Benvenuti nella mia cucina! Welcome to Peperoncino, my kitchen!
Photographers: Ruben Santa-Cruz & Jonathan Diaz
As Floridians, there’s a large ocean and over 5,000 miles separating us from the beautiful country of Italy. As you can imagine, that can sometimes make it a little tricky to find authentic Italian cuisine here in Orlando. Those of Italian descent are fortunate to have the experience of authentic Italian dining right in their very own home! However, the rest of us are left with large chain restaurants who despite claims of authenticity, mostly aim to serve food catering to the average American palate. So what is someone with a craving for real Italian supposed to do? When flights to Italy are out of the question, that’s when Peperoncino comes in. A dining experience at Peperoncino is a culinary journey to a little kitchen in Calabria, Italy. There awaits a loving ‘family’ of Italians who would love to have you at their dinner table to enjoy a diverse meal that satisfies all your senses. I discovered this kitchen for myself during a four-course meal at the establishment, which has forever changed my views on genuine Italian cuisine.
The first words that come to mind to describe Peperoncino are ‘hidden treasure.’ It is the literal embodiment of ‘blink and you’ll miss it.’ The small restaurant is a diamond tucked away behind Sand Lake Road’s famous Restaurant Row. Despite its size, when we arrived for dinner the restaurant was packed with families, couples and friends who had traveled from near and far to dine at this family-oriented restaurant. Designed with an open kitchen that lays parallel to the guest seating, it really does feel like you’re eating a home-cooked meal in your mother’s kitchen. No matter where you’re seated, Peperoncino owner and Executive Chef, Barbara Alfano is always visible as she and Chef Danilo Martorano work on exquisite culinary creations. Wait times can be expected most evenings, but reservations are welcomed and encouraged. No matter how busy they get though, you are always guaranteed to find Chef Alfano with a bright smile on her face. The kind of smile that can only come from someone who is doing what they love and living out their dream every day they arrive at work. This is exactly how I found her on the evening of our own dining experience.
My companions and I chose the farthest table in the rectangular shaped room and ended up next to a large window overlooking Peperoncino’s sunny outdoor patio. Behind me was a colorful shelf stocked with various Italian groceries and retail products that are for sale to anyone wishing to take a little piece of Italy back to their own kitchen. Directly in front of me was bar seating and an extravagant display of wines. Chef Alfano calls Peperoncino a kitchen and she stands by it in every way, even her décor. There were no ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, nor flashy china and over-the-top furniture. Rather little details such as abstract wall art, Italian and American flags proudly displayed in a small vase and the barely-there hum of soothing Italian music ensured that small kitchen feel remained. Everything came together to create an intensely lively atmosphere, buzzing with energy and excited chatter. The mood was officially set and we were more than ready to dive into our authentic Italian dining experience.
Peperoncino prides itself on its ever-changing and constantly evolving menu so we were excited to find out what was on the menu for our dinner. We started with a round of specialty starters or the anitpasto course. First on the plate was grilled octopus. I’d be lying if I said I was an adventurous eater so I’ll be honest and admit that my initial reaction to the idea of eating octopus was a little hesitant. Fortunately I gave it a try and the dish actually went on to become one of my favorite meals of the night. Garnished with crispy caramelized speck and cream of cannellini beans, the octopus had a smoky charbroiled taste, but retained a soft texture that went down perfectly with every bite. After the octopus, we received a sampling of Peperoncino’s fried “stuzzicheria” or finger foods, which came in the form of eggplant and lasagna croquettes, fried pecorino drizzled with honey and spicy peperoncino flakes, and Sicilian olives stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese. The only word I can use to describe the croquettes is heavenly. Upon first bite, you expect them to have a deep fried taste, but to our surprise they were incredibly light and moist on the inside despite the outer crunch. The accompany burst of spices in every mouthful was magical. The amount of spice and intense flavors introduced within just this first course was a pleasant surprise. The starters were paired with a glass of Soligo Prosecco Brut, a sparkling white wine that was refreshing, allowing us to cleanse our palate before our next bite to taste the perfectly blended spices all over again.
Next on the culinary journey was the primi course. Chef Alfano blessed our taste buds with handmade potato gnocchi prepared with rabbit rollè ragù as well as a vegetarian option prepared sorrentina style with fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and fresh mozzarella. The vegetables felt like they had been plucked right out of your mother’s garden and the exquisitely prepared potato gnocchi was the best I’ve ever had. Its minimal amount of spice was a striking contrast to the pounding of flavor that came with the succulent rabbit rollè ragù. This course was perfectly paired with a tall glass of Igreco Catà Rosso, a pure Gaglioppo red grape only found in Calabria, Italy.
My favorite course was the secondo, rabbit confit. Confit was the preparation of the rabbit and consisted of slowly roasting the rabbit legs in olive oil. The dish was served with balsamic dressed potatoes and pecorino spinach, and Gorgonzola cheese zeppola. It was absolute perfection and an impeccable precision in the variety of contrasting, yet complimenting flavors. I find that Americanized Italian food tends to say, “this is the flavor and it’s the only flavor you’re going to taste as you eat your meal.” At Peperoncino, every single bite introduces your mouth to a new flavor and spice. The secondo was paired with a glass of Cirò Classico, from the Librandi Cantina also in Calabria. This wine had a stronger fruit presence than the Igreco and a subtle, yet appropriate hint of bitterness to it.
After a whole course of unique and distinct flavors, it was interesting to return to something familiar when it came to the dessert. Our final course included a sampling of the “cuore caldo al peperoncino “and the “biscotti e crema.” The first was a warm center dark chocolate with mascarpone cream and the second was a portion of Italian cookies drenched in cherry liquor, layered with chocolate and vanilla pastry cream. The dessert wine was the sensual bracchetto d’acqui from the Marenco Cantina in Piemonte and my companions and I all agreed it was our favorite of the evening’s wine pairings. It’s sweet; yet refreshing flavor was the perfect compliment to the rich, dark chocolate. That decadent dessert alone was worth coming back to Peperoncino for!
Peperoncino may be a business that serves food, but they are far from just being a restaurant. Warm colors and inviting aesthetics, cozy family-style seating and an open, friendly environment will make you feel at home. When you combine that with the love and care Chef Alfano and Chef Martorano put into every dish they prepare, it’s no wonder Orlando Style readers named Peperoncino one of Orlando’s best Italian restaurants. Give it a try yourself and I guarantee you’ll never look at Italian food the same.
7988 Via Dellagio Way #108
Orlando, FL 32819