We continue on from Spain.
If corporations are people, then it would stand to reason that countries are corporations with names that could be trademarked. Italy™ means something – just hearing the name probably evokes thoughts of rolling hills, picturesque waterways, and old world vineyards in your mind. If you were to say “Italy” to me, I’d probably have flashbacks to the, “This Is Supposed to be Cooked, Right?” Disaster of Food and Wine 2k13, the “Is This Supposed to Be This Mushy” Incident of 2k14, the “Why is This So Wet” Fiasco of 2k15, the “Is This Actually Food” Dramedy of 2k16, the “Why Have They Done This To Us” court battle of 2k17, or my third bankruptcy.
The Italy Marketplace at the Food and Wine Festival has always taken advantage of the homeland’s tradition of rich cuisine to drive its popularity in spite of under-delivering on quality year in and year out, particularly given the above average price points of many of its dishes. The good news is that Italy now prepares the majority of its dishes inside its waterfront home. That means your fried calamari is going to be served fresh and disappointing out of the fryer rather than someone being in charge of carting over the sadness once every couple of hours from backstage kitchens. Imagine the responsibility of pushing 36 small portions of pasta, with a street value of $47,500, in between the spiraling drunks, brain-dead vloggers, and those of us just trying to stop and be judgmental for five seconds of our lives. They say the success of Disney’s earnings reports are based solely on how many of those trays spill over in transit. If they hadn’t lost four pasta shipments back in 2006, I don’t think Disney would have bought Pixar to try to pad their bottom line. This is serious business.
Historically, nobody ever buys anything from Italy a second time. You’ll probably hear about how much people love the Cheddar Cheese Soup from Canada, the Schinkennudeln from Germany, the Kahlua Pork Slider from Hawaii, or what have you. But nobody has ever gotten excited to visit Italy for this year’s version of Unidentifiable Meat Product in Brown Water Sauce served with Soft Plastic Corn Hunk. That’s why the Marketplace replaces its menu in its entirety every year. The exception is the Cannoli, but only because they’re still defrosting and serving the pastries from the initial run when they were baked back in 1992.
But things have changed a little this year as a version of the Fritto Misto migrates over from the Flower and Garden Festival, which may be evidence that Italy is turning over a new leaf. The Marketplace is also banking on the fact that you don’t know what Placido wine is by actually naming the brands this year. In the past, they’ve quickly poured the unnamed wine while you’re still in shock over paying $12 for a ravioli.
$27.20 worth. It could be a lot worse.
- Fritto Misto: Crispy Shrimp, Zucchini and Sweet Potatoes with a Spicy Sauce – $8
- Pollo Alla Cacciatora: Braised Chicken Thigh, Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Parmesan Polenta – $7.95
- Mezzi Rigatoni: Vodka Sauce, Crispy Pancetta and Parmesan Cheese – $7
- Cannoli filled with Sweet Ricotta, Chocolate and Candied Fruit – $4.25
- Frozen Margarita with Limoncello and Tequila – $10
- Moretti Lager Beer – $5.50
- Moretti La Rossa Double Malt Beer – $5.50
Fritto Misto: Crispy Shrimp, Zucchini and Sweet Potatoes with a Spicy Sauce – $8
This isn’t a bad gig – you’ll be served a half dozen shrimp along with two long pieces of zucchini and sweet potato, lightly-battered and fried and then drizzled with a little bit of a spicy sauce. Each piece retains a nice little snap and the appropriate amount of crispiness. It was also fun to taste the different flavors. The zucchini is basically a blank canvas, soaking up the herb flavors in the batter and the pepper in the sauce, while the sweetness of the potatoes contrasted with the sauce more playfully. My one fault with the dish would be the presentation – I’d like to see the spicy sauce served along with a zesty marinara served in little bowls for dipping. We’re far from reinventing the wheel here and the dish is probably a dollar overpriced, but Italy has certainly offered more questionable dishes in the past.
Pollo Alla Cacciatora: Braised Chicken Thigh, Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Parmesan Polenta – $7.95
If you can tell me why this comes in at $7.95 and the Misto is $8 then you’re smarter than I am. Maybe they thought the chicken presented exactly five cents less value or the exchange rate changed in the middle of creating the menu. You might want to get in on some of this stuff before Italy leaves the European Union and everything costs $350.
While I questioned whether or not I was at the right Festival when I was impressed by the quality of the dishes at the Islands of the Caribbean, I knew I had come to the right place when I saw the Soft Plastic Corn Hunk served alongside meat that I wished I hadn’t ordered. To be fair, the chicken was actually pretty good, served covered in a robust tomato sauce with a nice sprinkling of herbs and enough mushrooms to add a real earthy component. It still “feels” a little strange to be eating it while standing up outside in Florida in September, but maybe you could say that about the majority of the items served at the Festival. I’m not personally a fan of the Polenta Stick that you end up cutting into like a log of tofu, but it may be more to your tastes. Overall, this is a small version of an average Italian restaurant entree, which may or may not mean you want to seek it out.
Mezzi Rigatoni: Vodka Sauce, Crispy Pancetta and Parmesan Cheese – $7
Last year’s Penne arrived with Shrimp, which seems to add more value to the dish than the promise of Pancetta.
That’s particularly true when what amounts to a sprinkle of Bacon Bits does little to alter the flavor profile of a basic, thin marinara sauce. Lovers of al dente pasta will appreciate this though as the rigatoni retains a nice chew and there is enough of it that you can fill up a considerable amount of tum-tum room if that’s what you’re trying to accomplish. On the other hand, you might want to save that space for something more interesting, particularly considering the $7 price point, which is $1.50 too high.
Cannoli filled with Sweet Ricotta, Chocolate and Candied Fruit – $4.25
What is technically a Cannolo is actually different this year. Above is the chocolate-covered version that’s been served here for years. You can see it sweating in the heat as the defrosting process nears completion while you watch.
And here’s this year’s. The filling is still richly sweet with a few pieces of candied fruit that help brighten the flavor profile, but it doesn’t suffer from the bitter chocolate flavor of the past or the brittle texture, where the whole thing seemed to crack into a million pieces upon the first bite. There are tastier desserts around and the Cannolo is on the small side, but it’s not the worst thing to add to an order.
Frozen Margarita with Limoncello and Tequila – $10
The Italian Margarita is refreshing and a good value for the money, even if the alcohol content may not be high. It’s a lot more drink for your money than the French “martinis” and has a nice tart flavor. While it’s not at all Italian, it is tasty if you’re looking for something of this variety.
Moretti Lager Beer – $5.50
Just know that I am shaking my head violently just looking at this picture.
Store price: CHEAP
Festival price: EVEN MORE EXPENSIVE THIS YEAR
ABV: WHO CARES
Value: NOT GREAT BOB
Moretti La Rossa Double Malt Beer – $5.50
La Rossa is at least 7.2% ABV, but paying $11 for what amounts to a 12-ounce draft is nuts. You could Uber to my condo, drink six bottles, Uber back to Epcot, and the cost would still be less than buying the equivalent of three drafts at Epcot. Even if I charged you twice as much as I paid for the Moretti!!!
I wouldn’t on the wine. Spain’s are higher quality and less expensive. You can also pick up a flight.
Overall, “average” is a banner year for Italy as the tide may finally be turning in its favor. I laugh maybe four times per year, two of which are typically after being served something from this Marketplace, but I admit that I didn’t even crack a smile this year. Nothing here is worth going out of your way to try, but at least the tourists should be slightly less disappointed, assuming they have any idea what tastes good in the first place.
Hops & Barley, reviewed here, is up next.