art featured on the cover of Winter Park Magazine.

“Well,” said Swanson, who had not yet identified herself. “I can’t help you with the first goal, but I’m pretty sure I can help you with the second one.” One thing led to another, and soon Sanderson’s painting entitled Wish You Were Here, a depiction of sidewalk diners on Park Avenue, was selected for the magazine’s fall issue.

Although he lives on acreage in Lake County, Sanderson says “I never fail to be inspired when I come to Winter Park.” Something about the city’s ambiance, Sanderson says, lends itself to his dynamic compositions and fearless use of color.

A native of Philadelphia, Sanderson moved to Altamonte Springs with his family at age 5, the youngest of four siblings. He was inspired to pursue art by his father, a BellSouth executive who was also a master model builder. He went on to earn an A.A. degree from Valencia College and to enroll in UCF with the intention of studying painting.

But formal art education quickly went by the wayside when Sanderson was hired to sketch pastel portraits for tourists at Walt Disney World, where an artist who was fast and could churn out a good likeness might haul in hundreds of dollars per day. 

However, when Sanderson’s mother died of cancer in 2001, he turned his focus to fine art and entered the festival circuit. By 2007, he was selected as the poster artist for the Celebration Art Festival. 

Sanderson would go on to complete nine more hot-selling official posters for local festivals, and to attract a national and international following of serious collectors as well as people who just felt better when they saw his ebullient contemporary impressionistic images adorning the walls of their homes and offices. 

“It’s the color,” he says. “I’m not afraid to use it. If my work was photo realistic, I’d feel like a human copy machine. My paintings are interpretations of how I see the world, where I prefer to use bold and unbridled brushwork without regard to reality. I just paint whatever brings me happiness.”

Many local artists know Sanderson already. Since 2010, he has been the senior framing manager at Sam Flax in Orlando, the building on East Colonial Drive that looks as though it was assembled from Legos. It’s a major purveyor of art supplies and an unofficial gathering place for artists of all genres.

“We’re all artists here in one form or another,” says Sanderson. “I’m surrounded by creative people and surrounded by beautiful art every day. “I love to mentor and encourage young artists who come in.” 

In addition to daily immersion in an arts-oriented environment, Sanderson says his work is energized by his wife, Christi, “who inspires me to be a better artist and a better person.” The couple has two children: Emily, 13, and Edward Jr., 15.

“I invite the viewer to look at life on a daily basis as a gift filled with fleeting moments,” Sanderson says. “In this sometimes-tumultuous world of uncertainty and darkness, I encourage the world to seek out the beauty that we’re blessed with each day, often found in ordinary places.”

Art, Sanderson notes, is “cheaper than therapy” for both creators and consumers. To see if you agree, visit originalsbyhenderson.com.

With roots in ancient Chinese medicine, qigong is practiced by adherents — Artt among them — for exercise, relaxation and overall health. Some studies have shown that qigong does appear to lessen chronic fatigue and improve mood disorders such as depression. Artt believes that qigong, which is introduced in The Guardians of Peace, can be especially effective for overstressed children.

A VIDEO GAME FOR THE SOUL

Artt, a technologically challenged grandmother, became alarmed at the rise in violence among young people. So she decided to do something about it by creating The Guardians of Peace, a science fiction adventure game with all the high-tech bells and whistles but rooted in traditional meditation and healing techniques. Photo by Blakesberg Photography

This is the unlikely story of a video game creator who readily admits to being technologically challenged and whose only video game acquaintance is with Pac-Man, that hungry yellow orb who did nothing more than chomp his way through a maze with multihued ghosts in hot pursuit. 

Could Pac-Man now really be 30 years old?

Even when Nintendo’s mustachioed Mario burst onto the scene several years later, Debbie Petry Artt says, “We wanted our kids outside doing stuff” rather than sitting inside, playing video games. “We kind of saw, even back then, that it wasn’t a good idea to have them get addicted to that.” 

Fast forward a few decades. As the value of the global gaming market approached $200 billion, Artt, a 63-year-old grandmother, came to realize that video games could be used for good. 

