‘The Light’ Shines at Hilton Resort
La Luce’s tasty and quirky Italian dishes put a new luxury hotel on the dining map.
Photo By Mark Losh Photography
Many names that instantly conjure visions of deluxe surroundings are also names of hotels: The Plaza, Ritz (as in “putting on the”), Waldorf and Hilton, to mention just a few. While that last hotel name may be familiar via a certain scandalous socialite or her hotelier great-grandfather Conrad, the recently completed Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek might be new to you.
The Bonnet Creek Resort area is huge, more than 500 acres near Downtown Disney, with three hotels (and more on the way) and a golf course. The, er, ritziest of these hotels are the pair of Waldorf Astoria Orlando and its sister, the Hilton, both built to impress.
With a sleek backlit lobby and contemporary art, the Hilton is home to La Luce, a restaurant run by celebrity restaurateur Donna Scala. Known for her Napa Valley eatery, Bistro Don Giovanni, Scala is making her first entry into the East Coast dining scene with La Luce (“the light”). The color scheme is Mediterranean golds and terra-cotta, the bar is aperitif-filled (including an impressive selection of imported grappa) and the atmosphere is relaxed and sophisticated. As for the service, it’s as crisp as the bed linens in the hotel upstairs.
Scala has chosen well in the kitchen. Chef Alexander Rodriguez brings to the table skills learned in his native Venezuela and during his reign as executive chef of the Orlando World Center Marriott’s Ristorante Tuscany. There is a respect for flavors and ingredients in this predominantly Italian menu.
At least half of the bread in the introductory basket is made in-house, as are all the pasta, pastries and pizza dough. I could start a spirited debate about pizza—crust thickness, cheese apportionment, whether to eat with fork or fingers—but the Margherita version (sauce, basil, cow’s milk mozzarella; $14) that comes from La Luce’s very hot oven is crisp and thin and rustically Roman. The pizza sauce is not the same as the pasta sauces, and that’s as it should be.
Appetizers include well-prepared dishes with Italian and Spanish accents. Fritto misto ($15) is a sort of Mediterranean tempura, thinly batter-coated, then quickly deep-fried, rock shrimp, shaved fennel, calamari and whole green beans. I quite enjoyed the roasted beet salad ($11), a savory combo of avocado bits, more crunchy fennel (in case you’ve never had it, yes, you do like fennel), goat cheese and sweet chunks of red and yellow beets, dressed in a sprightly Riesling vinaigrette.
The adventurous in your party should sample a rather exotic starter. Olive fritte ($10), a tapa with origins in southern Spain, is a simple serving of green olives and round Marcona almonds, breaded and lightly pan-fried; it’s a surprising delight on the tongue. The roasted brussels sprouts ($6) are listed as a side dish (“contorni”), but I ordered them as an opening treasure. If you’ve never had sprouts straight from the oven, caramelized and dressed with parmigiano and brown butter, you’ve never had sprouts.
What works extremely well at La Luce are the quirky regional Italian items, such as lasagna con polpettine ($20). A specialty of central Italy, polpettine are tiny Italian meatballs made with chicken, veal and beef. Hidden beneath thin sheets of house-made pasta, like children playing under a blanket, the tender polpettine are covered with ricotta and fresh mozzarella di bufala cheeses, and a light tomato and basil sauce.
The seared fillet of salmon ($28) is brilliantly done, a thick, high wedge of pan-seared fish that combines satisfying crunch on top with mouth-melting, almost sushi-like rare flesh below. It’s served with buttermilk mashed potatoes and chive butter, almost superfluous additions because the fish is that good.
Chicken Diablo ($20) is an uncomplicated treasure. Marinated in hot pepper, then pressed and seared at high heat, the crisp and spicy skin of this otherwise tender dish could be a devilish entree all by itself.
Extras I don’t usually mention: Scala’s private label Cabernet Sauvignon is big and bold and able to stand up against the menu’s deep flavors. A mile-high parfait called Bostini trifle layers vanilla custard, chocolate cake and candied almonds (how can that be bad?), the lemon pudding cake is a marvel of kitchen chemistry—ask your waiter how it’s made—and the signature butterscotch pudding is creamy rich and laced with smoky whisky. Butter. Scotch. Get it? (All desserts are $9.)
It’s easy to imagine life as a hotel tycoon while savoring the culinary journey from one part of Italy to another. It may not be your luxe life, but La Luce is willing to share.
ADDRESS 14100 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane, Orlando