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HOOD ORNAMENT

Slowly but surely, the traditionally low-income area between Winter Park Village and Park Avenue is being purged of its less picturesque (read: modest black community) elements and steered toward something more brochure-friendly (read: money). Tolla's, an Italian deli and cafe, has staked an early claim on this transformation by establishing a beachhead near the corner of Morse Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue, where holdout minority residences and a smattering of humble businesses brush up against long stretches of vacant land that awaits promised condos and office complexes. It's as if a landing strip of white ambition has come to the 'hood, challenging Tolla's to foretell the future (and counteract the current desolation) with cozy sidewalk dining. For the time being, carving out an identity won't be a matter of competition – the closest thing to that is the now-vacated O'Boy's on the corner – but how much character can any one establishment bring to a neighborhood in which the greatest activity currently comes from the funeral home next door?

So far, the patio seating and al fresco live music are the biggest draws that Tolla's can claim, because not much that's going on inside rises above the level of the ordinary. The table area is tiny and cramped, creating an old-world effect that's quaint if you're in the right mood and claustrophobic if you aren't. Pity the poor servers, who have to carry orders out through the front door; no pass-through is provided to help bring plates to the further reaches of the patio. Yet the demeanor of the waitstaff remains cheerful, and their attentions thorough: We were immediately charmed by our outgoing waitress, whose thick Mediterranean accent was the most authentic aspect of the experience.

We tried to love the bill of fare as intensely, but could muster no more than token affection. The Italian platter ($14.95) appeared to offer a representative cross-section of the available appetizers, including hunks of buffalo mozzarella, slices of plum tomato, a couple of marinated mushrooms and some pepper shooters – which sounded as if they might be breaded treats of the "poppers" genus, but were uncooked green peppers filled with cheese and prosciutto. Overall, the platter had a vinegary appeal that failed to hide a nagging inconsistency. One of the poppers was crunchy, another not at all; ditto the mushrooms. "Feeds 2," says the menu, not letting on that those two diners could come away with completely different impressions, based on where on the plate their forks happened to land.

The entrees we chose, while hardly disasters, were likewise nothing to write home to Palermo about. While the chicken parmigiana ($11.25) boasted a properly cooked and juicy piece of meat, the sauce lacked any discernible character and the bed of pasta on which it all resided was unremittingly bland. OK, we won't mince words: It could have come in a box marked with the words "Lean Cuisine" and we wouldn't have been terribly surprised. The personal pizza ($5.75, and 50 cents per extra topping) we engineered was distinguished entirely by the crispy crust, which had the stone-ground flavor of a good wheat cracker. Still, springing for four toppings – including sausage and spinach, which hardly tend to go unnoticed on a palate – yielded results that were sadly unspectacular.

Dessert kicked the excitement up a notch; the chocolate cake ($4.95) and the macadamia cheesecake ($5.95) were both lush and gooey. The former in particular culminated in a cascade of chocolate chips that made for a markedly rich contrast to the preceding banalities. There's an old saw of razor-blade marketing that states that, if the first and last blades in a package yield close shaves, the customer will remember the entire pack as being good. If that phenomenon extends to appetizers and desserts, Tolla's is … well, halfway home.

The patio scene was in full swing as we left, the smooth tones of the featured vocalist fixing Tolla's in our mind as an intimate hangout for gentrification's conquering armies, not any sort of dream destination for the genuinely famished. (We bet the monthly wine tastings are a hoot.) Later that night, I dreamed we were riding the New York City subway system with the late Joey Ramone, singing '80s funk hits in perfect two-part harmony. A stomach unsettled by an uncommon amalgam of sours and sweets? Or a harbinger of urban dreams to come? Only time will tell.

dining@orlandoweekly.com
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