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Food & Drink

Top tables

It wasn’t easy, but we chose our five fave restaurant openings of 2012

Photo: Photo by Aldrin Capulong, License: N/A

Photo by Aldrin Capulong

Peperoncino

Photo: Photo by Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Photo by Rob Bartlett

Spork


There's no arguing that 2011 was a stellar year for restaurant openings in our fair city, what with such well-received eateries as Prato, Armando's, Tamarind, Deep Blu, the Table, the Rusty Spoon, Cocina 214, Tako Cheena, Hawkers and a number of food trucks opening their doors (and windows). Repeating the performance in 2012 was going to be a tall order, a reality reflected in the relatively short list below. We saw a rise in smaller, chef-run restaurants to complement a trend toward smaller portions, not double-down gutbusters. Better burger joints caught our attention, and local sourcing, I'm happy to say, became a de rigueur practice. Here, then, are my favorite restaurant openings of 2012.

Peperoncino Cucina (opened Jan. 7) Prior to chef-owner Barbara Alfano opening her cheerily comfortable Dr. Phillips eatery, replicating a Roman, Venetian, Florentine or Calabrian repast was a next-to-impossible task in Orlando, but Peperoncino's deftly rendered rustic and contemporary dishes from il bel paese have garnered a loyal following among cognoscenti in la bella città. Her daily-changing menu spotlights regional preparations, so on any given day, you can enjoy a wild boar stew with Arborio rice or a branzino baked in parchment paper with acqua pazza. No matter what's offered, Alfano keeps her native Calabrian peperoncini nearby, along with a great selection of Italian wines. The restaurant is so popular that elbow-to-elbow seating is a common sight – and a testament to Alfano's prowess in the kitchen. (7988 Via Dellagio Way, 407-440-2856; peperoncinocucina.com)

Spork Café (opened May 14) Tisse and Joyce Mallon's "Happy Food Café" may occupy a small corner inside Urban ReThink's creative space, but the duo come up big with feel-good renditions of fresh, made-to-order, organic when possible, non-processed fare. Mushroom field soup and vegan corn chowder are eye-openingly good; wraps and sandwiches, be they of the vegetarian portobello or roast beef-and-provolone variety, certainly aren't as hackneyed as they sound; and a fresh raw juice bar is always a plus. But it's the passion the sister act brings to their work and the buoyant mood they foster that makes Spork Café such a draw. You can't help but trust that they truly care for your well-being. (625 E. Central Blvd., 407-476-6250; thesporkcafe.com)

Fresh (opened Sept. 5) Situated among such upscale and settled restaurants as Dexter's, Chez Vincent, Mi Tomatina and Armando's, Fresh offers an anti-establishment alternative to Hannibal Square's trendy dining scene. Gina Bugayong's café is approachable, über-intimate and down-to-earth, and her focused daily-changing menu reflects her and her partner's diverse backgrounds. (Bugayong is Filipino-Italian and her partner Panamanian-Lebanese.) Along with the talent, vision and humility coming from this kitchen is a desire to grow and broaden, and that should keep things fresh on Hannibal Square for some time. (535 W. New England Ave., Winter Park, 321-295-7837; freshcafe-wp.com)

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