Horrified by increasing gun violence, and especially shaken by school shootings, she wanted to share a story that taught children about love and kindness and how to be the very best version of themselves. 

So she created The Guardians of Peace, a science fiction adventure game that she describes as a response to violence and an alternative to games that “provide a blueprint for teaching children how to take a gun and blow heads off.”

The story underpinning the game, which gradually took shape on the pages of a composition notebook, describes the positive energies of strength, passion, life, love, mind, sight and spirit battling the opposing forces of laziness, fear, hate, poison, ignorance, lies and cruelty.

Not sure how to proceed but believing that what she had could be impactful, Artt tucked the story away for safekeeping. Until one evening about two years ago, over Mexican food and a sangria at a local restaurant, when she described the concept to her friend Holly Camorata, a real estate salesperson and a former public-school teacher.

As it turned out, Camorata had contact information for someone in the gaming industry: Bret Wright, a Full Sail University graduate who in 2013 had earned a master’s degree in game design. In 2019, Wright started Toolshed LLC, a small (15 employees) company based in Cut Bank, Montana, that produces apps and video games. 

The tech whiz — who had worked as a designer and content director for several game developers prior to starting his own company — spoke on the phone with Artt. He was intrigued with what he heard. 

Three days later, they met in person at Artt’s home. “I showed him my little composition notebook,” Artt recalls. “He read the story and said, ‘I love this. Let me take it back to my video game world and show everybody.’” 

Wright, from his studio in Cut Bank, says his involvement with The Guardians of Peace has offered a welcome change of pace. “Most of my career has been working on, maybe not ultra-violent, but violent stuff,” he says. 

Adds Wright: “We definitely feel the need every day to get this out. I truly believe it will help kids cope with things like division, hate, racism and bullying — among other issues we all face daily.”

The Guardians of Peace story revolves around nine key words — purpose, gratitude, love, meditate, soul, energy, qigong, blessing, kind — and a young squire’s quest to become a Guardian of Peace. The game’s mentors — including one modeled on Artt — are inspired by her family members.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR QI

Artt subsequently contracted with Tool Shed to develop the game, which she hopes will change the world in part by exposing young players to qigong (pronounced chee-gong), a system of coordinated body-posture and movement, breathing and meditation. 

With roots in ancient Chinese medicine, qigong is practiced by adherents — Artt among them — for exercise, relaxation and overall health. Integrative medicine specialist Dr. Yufang Lin of the Cleveland Clinic says that qigong does appear to lessen chronic fatigue and improve mood disorders such as depression.

“According to traditional Chinese medicine principles, a person’s qi (energy) must flow throughout the body in order for people to feel their best,” Lin adds. “If qi becomes stagnant in a certain area, health problems can occur.”

The Guardians of Peace, designed for kids ages 6 through 12, launched its first episode as a free app available through the Apple App Store for iOS, Google Play for Android and Steam for PC. More than 100,000 games were downloaded and positive player reviews piled up.

Two other episodes followed, including a Spanish version. Soon The Guardians of Peace will be available for purchase through Playstation and Xbox. Artt says a game with Chinese subtitles is also in the works, as well as revised iterations aimed at older players.

CONQUER WITH KINDNESS

The story revolves around nine key words — purpose, gratitude, love, meditate, soul, energy, qigong, blessing, kind — and a young squire’s quest to become a Guardian of Peace. The game’s mentors — including one modeled on Artt — are inspired by her family members.  

The squire — players may choose “Diego” or “Sienna” — must pass the Seven Sacred Trials, waging epic battles to save the kingdom of Hastina-Poora and vanquish Commander Selfish and his menacing darklings once and for all.  

Special enhancements to the squire’s abilities can be added along the way by pausing to join the monks in meditation. That’s how qigong is introduced. “I think it will help with our drug epidemic,” says Artt. “If you find your purpose, you don’t have to numb your feelings.”

