A chef’s dreams come true at Tartini, where pizzas and pasta dishes are meticulously crafted works of art.
David Kosmerlj, chef and owner of Tartini Pizzeria & Spaghetteria, used to operate a successful merchandise kiosk at Orlando’s Universal Studios, selling tchotchkes to tourists. Like his other businesses through the years, it was a departure from the job he literally dreamed about. “Some people dream about trees or clouds,” he says. “I dream about food. I did other jobs, but they always brought me back to food.”
His dream-come-true is Tartini, a fast casual restaurant with locations in Pine Castle and Apopka. Its wood-beamed ceiling and stacked stone walls wouldn’t look out of place in a modern chain, and more locations and a possible franchise are Kosmerlj’s admitted goals. But right now, he just wants to cook.
“I give people the kind of food I was raised on,” the 42-year-old father of two says.
Kosmerlj is from the medieval town of Piran, in Slovenia, tracing his family back to the early 18th century. Less than 20 miles from the Italian border, the area was a port for the Roman Empire and holds on to its Italian, Hungarian and Yugoslavian culinary influences.
Kosmerlj came to the United States in 1987 when his father took a job as chef for the governor of South Carolina. Now he uses those familial inspirations in the tiny Tartini kitchen. “I just wanted to make pizza,” he says, “but people asked for more.”
Like Kosmerlj himself, the pizza at Tartini is a cultural amalgam. In my own childhood New York neighborhood, many pizza places were owned by Albanian immigrants, and their history of Italian domination led to interesting pizza variations. The Slovene version at Tartini is halfway between Naples and the Bronx: a thin, moderately firm crust with lovely, hot-oven leopard spots on the crust, but without that crispiness that makes New York pizza crack when you fold it.
The Margherita uses fresh tomatoes as well as a scant amount of sauce for a quite enjoyable pie; the namesake Tartini layers pepperoni, fatty sopressata, spicy Italian and peppery Genoa salamis on the well-done crust. The Venezia—a chicken, broccoli and mushroom assembly—is hearty enough for several meals. Bacio cheese, a mixture of cow and buffalo milk, is used throughout, and the restaurant filters the water used to make the dough in a special six-process machine. Pies come in four sizes, from a 10-inch lunch serving to a meter-long (40-inch) rectangular behemoth, with prices ranging from $8 to $52.
Fresh ingredients are the norm; there’s only one freezer, used to keep gelato that is made in Tampa. Little touches, like candied pine nuts and sangria-soaked apple slices in the arugula salad ($7), are attention-grabbers. Sauces are used as flavor enhancements (what Romans call condimente) rather than an overwhelming gravy. Kosmerlj makes his grandma’s recipe for marinara, which he cooks for 6 hours, and he’ll tell people he’s sold out rather than use the sauce the same day it’s made—“It’s better tomorrow,” he says. The pasta Giardino ($15) is one departure from red sauce, a verdant mix of artichokes, zucchini and mushrooms served with penne pasta and coated in fresh pesto—light, fragrant and wonderfully herby.
Kosmerlj thinks about the flavor of an entire dish, rather than its individual components, and the results are impressive. He says he’ll retire someday, return to Piran and continue the family line there. Hopefully, not any time soon.
Imported from Verona, the wood-fired ovens at the two Tartini restaurants are ceramic and steel infernos that blaze at 600 degrees, using a stone turntable elevator to cook pies evenly. They are the only two such ovens in the U.S., can cook a pizza in 7 minutes, make very nice thin focaccia bread almost instantaneously, and are fun to watch.
6327 S. Orange Ave., Orlando, 407-601-2400
625 Rock Ridge Blvd., Apopka, 407-814-7474
Entrees: $7-$18 (large pizzas up to $52)