Widowmaker: a killer pizza from Prato in Winter Park. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Widowmaker: a killer pizza from Prato in Winter Park. photo by Karen Kuzsel

If food tours were people, they’d be my new besties.

What’s not to like? On the tours I’ve taken, you make stops at locally known restaurants and stores to sample a dish and/or an adult beverage the hosts hope entices your return. More than just a walking tour through a neighborhood catering to a particular ethnicity or style of food, I enjoy the running commentary by amiable tour guides about iconic architecture and historic anecdotes that are typically included. My recent Sunday afternoon strolling along sunny Park Avenue in the upscale neighborhood of Winter Park, FL with my husband Russ and our friends, Sandy and Dom Pizzarusso, for the three-hour jaunt with Orlando Food Tours was one of our best food tours to date.

There are several reasons why this particular tour looked to be a winner even before we hooked up with our guide, Marshall, and the other eight folks on our tour. (The groups are usually no more than a dozen anywhere to facilitate conversation and easier serving for the various venues.)

One, Orlando Food Tours is a fairly new company so we were eager to jump on a LivingSocial coupon that discounted the price a tad. Everyone loves a bargain, right? Having that discount pushed us to try this unknown company’s offering. Second, even a fussy eater like my husband (a meat and potatoes Iowa man who can’t eat shellfish) would be able to indulge in each of the offerings. And that brings up another reason. Most tours don’t tell you exactly where you’re going or what types of food you’ll sample. This tour gives you the rundown upfront, with the stipulation that there could be last minute substitutions. On our registration form, we were even asked if we

Toasting & snacking at Ancient Olive. L to R: Russ and Karen (Kuzsel) Wagner, Dom and Sandy Pizzarusso

Toasting & snacking at Ancient Olive. L to R: Russ and Karen (Kuzsel) Wagner, Dom and Sandy Pizzarusso

preferred wine or beer. We all chose wine.

While these details may not seem vital, our friends had been on a food tour where such information wasn’t disseminated in advance and they paid a lot of money for mostly bread and water. No adult beverages. Not particularly appetizing samples. No amusing stories about the neighborhood.

Now that I’ve got at least half a dozen food tours fitting comfortably on my expanding waistline, I noted some things Orlando Food Tours did differently that I very much appreciated. First, they had us introduce ourselves to the group, noting where we were from and declaring a favorite food or style. It breaks the ice immediately. (I’m an equal opportunity eater: if it’s prepared well, I’m all over it.) We were also given a small brochure that posted our stops and gave the address, phone number and web address for each venue. We had a place for notes, which I quickly filled. There was a map of the area we’d be walking, annotated with some of the cultural sites Marshall pointed out, such as the Barbour Apartments and Casa Feliz, both designed by Architect James Gamble Rogers II, a Winter Park resident who died in 1990. Our food samples were so generous that when asked, most of said we were either satisfied or stuffed.

On the back of our brochure, there were coupons for most of the places we visited, as well as a discount for a future food tour. The company is expanding their locations and offerings, so am sure this won’t be our sole foray. And though asked to not shop while touring, at no point did we feel rushed. We ate, chatted with anyone we were seated by, laughed and really had a pleasant afternoon.

Our first stop was Prato, billed as a modern rustic Italian bistro. Like many of today’s contemporary restaurants and chefs, they partner with local farms and suppliers for the freshest products. We sampled two pizzas. The first was the Widowmaker, named perhaps because of its rich ingredients or maybe because it was so tasty the consumer was in danger of a heart attack. Widowmaker happens to be the name of the heart attack my husband barely survived in 2005, so I must confess I was a tad reluctant to indulge, especially when I saw the over-easy farm egg centered on the pizza’s Caciocavallo, hazelnut Romesco, and fennel sausage. We were told to dip our pizza into the gooey yolk. I thought it was daring the first time I had an egg on a burger. This almost seemed sacrilegious, but like everyone else, I took a dip. Actually quite good. Our second pizza, similarly softly chewy with a perfect crunchy crust, was the Florentina, with Arrowhead spinach crema, La Quercia Speck, Fontina Fontal and smoked prosciutto. I can’t begin to say which pizza I preferred. Both were piping hot from the steel pizza ovens imported from Italy and both were outstanding. With our pizza we received a generous pour of red or white wine.