Though the accent is likely to provide a clue, Artt grew up on Long Island, New York, one of three children of Bill and Faith Petry, whom she remembers as “the golden ticket when it comes to parents.”

Tech whiz Bret Wright, a Full Sail University graduate with a master’s degree in game design, had worked as a designer and content director for several game developers prior to starting Tool Shed LLC, based in Cut Bank, Montana. Wright was intrigued with Artt’s idea and sympathetic to her mission. “We definitely feel the need every day to get this out,” he says. “I truly believe it will help kids cope with things like division, hate, racism and bullying — among other issues we all face daily.”

After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Bill Petry returned home and took a job working alongside United Parcel Service founder Jim Casey. Petry, capitalizing on a ground-floor opportunity, was instrumental in helping open new UPS hubs around the country before he retired at age 55. 

Artt’s parents celebrated 69 years of marriage before her father died in 2014. Her mother followed in 2019. The opening screen on The Guardians of Peace is dedicated to the couple, “who taught me that love can conquer all obstacles.”

Clearly, being a video game entrepreneur is not for the weak of knee or the shallow of pocket. Wright, while not revealing Artt’s investment in Guardians of Peace, says that comparable games — with polished graphics, a large cast of characters and a multilayered story — could easily cost seven figures to develop.

Artt, though, will only say that it’s the message, not the money, that really matters. Her successful career in real estate — and “the empire built on love and kindness” by her parents — has allowed her to pursue projects that capture her passion. And her three daughters, who live in three different states, have all pitched in.

Daughter Sydney Artt helps make business decisions, while daughter Jenna Zell, a qigong instructor, wrote the game’s meditations. Daughter Amanda Pate, whose Almost Naked Swimwear was featured on the cover of last August’s Sports Illustrated, is designing a “Faith Collection” of clothing and jewelry inspired by the game.

Jenna, Artt says, started the family on a spiritual journey about a decade ago when she battled anxiety and depression. Seeking answers, she discovered books and videos by inspirational author Panache Desai and qigong master Robert Peng. 

“Jenna started coming back to us with information about energy healing and meditation,” says Artt, who believes that her video game venture is divinely inspired. “It took us years to really jump on board with her.”

Judging by the celebrity endorsements on Artt’s Facebook page — sandwiched as they are between proud mama and doting grandma moments — the message is resonating. 

If there’s any doubt, just listen to the video testimonials from, among others, Jon Bon Jovi, Priscilla Presley, Deepak Chopra, Drew Pinsky (“Dr. Drew”) and Artt’s good friend and gym buddy singer Dion DiMucci. 

“Give me something of substance and you’ll entertain me all day long,” says DiMucci, who is perhaps best remembered for “Abraham, Martin and John,” a plaintive megahit in 1968. “This app instills real good stuff in your soul, if you know what I mean.”

For someone who thought she was entering retirement, Artt finds that her world has become very busy over the past couple of years. But if anyone can keep all the plates spinning it’s Artt, who splits her time between homes in Winter Park, Boca Raton and Costa Rica.

With roots in ancient Chinese medicine, qigong is practiced by adherents — Artt among them — for exercise, relaxation and overall health. Some studies have shown that qigong does appear to lessen chronic fatigue and improve mood disorders such as depression. Artt believes that qigong, which is introduced in The Guardians of Peace, can be especially effective for overstressed children.

“When you find your purpose, you know,” she says. “It just feels so good what I’m doing.” She does, however, believe that it’s important to take care of herself first. 

She begins each morning by checking in with her kids. Then she settles in for her spirituality and meditation practices, followed by celery juice and a cup of herbal tea. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, it’s off to the gym. 

Other mornings, she indulges a previously unrealized fondness for tennis, a game she began playing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Very much in character for Artt, her love of the game led her to open a tennis camp for underprivileged children in Costa Rica. 

What lies ahead for The Guardians of Peace? “I won’t stop until it’s a ride at Disney,” says Artt, who also has long-range visions of creating meditation centers for children and seeing the concepts that underpin the game taught in schools. 

