Sizzling hot chefs are opening second, third, even fourth Orlando restaurants.
by Rona Gindin • photos by Grizzlee Martin
Every so often, Orlando gets a new independent restaurant that does such a keen job filling an unforeseen need that it quickly surges to superstar status. These tend to be small, humble spaces begun on not-big budgets by passionate owners.
The five entrepreneurs featured here are the cream of the up-and-coming crop. Each has a huge following and, now, a new restaurant or three to brag about.
First Act: Pizza Bruno
The Curry Ford West neighborhood was pretty low on craft pizza back in 2016, so Chef Bruno Zacchini filled that niche by hand-tossing house-made dough with traditional and unusual toppings, all in a humble building in a nondescript locale. Customers waited for tables at Pizza Bruno even before Zacchini was able to add wine, craft beer and spirits to accompany those pies. Part of the secret: fresh mozzarella cheese, pulled daily. Zacchini has since improved the dough, using a naturally leavened recipe.
Second Acts: Pizza Bruno at Orange County Brewers, Catered by Bruno, SLICE by Pizza Bruno
In October 2018, Pizza Bruno began serving a scaled-down menu of pizza, salad and wood-fired wings inside Orange County Brewers, located on North Orange Avenue in Downtown Orlando. In the meantime, the restaurant developed a catering program featuring a mobile wood-fired oven. “We do parties, weddings, etc., and we offer more than just pizzas,” Zacchini explains. It’s called Catered by Bruno.
By spring 2019, Zacchini hopes to grow yet more with SLICE by Pizza Bruno, a by-the-slice pizza shop. “This will be in the vein of a New York slice shop, but with the naturally leavened dough,” he says. Details are still in the works, but the plan at press time was to offer a handful of pizza varieties, most round and one square, plus craft soft drinks, canned wine and beer and a sweet like Italian ices or soft-serve ice cream. “It will be a curated experience,” Zacchini notes. “There will be clear-cut choices, and they will be really, really good.” Two more expansions are on the agenda, one reportedly involving bagels.
First Act: The Sanctum
When Chelsie Savage worked as a clinical and holistic nutritionist, she shared food with her clients—and they all but begged her to cook professionally. In 2016 she did it, offering globally flavored vegetarian and vegan fare at The Sanctum in Colonialtown North. Over the past three years, the menu expanded to include bowls, plus coffees, smoothies, burritos, salads and small plates. The restaurant also doubled in size.
Second Acts: Proper & Wild, Sanctum Coffee & Juice Bar
With a newborn baby at home and a juice bar in the works, in early 2019 Savage, along with her husband, Jamie, who now works with her full time, opened the more upscale Proper & Wild off Park Avenue in Winter Park. This spot, too, is mostly vegan with some locally raised eggs and locally produced cheese, and it’s more upscale. The space is bright and sparse, featuring a white and gray quartzite bar with “sassy” white wiry seats, yet infusions of glitz, such as twinkly lights. Plants abound. The menu changes regularly, featuring mostly plant-based burgers, flatbreads, homemade pastas and specialties such as whole cauliflower heads roasted in a pizza oven. Wine and beer are available. “I want people to feel comfortable walking in during the day in yoga pants to get a cup of tea with their friends, then to come out for dinner for a date night,” she says.
Since then, the Savages took over the former Wheat Berry spot in Altamonte Springs. The offshoot, called The Sanctum Coffee & Juice Bar, is a minimalist yet attractive grab-and-go facility. Juices, smoothies and coffees are served, along with some Sanctum signature salads, wraps, açai bowls, desserts and a rotating daily hot option.
First Act: Se7en Bites
Tina Gregory-Probst brought house-baked goods with a Southern flair to the Milk District, first in a tiny cozy-barebones bakery-café, then 4 blocks away in a larger cozy-barebones bakery-café. The chef-owner started Se7en Bites because she wanted to help former female spa customers who’d pined for “someone who could do everything for them—plan a party, cook good food, make every detail count.” The simple bake shop grew organically, becoming a neighborhood staple with a wider menu since its 2013 debut. The name refers to the eating of small seven-bite meals, which has been Gregory-Probst’s routine since completing gastric bypass surgery.
