Franco Petrarca always had grander visions for his humble pizzeria, visions that would gradually be realized through a series of menu tweaks, interior design facelifts and personnel changes. But the coup de grâce came earlier this year when he convinced Rosario Limonio, former head chef of Winter Park’s critically acclaimed Limoncello and Allegria restaurants, to run the relatively small kitchen at Famas and transport some culinary legitimacy to the I-Drive corridor. No question Limonio is a maestro of Italian cuisine – multiple requests for him to appear on Food Network’s Iron Chef are a testament to his kitchen mettle. While he bides his time gathering the right team for that boob-tube pressure cooker, he’s honing his skills inside this modest trattoria.
Famas has a split personality, with a brightly lit dine-and-dash left wing and a hushed, moderately romantic dining area to the right, but there’s no disorder when it comes to the character of the dishes. Limonio is on top of his game, brandishing a menu covering all regions of the Boot and, in the case of the insalata di mele ($8.95), a bit of the Pacific Northwest as well. The simple salad of Braeburn apple slices circling baby greens capped with gorgonzola crumbles and walnuts made for a vitalizing start, while artichoke oil and fresh basil added a bold dimension to the sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.
The chunky sauce in the cozze all’ arrabiata ($9.95) upstaged the generous heaping of mussels, the spicy bath of ripe, plump tomatoes offering plenty of zest to go along with the smack of garlic. If I had had additional wedges of garlic bread, that bowl would’ve been sopped clean.
Two mains – filetto al funghi porcini and agnello al rosmarino – were offered together as a special for $25.95, an absolute steal and a fine example of the chef’s talents. The filet’s silken coating of cognac and porcini mushroom sauce was just heavenly, as was the herbaceous rosemary-rubbed rack of lamb. The accompanying vegetable was a creative “burger” comprised of breaded eggplant, roasted red pepper, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. The side of rice was infused with wild mushrooms, walnuts and the robust smokiness of guanciale (wild boar jowls – a flavor many chefs replicate with the more readily available pancetta).
I could hear the chicken for the pollo marsala ($15.95) being pounded in the kitchen, and the result was a wonderfully moist slab crowned with button and porcini mushrooms. On past visits, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a decadent four-cheese gnocchi ($14.95), scrumptious gourmet pizza ($14.95) and risotto campagnola ($15.95), a sort of vegetarian take on the filetto al funghi porcini.
Petrarca’s commitment to pleasing his rising star results in huge benefits for diners, as you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dish unworthy of praise. Same goes for the dolci, also prepared by Limonio. Tiramisu ($5.95), simultaneously spongy and boozy, is a post-meal pick-me-up; cannoli ($4.50), with velvety ricotta, strikes the perfect crisp/fluffy balance; and if the lemon cake ($5.95) is available, don’t think twice – just order it.
The evening’s only downside was the service. Our harried waiter seemed unfamiliar with the menu, neglected to ensure silverware was on the table and was slow to clear away dishes. But given the superiority of the fare such miscues seem trivial; the real draw here is Limonio. He may not be in the limelight at this out-of-the-way trattoria, but word’s getting out and his almost-famous status won’t last long.