After all, anything’s possible. One can almost hear Artt’s voice in the game as mentor Faith tells young squire Diego: “Meditate on it. Dream it. Will it. And it will manifest.” 

One thing is certain: Artt’s grandchildren will grow up knowing that their grandmother did everything within her power to make the world a better place for them to live. 

“We all have to do our part,” Artt says. “If you just have a positive thought once a day, that negates a thousand negative thoughts, creating a shift in the world.”

Spoken like a true Guardian of Peace. 

THE FRENCH RESISTANCE

Photography by Rafael Tongol

German and Dominique Gutierrez are seasoned restaurant veterans who also do the seasoning (and the serving) at Café de France, a longtime favorite among local Francophiles.

In the past couple of years, Dominique Gutierrez has stepped into the Café de France kitchen not only make a weekly terrine, as she has for 36 years, but to do whatever tasks the chef can’t handle alone. 

Chopping, mincing, sautéing — the 60-year-old entrepreneur tackles whatever is urgent. Her husband, German, also 60, sometimes waits tables himself these days instead of quietly managing the restaurant and selecting the wines — his main jobs for the past three dozen years. 

The couple, who bought the restaurant as energetic and ambitious twentysomethings, kept Winter Park Francophiles fed through good times and bad times, such as the pandemic. 

Now entering their 60s, the restaurateurs are seasoned veterans who do the seasoning as well as the serving and, ultimately, the surviving. “It’s a small business,” Dominique says. “We carry on. We keep doing what we do. And the restaurant has been busy lately.” 

Café de France likely had a dash of panache back when it opened in 1982, when the Gutierrezes joined the team in 1985 and still when they became the owners the following year. 

Café de France’s pan-seared striped bass is plated in a broth of saffron, fennel, celery, tomato and onion with baby potatoes. Dishes like this have helped the restaurant retain a strong local following.

Now it’s a bit of a throwback. The tablecloths are white linen, as you would expect. Otherwise, though, the décor could use some freshening. The menu evolves based upon trends and seasons, yet the essentials remain familiar — if subject to tweaks. 

You’ll always find roast duck and rack of lamb, for example, although the sauces and sides change periodically. The roasted chicken breast may have a wild mushroom sauce, while the salmon may sit on a bed of risotto made with sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan. Or maybe there’ll be a slight but equally favorable variation.

It doesn’t really matter. Café de France, which somehow combines unfussiness and formality, has a faithful following for sure. Families celebrate milestones here, often three generations at once. 

 Business is conducted, with familiar power brokers hobnobbing over beef Bourguignon at a back table. During a recent visit, we saw a wheeler-dealer whom most Central Floridians would recognize engaged in deep discussion with her associates. That same night, we saw young parents at a nearby two top crack the tops of crème brulêès to cap off their date night.

“Seventy percent of our guests are regulars,” Dominique estimates. “German, the servers and I know them well. We know what they eat, we know what they drink and we know where they like to sit. That’s part of what you get by visiting a small restaurant. We have that little je ne sais quoi presence. It’s customer service.”

Those regulars ordered take-out when the restaurant was closed by COVID-19. Then they dined at sidewalk tables and later returned indoors — often up to two or three times a week. 

Such support is part and parcel of the give-and-take at Café de France. The long timers, in fact, have aged in place with the Gutierrezes. They kept the kitchen busy after the 2008 recession all but brought fancy dining to a halt. They parallel parked along Park Avenue for several years following the crash, when the neighboring storefronts were vacant. 

The French onion soup (facing page) is made with sweet caramelized onions. The crouton is freshly sliced French bread from Olde Hearth Bread Company, a local artisan baker. It’s topped with Gruyère cheese.

“We were the only ones left on our side of South Park Avenue,” Dominique points out. “We went almost two years without neighbors, and we had a new landlord from one day to the other. The rent went up — you have no idea; it almost tripled. There were moments we barely had our heads out of the water.”

Recent challenges brought more of the same. “We survived by going back to the basics,” Dominique says. “My husband waiting on tables, me cooking. That’s it in a nutshell.”