Second Act: Sette
Gregory-Probst’s wife, Va Probst, has been pining for a certain breed of rustic Italian restaurant in Orlando, and by spring 2019 the duo is scheduled to open the embodiment of that vision. It will be called Sette (pronounced se-TAY), and it will sit in the Ivanhoe District corner location best known for housing the longtime Brian’s Restaurant—and for having a warm brick-walled interior and a big patio. Rather than classic red-sauce dishes, Sette will focus on hand-crafted pastas laced with sauces made more often with olive oil, cheese, lemon juice, butter and vegetables. Entrées mostly will be braised meat including pork shank with cranberry beans and farro, and chianti-braised short ribs. Fittingly, Sette means seven in Italian, Gregory-Probst explains. The restaurant will offer seven desserts, and seven each carefully chosen red wines and white, all available by the glass and bottle. Desserts will include house-made ice cream, gelato and mousse. “We want a visit to Sette to feel like you’re coming into someone’s home,” Gregory-Probst says. “We don’t want it to feel overly stuffy, yet we want the food to be incomparable and special.”
First Act: Sushi Pop
Back in the day, when he ran the kitchen at Thornton Park’s Shari Sushi, Chau Trinh was such a hotshot that he went by only his first name. Once marriage and baby came along, so did the suburbs: In 2011, Trinh opened the playful, creative restaurant Sushi Pop in suburban Oviedo. Colorful anime hung on the wall, speaking to the Millennial crowd, and the kitchen took on not only creatively filled sushi rolls and ethnically flexible hot dishes, but also a trend at the time in higher-end restaurants—molecular gastronomy. For example, the chocolate lava cake dessert was plated with a peanut butter powder that turns creamy inside your mouth.
Second Act: Sushi Pop Winter Park, ChauHaus
In January 2019, Trinh opened a “more grown-up” version of Sushi Pop just off Winter Park’s Park Avenue, Trinh observes. While cheerful pinks, yellows, grays and blacks tie this restaurant visually to its sibling, the new Sushi Pop has an anime-free decor and a more daring menu. The chefs receive fresh Japanese fishes that are unusual for Orlando, then conjure up light toppings for each one. Sunchoke salsa, for example, might accompany madai, which is sea bream. Both hot and cold small dishes are also available in the open dining room, which has a sushi bar in the center. And, so far at least, that chocolate-peanut butter meal-ender is on the menu here, too. In early March, Trinh added lunch service. He changes the name to ChauHaus and features Vietnamese fare. The dishes are “sweet, salty, sour and bitter, but with balance,” he says.
Sean “Sonny” Nguyen
First Act: Domu
Sean “Sonny” Nguyen has worked in restaurants his entire adult life, and while doing so as a young adult he tinkered with ramen recipes at home as a hobby. In 2016, the Winter Haven native went rogue and opened a hip, cozy table-service ramen restaurant with inventive takes on the Japanese staple—house-made noodles included, along with a bar, in the Audubon Park District’s East End Market. He called it Domu and has had lines out the door regularly ever since.
Second Acts: Domu Chibi Ramen, Tori Tori, Domu Sand Lake
Today, Nguyen has opened a second restaurant and has two more under way. Domu Chibi, in Waterford Lakes Town Center, is a fast-casual version of Domu with more well-known ramen varieties and lower prices. Light and bright with a custom wavy ceiling of blonde pine, the 1,200-square-foot Domu Chibi offers six ramen varieties and four appetizers. Guests order on an iPad and pick up the orders when their names are called.
Later in 2019, Tori Tori is planned to debut on Mills Avenue near Colonial Drive. It will be a “bar-focused Japanese pub,” Nguyen says. All seating will be around a rectangular bar, with decor elements of Japanese wood, marble, antique tile and dark green leather, with subtle modern touches. A variety of sakes and “unknown classics” from America’s cocktail past such as Paper Planes and Jungle Birds will define the beverage menu. The food will be chef-driven, including creatively filled house-made gyoza dumplings and scratch udon made with imported flour, plus yakitori—meats grilled over binchotan charcoal.
Nguyen’s fourth project will be a second flagship Domu, this one located in chi-chi The Marketplace at Dr. Phillips on Sand Lake Road. The new Domu will have a minimalistic look carried out by a mix of raw materials including concrete, wood and marble, plus an open kitchen, communal and banquet/booth seating and a large outdoor patio/lounge waiting-drinking area.