Friday, May 17, 2013

TerraMia Pizzeria and Trattoria: Death and rebirth of a neighborhood icon

Up until Christmas of last year, the TerraMia Orlando stable of restaurants consisted of TerraMia Wine Bar and Trattoria on SR 434 in Altamonte Springs (FL) and TerraMia Brick Oven Pizza and Trattoria located on SR 46A in Heathrow. The divergent performance characteristics of the two restaurants led management to close the Altamonte Springs location and to re-open in a new location (1150 Douglas Avenue, Suite 1040, Altamonte Springs) with a new name (TerraMia Pizzeria and Trattoria) and the cuisine associated with the Brick Oven facility in the Heathrow market. I accompanied my wife to the restaurant on opening day (Monday of this week) and provide my overall observations in this post.

The TerraMia eateries are owned by the locally well-known restaurateurs Rosario Spagnola and Massimo Nobile. These gentlemen have opened a number of Italian restaurants in the Greater Orlando area and sold them off after a few years of operation. After selling Cafe Allegre in Winter Park in the mid-1990s, they opened TerraMia Wine Bar, a restaurant featuring well-prepared Italian dishes, a wide variety of wines, a large homey bar, a piano that was the basis for weekend music, and a separate room for private parties. In 2009, in the midst of the recession, they opened TerraMia Brick Oven and it was an unqualified success from day one. This mix of restaurants was viewed favorably by regulars. If you felt like a long, lazy, fine-dining experience with music, you went to the TerraMia Wine Bar. If you wanted trattoria-style food or a Pizza, and wanted to get in and out quickly, you went to the Brick Oven. In any case, you stood a good chance of being able to spend time with either Rosario or Massimo who alternated between restaurants.

With the passage of time, the electricity that was evident in the early days of the Brick Oven remained constant; as did revenue. As the Heathrow location continued to outperform Altamonte Springs, the managers began to question their diversity strategy. After some thought they decided that their interests would be best served if they had a Pizza capability in Altamonte Springs. The building in which they were situated could not accommodate a Pizza oven so they secured new facilities and closed the old concept down for 4 months while they built out the new. I was a little concerned by the length of the hiatus because of its potential impact on staff and regular customers but, like me, the old customers had been anxiously awaiting the summons.

As I pulled up to the restaurant, one of the advantages over its predecessor was immediately apparent. The restaurant was clearly visible -- as well as easily accessible -- from the main street, conditions that did not hold true for the old facility. The restaurant occupies a central position on the ground floor of a two-story building and its position is heralded by prominent signage. There was ample outside seating in a covered area just outside the main entrance and this seating was itself an indication of the transformation that the restaurant had undergone. In the old restaurant, the outside seating was a white-tablecloth affair while in this incarnation the table tops were unclad and the chairs had a rattan-like look. The hours of business posted on the door was 11:00 am to 10:00 pm; I had arrived at the old restaurant at 10:00 pm on many a night and left in the wee hours of the morn.

Looking through the glass which fronts the central core of the restaurant, I saw a brightly lit interior with two circular high tops (one on each side of the door), a circular bar in the middle distance (the circle broken only by the entry/egress point for staff), and, in the furthest distance, a dining area populated with high tops and open-booth seating. Chairs and tables are also positioned along the wall to the right of the bar.

The setup at the entrance was a little congested/confusing with the presence of a bottleneck at the point where the bar is closest to the tables flanking the entrance. Customers and staffers have to thread their way through this choke point causing, in some cases, a backup of bodies. As you turn to the left after entry, and wend your way past the table that occupies the position to the left of the entrance, you encounter the hostess station. I found it confusing to pass diners before hitting the welcome station. Secondly, patrons sitting at these "guardian tables" will have the experience of everyone entering or leaving the restaurant -- or taking food to, or removing empty dishes from, the rear seating areas -- passing by their space and food at close quarters.

Looking past the Hostess Station I see the gleaming stainless steel kitchen bounded by brown marble countertop and another seating area outfitted with high-top tables and seating positioned against the north-south wall that serves as the western boundary of this room.

By this time I begin to encounter old familiar faces (plus a lot of faces that I have not seen previously). There was Lisette behind the bar and, to the left, the smiling mugs of Rosario and Massimo. I was guided to my seat by the hostess as I continued to take in my surroundings. I examined the menu and and noted that, with a few exceptions, it was similar to the one employed at TerraMia Brick Oven. The wine list was more extensive than the list at Brick Oven with a good mix of Italian and domestic bottle and by-the-glass offerings.

Massimo and Rosario

This was the first day that the new restaurant was open and, not surprisingly, there were a few kinks (long time to fulfill my wine order, cold main course) probably attributable to the size of the turnout. Based on my experience with this team, these mis-steps will not be a feature of future operations.

I ordered mussels in a Fra Diavolo sauce as my appetizer and a Short Rib with Red Sauce and Penne Pasta as my main course. The mussels were fulsome, spicy and flavorful with a pleasing texture. The Short Rib is a totally new item for either restaurant and with its size and tastiness, is not meant for the diet-conscious. My wife ordered an Aragula salad with leeks, citronelle vinaigrette and ricotta cheese as a starter and a Salmon with Cherry Tomatoes and Asparagus in a white wine sauce as her main course. Both plates were excellent.

The mashup at the door notwithstanding, this is a great setting. You can relax inside or outside and, if you are outside, the large plate glass panels give you a broad-spectrum view of the goings-on inside. If inside, you can choose between sitting at the copious bar or at the high tops or regular tables in the "wings" off the bar. There is a high level of energy and the open-space setup ensures that the buzz percolates to every corner of the restaurant.

With the new menu and hours, the restaurant is now kid friendly (And the word had gotten out because a number of kids were in attendance. They hardly ever graced the old restaurant with their presence.). Peter, one of the original waiters, had left the restaurant years ago to work at Bice at Universal and then went back to Boston. He is back and as funny and knowledgeable as ever. The piano is no more.

The change of location, outfitting, and menu -- and the lowering of prices to matchup with the new approach -- will no doubt result in the outcomes that Rosario and Massimo are pursuing. Another win for this dynamic duo.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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