While the Gutierrezes postponed the décor refresh they’d hoped for, their restaurant settled back into normalcy. The kitchen now has two chefs preparing the menu that Dominique conceives. Chef Abi Rios handles the prep and hot line now, freeing his boss to prepare the terrine (similar to a pâté). 

Using whatever looks tempting in the fridge, from mushrooms to nuts and berries, Dominique lovingly creates the menu staple just as her mother did back in Vendee, France, during the restaurateur’s rural childhood. 

Start your lunch or dinner with that terrine for the true Café de France experience. The version we tried was a veal and pork blend served on a wooden board with gherkins and dots of Dijon mustard. 

A good way to start your lunch or dinner is with the terrine maison (above). This version is a veal and pork blend served on a wooden board with gherkins and dots of Dijon mustard. The rack of lamb (below) has a hearty bleu cheese and horseradish cream sauce that sits atop a purée of rosemary-flavored roasted butternut squash with Brussels sprouts on the side.

Not surprising at a French restaurant, escargot is another forever favorite. The shelled snails swim in a sauce of housemade garlic butter, fresh herbs and other flavorings that Dominique describes as “our own tricks.” A little wine and a dash of cream complete the starter. 

The French onion soup is conscientiously made without sherry. “Nuh-uh! That’s an American thing!” Dominique insists. “The caramelized onions are sweet. We use lots of butter, of course, because it’s French, with fresh thyme and bay leaves. We put red wine into the beef broth, and we use real Gruyère on top because the cheese has that nutty flavor.” 

The crouton within the classic soup is freshly sliced French bread from Olde Hearth Bread Company, a local artisan baker.

The entrée menu features one of each popular protein. During a recent visit, the roasted half mallard duck came with a sauce of wild berries, thyme and shallots and was served with bourbon-laced mashed sweet potatoes plus asparagus. 

The rack of lamb had a hearty bleu cheese and horseradish cream sauce that sat atop a purée of rosemary-flavored roasted butternut squash, with Brussels sprouts on the side. One piece of lamb was cooked medium-well, as requested, but the other was too rare. Still, we cut some slack to chefs during these sort-of post-pandemic times. 

The day’s catch was striped bass, pan-seared and plated in a broth of saffron, fennel, celery, tomato and onion. The “baby potatoes” in the broth seemed canned to us. If not, someone erred in the kitchen because these were pasty, tasteless orbs.

For sweet endings, we selected a dark Belgian chocolate fondant cake with warm lava in the center, presented with a playful squiggle of ganache. The tarte tatin, an upside-down French apple tart served warm, was a comfy yet elegant finale with a side of housemade vanilla ice cream.

For a sweet ending to your meal, the dark Belgian chocolate fondant cake (aloe) has warm lava in the center and is presented with a playful squiggle of ganache. The tarte tatin, an upside-down French apple tart served warm, offers a comfy yet elegant finale with a side of housemade vanilla ice cream.

Café de France, even without décor upgrades, will likely keep welcoming guests young and old, new and faithful, for years to come.  

“We do the best we can without complicating everything,” Dominique says. “We want to just keep on pleasing our customers. We want everybody to be happy. We want to be good restaurateurs. We just want to be what we have always been.” 

Café de France
526 Park Avenue South, Winter Park
407-647-1869
lecafedefrance.com

A COZY ESCAPE OFF-BROADWAY

Photography by Rafael Tongol

The welcoming husband-and-wife team of Fabio Perricelli and Paula Gamba say their Mediterranean fare with Brazilian additions has “the Vinia personality.” Another delightful Vinia personality is their daughter, 2-year-old Olivia.

When you’re sitting at a simple wooden table or high top at Vinia Wine & Kitchen, listening to Brazilian music and sipping a small-batch wine that pairs perfectly with the scratch-made food, you won’t be thinking “goat farm.” 

But you could. The owners of this low-key, deliciously grown-up getaway in Hannibal Square eased into the restaurant business via an array of careers, one of which involved raising goats and selling goat meat. It’s one of many behind-the-scenes tidbits that add intrigue to an already intriguing destination. More on that in a moment.