Some snacks offered at Ancient Olive on Orlando Food Tours. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Some snacks offered at Ancient Olive on Orlando Food Tours. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Our second stop was Ancient Olive, where we not only sampled a range of olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and tart cherry preserves over cream cheese, but we received quite the education from Store Manager Tracy Kuch. She described what to look for in freshness and when an olive oil should be used for a dressing rather than cooking. She served us a sample of pumpkin bread that had been infused with a flavored olive oil and explained that olive oils can be readily substituted for canola or vegetable oils when baking. Their flyer states that ¾ teaspoon of olive can be used instead of 1 teaspoon of butter. My husband liked the Arbosana olive oil (for cooking), the mandarin orange olive oil and the cranberry-pear balsamic vinegar (infuse the latter two for a dressing or baking ingredient) so much that we bought all three. As Passover is coming soon, I want to point out that their literature states that all their oils, including nut & seed & truffle oils, are Kosher certified by the Orthodox Union and carry the OU Kosher symbol. The beverage we sampled was a shrub, which is concentrated apple cider vinegar fermented with other flavors. As a group, we tried the beet and carrot, a ruby red concoction with a zesty tang. Russ and I also tasted a basil shrub, which we were told would add a good pop of flavor to a martini.

Our next stop was The Spice & Tea Exchange, owned by the same people who own Ancient Olive.   This was a brief visit. I was overwhelmed by the variety of spices and teas lining shelves and table tops.

Good cheer, great food & yummy wine at The Parkview.

Good cheer, great food & yummy wine at The Parkview.

By now we hadn’t eaten in about half an hour, so of course, we were all agog waiting to taste the special treat that Marshall said awaited us at The Parkview, which opened last August. It replaced Eola Wine Company, but the wooden walls are still lined with shelves of wine and for the time being, the interior is still rustic clubby chic. Marshall was correct about a special treat. The ramekin of truffle mac & cheese, accompanied by two artichoke tostinis, were a delightful creation by Executive Chef AJ Haines. The mac was mini shells and the cheese formed a silky coating. We had more wine. Russ and I had Dark Horse cabernet sauvignon, one we will definitely buy.

“I come from an Italian family,” says Chef Haines. “Both my grandpas were chefs, and after trying out different jobs, I realized cooking is where my passion is.” Owner Matt Coltrin believes in locally sourced food, including Florida-grown meats. Haines, who formerly worked at Luma, Cask & Larder. and was the opening chef for Prato, says The Parkview’s menu changes constantly. We saw the menu for the Sunday brunch and already have a group eager to try the flight of mimosas and dishes such as Kale Caesar, Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding and a variety of four-egg frittatas etc.

Time for dessert. We stopped at Kilwin’s Chocolates & Ice Cream to indulge in a small scoop of salted caramel ice cream and a bite of coconut fudge embedded with chocolate pieces.

Our final stop of the day was at Sassafras Sweet Shoppe, a vintage candy store. We were told to select a piece of toffee from the many flavors available, but it took a few moments for me to break through the nostalgia this shop wrought. Everywhere I looked were the candy treats of my childhood, from packs of candy cigarettes (what were our parents and candy makers thinking?) to candy dots peppered across a piece of paper. They didn’t have the Beemans and Black Jack gums that Dom wanted, but promised to order for him. I eat little candy these days, but had to buy the three flavors of Bonomo Turkish Taffy that my Dad would buy me as a little treat. I may never do more than taste the vanilla, banana or chocolate taffy, but somehow just buying it made me feel as if both my deceased parents were smiling upon me.

This was our food tour. As you may surmise, it was a wonderful day. Can’t wait to try another. Let me know of any you can personally recommend.

www.Orlandofoodtours.com

(800) 656-0713

www.Prato-wp.com

(407) 262-0050

124 N. Park Ave

www.theancientolive.com

(321) 972-1899

324 N. Park Ave

www.spiceandtea.com

(407) 647-7423

309 N. Park Ave

www.Facebook.com/TheParkviewWP

136 S. Park Ave

407-647-9103

www.kilwins.com

407-622-6292

122 N. Park Ave

www.sassafrassweetshoppe.com

115 E. Morse Blvd

(407) 388-0101

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

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