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WINTER PARK GETS THE BOOT
Range of regional offerings from Italy is sure to delight discriminating diners

An inordinately long period of time passed before the space that once housed the widely lauded Trastevere Ristorante in Winter Park finally found itself another tenant. It had seemed Jasmine’s would be that place, but cost overruns and other factors shut it down before it even opened. So Rocco Potami, who has more than 30 years experience in the restaurant business, and international restaurateur Enrico Esposito took over the space, dumped $600,000 into remodeling the interior and built a brand-new kitchen to bring it up to code. That’s a hefty investment for a place that isn’t exactly conspicuously located, though a recently mounted marquee and additional signage should help catch the attention of commuters driving along busy Orlando Avenue.

Nevertheless, the duo’s commitment is a testament to their dedication in establishing Rocco’s on the city’s dining scene. “You only get out what you put in,” so the saying goes, and Potami and Esposito have put a lot into making their trattoria as soothing and inviting as (lots of) money can buy. By that I mean polished travertine tile floors bathed in a hushed luminescence, laundered white tablecloths, modern art on cappuccino-colored walls and all the dark-wood trimmings and furnishings a 170-seat restaurant will allow. Arched brick-framed windows looking out into the courtyard are a nice Etruscan touch and give the place an air of comfortable modesty — a tone the pair of expressive cheek-peckers take pride in setting.

Another source of pride is chef Juan Mercado, a protégé of noted chef Massimo Fedozzi, whose creative Ligurian dishes had locals flocking to Universal’s Portofino Bay Hotel. Under Fedozzi’s tutelage, Mercado honed the art of preparing regional Italian fare.

Coastal regions of Italy, particularly Veneto, are well-represented in the insalata di frutti di mare ($12), plump curls of shrimp, rounds of calamari and moist slices of scallops washed in a “secret marinade” of lemon juice, garlic and flecks of Italian herbs and served inside a large sea-scallop shell. Aesthetically, it’s as though Mercado is paying homage to Botticelli; culinarily, the dish is worthy of being served to a goddess.

Another Venetian delicacy, carpaccio con arugula ($12), wasn’t as worthy. The gossamer-thin slices of beef drizzled with truffle oil are artfully arranged, but just too bland on the whole. A topping of refreshing rocket salad, capers, shaved parmesan and lemon vinaigrette completed the dish.

Pasta e fagioli ($6) is done in the Neopolitan style, its hearty broth of cannellini beans and chewy rounds of pasta served in an oversized bowl. The soup had the desired consistency — thick, not mushy — but it could’ve used a little more garlic and seasoning to elevate the flavors.

For my entree, I opted for a northern Italian delicacy, and one of Mercado’s signature dishes, the lombata di vitello alla Milanese ($29). The bone-in veal chop is first flattened like a cartoon character, then brought to life with a light, crisp golden-brown breading. Diced tomatoes, arugula, radicchio, lemon juice and balsamic vinaigrette provide the requisite zing.

Seeing that Rocco’s is billed as an Italian “grille,” it seemed appropriate to sample some meat seared over an open flame, like the pollo alla griglia con erbette ($15). This simple dish of herb-marinated chicken breast served over mashed potatoes is impeccably executed, each succulent morsel nicely complemented with intermittent bites of caramelized shallots.

Desserts are, in a word, heavenly. If you’re a fan of tiramisu ($6.50), the lady fingers served here will roll your eyes to the back of your head. The glass of divine indulgence is rich, creamy and an exquisite ending to your meal. If you’re so inclined, a chocolate version is also offered. I also savored a scoop of luscious milk gelato ($2.50), the deliciously dense ice cream being ideal for diners who don’t like their desserts overly sweet. Limoncello ($7), a lemony-sweet liqueur, is a lip-smacking after-dinner swig, while traditional cappuccino ($4), made with Lavazza beans, is fabulously frothy.

Waiters are quietly professional, though I have to say I was a bit put off by Esposito’s greeting, which commenced with, “The kitchen closes in 15 minutes,” even though it was 9 p.m. on the dot and a call earlier in the day confirmed they were open until 10 p.m.

But I forgot the indiscretion and kicked up my heels once Mercado’s dishes arrived and whisked me away on an unforgettable culinary tour of The Boot.

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