First, let’s gush about Vinia’s cozy vibe — the space is, shall we say, intimate — and about its friendly proprietors, Fabio Perricelli and Paula Gamba, the husband and wife team who opened the restaurant in 2018. 

One or the other is frequently in the dining room, visiting every table, explaining the food and urging the tasting of, say, roasted shishito peppers with aioli or a glass of red Portuguese wine. 

We usually don’t care for hovering. But Perricelli and Gamba are so hospitable — and so genuinely warm and welcoming — that they seem more like old friends who happen to know a lot about food and wine. Their personalities are reflected in the cuisine they serve.

The menu is designed as small bites — mini-platters of Mediterranean flavors with Brazilian-influenced fare tossed into the eclectic mix. The shareables are presented with Instagram-friendly panache, and each recipe is unique to Vinia. 

For such a tiny menu, Vinia’s bill of fare has plenty to boast about. A must-have is the Pasta ai Gamberi e Limone — prawns atop pasta with lemon cream sauce.

Perricelli, who usually wears suspenders as something of a personal trademark, is determined that everything he serves be something that his guests (guests, not customers) haven’t experienced before — which is tough to accomplish when a particular guest is someone who dines out for a living. 

Still, he comes up with ideas, brainstorms with his culinary team, tests and retests his creations and, if all goes well, proudly parades the resulting fare into the dining room. “Our foods have the Vinia personality,” Perricelli says. 

That personality, I’d say, is quirky, enthusiastic and eager to please with an undercurrent of perfectionism. “I want people to recall a dish they tried here at another time, then say, ‘OMG, let’s go have that again,’” adds Perricelli. “The tomato sauce is my tomato sauce; the pesto is my pesto. Of course, the name is the same, but they never taste the same as they do somewhere else.”

Perricelli and Gamba make weekly visits to seven retail food stores to personally select ingredients, and use specialty suppliers only for hard-to-find items. That’s how they came to have fresh lump crabmeat for the crab cakes and flaky, flavorful crust for the flatbreads.

They take a similar approach to wine. “We only have wines from small producers,” Perricelli notes. “There’s always something different on the menu. If you want to drink a Caymus, don’t come here. Visit for my wine from Puglia [in Southern Italy] or my special Greek wine.”

Vinia has a small but eclectic wine list that includes two champagnes as well as a handful of wine cocktails such as seasonal mimosa and bellini.

It’s all part of the plan to make guests feel at home. “Food and wine bring people together,” Perricelli says, noting that the bossa nova-themed ambient music contributes to the aura. “All the senses come together in a very cozy environment. You eat with your eyes and ears, not just your mouth. And your heart, too.” 

Although the dining room is small, Perricelli adds, turning over tables is never his goal, and no one is rushed or pressured to finish up. “I want guests to enjoy their night out,” he says.

Perricelli and Gamba’s route to becoming restaurateurs was an unconventional one. Perricelli was born in Southern Italy and moved to Brazil at age 8, when his father joined his grandfather in operating a cattle ranch and coffee farm. Over time, the ranch branched out into raising goats. 

After his father’s passing, Perricelli took over the business. “I selected the animals to buy, and I researched the best ways to process the meat,” he says. “I used to sell the best goat meat in São Paulo.” He also did gig work in video post-production. 

Gamba, born and raised in Brazil, worked in publishing before the couple decided to change their lives, careers and country of residence. Florida seemed ideal since it was close enough for quick trips home. 

Perricelli and Gamba visited 17 Florida cities in 10 days and weren’t particularly impressed — not even with Orlando. “We couldn’t find a place we really loved,” Perricelli says, until they sought out Gamba’s favorite fast-food joint, Shake Shack, and visited the chain’s location overlooking Lake Killarney. 

“We fell in love when we got to Winter Park,” Perricelli says. “My God, this is not the Orlando of the theme parks.” 

They began looking for a good restaurant location. Park Avenue was too pricey, they decided, but they were interested in Hannibal Square and its array of eateries. “It’s kind of like off-Broadway,” Perricelli notes. He found the space vacated by the footwear retailer Sugar Shoes and soon began a nine-month construction process.

After Vinia opened, Perricelli stationed himself on the sidewalk to lure potential customers. “I stayed outside of the restaurant every day, talking to everyone who passed by,” he recalls. “A quality I appreciate here in Winter Park is that people know each other — and word began to spread.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly put a kink in Vinia’s growth, less than a year after opening the restaurant was already in a strong enough position to remain viable until locals began dining indoors again.

The determination of the owners, the quality of the food and the variety of the wine selections — as well as the mellow environment — combined to help Vinia establish itself. 

Now, about the food. Among the highlights of the one-page menu is oxtail, served two ways — over gnocchi or salad greens. Originally plated over polenta with bones intact, today the specialty is a velvety, bone-free meat cooked sous-vide with wisps of fennel, celery, carrot, onions and herbs. 

The potato-based gnocchi (dumplings found in many Italian dishes) are made in-house with Italian flours. “People think of gnocchi as very heavy, but that’s not the way they should be,” Perricelli explains. “They can be light, fluffy and tasteful.” That’s what he prepares.

Pasta Fresca con Rabo de Toro (above) is oxtail served over gnocchi (or another pasta) with wisps of fennel, celery, carrot, onions and herbs. Vinia’s Dessert Flight (below) is a trio that includes an affogato (espresso with ice cream), a dôme au chocolat and a sorbet paired with dessert wines.

Cod isn’t usually on the menu in restaurants with gourmet ambitions, yet here it’s worth ordering. The fish was chosen to represent Portugal, where it’s a staple. A chef formerly on staff suggested pan-roasting a fillet and pairing it with butternut squash, which was then in season. 

“That would be terrible,” Perricelli responded. But the chef suggested a flan version of the vegetable, and that’s what guests get today when they order Bacalhau ao Forno. The fork-tender fish sits atop a silky round of slightly sweet, honey-roasted butternut squash flan. The lemon sage nage (a broth reduction) brings it all together.

Some guests requested more familiar foods, so Perricelli went all in for crab cake. “Not a bread cake, a crab cake,” he emphasizes, throwing some shade at versions too heavy on breadcrumbs. 

To jazz up his offering, dubbed Crab Cake Vinia, Perricelli added a side of all-American succotash — then took a wacky detour and substituted edamame for lima beans.

For such a tiny menu, Vinia’s bill of fare has plenty to boast about. For example, there’s the bite-size pissaladièr — pizza-like flatbread topped with anchovy-flavored oil, pureed garlic, and fresh herbs and vegetables. Another must-have is Pasta ai Gamberi e Limone — prawns atop pasta with lemon cream sauce.

We also love the meat, veggie and combo flatbreads, which have no sauce and four-ingredient tops that provide a pop of intense flavor without overdoing it.

There are empanandas with mixed veggies, cod cream, and meats and cheeses as well as charcuterie and fromage boards. And the trio of desserts — usually with fruit and chocolate options — always includes an affogato (espresso with ice cream). 

There’s a small but eclectic collection of white and red wines and champagnes as well as several cocktails, including a seasonal special and such fruity favorites as a mimosa and a bellini, which combines peach puree, prosecco and champagne. 

Are there misses? For sure. But there are more hits — and every dish is at the very least interesting. You’ll come out ahead, absolutely.

You won’t be able to try them all at one sitting, but worry not. You’ll be back. Once you discover this quiet little wine bar along the “off-Broadway” equivalent that is Hannibal Square, you’re sure to become a regular.  

Vinia Wine & Kitchen
444 West New England Avenue, Winter Park
407-925-7485 • viniawinebar.com


connect with us

Winter Park Publishing
Company, LLC.
201 West Canton Ave., Ste. 125B
Winter Park, FL 32789

ph: 407-647-0225
fx: 407-647-0145

Copyright 2022