The Great Christini
For 28 years, restaurateur Chris Christini has stayed true to what made his fine-dining establishment a grand success—perfection.
It’s early afternoon, and Chris Christini is sitting in the empty restaurant that bears his name, a plate of olives on the table in front of him. The room is a throwback to a different time—wood paneling, statues of demure maidens, tuxedoed waiters whisking away every crumb—and so is Christini, a vintage restaurant owner and proud of it.
“They grow these on my farm” in Greece, he says of the enormous olives. “You won’t find them anywhere else in the world. Expensive, yes, and we don’t give them to everyone. But they’re very, very good.”
Just like the olives (which are very, very good), Christini’s Ristorante Italiano, tucked in a corner of the Marketplace at Dr. Phillips for the past 28 years, is expensive, and not for everyone. But for a particularly special occasion, it is precisely right.
“This restaurant is exactly as if it was from 1960,” Christini says of the restaurant’s vintage look, accenting each word with a downbeat of his hand. The 72-year-old restaurateur can be found most evenings at the corner of the bar, watching the room and its inhabitants, aiming a waiter at an empty glass or awaiting an opportunity to visit a table. “I’m bored, I came to talk to you,” he says to one couple. “How are you?”
His recipes fill the plates and the dining room. “I have a problem,” he says. “People want the same things—‘I want the veal chop, I want the fettuccine!’ So I stay the same.” Christini insists on a traditional Alfredo recipe (butter, butter and more butter—triplo burro—and aged Parmigiano Reggiano) for his fettuccine alla Christini ($25.50), a rich plate of perfectly al dente pasta. “Some people want fettuccine Alfredo with olives,” he says. “You don’t put olives, you don’t put, I don’t know, broccoli [on fettuccini]. That’s not how it’s made.”
Christini was trained as a French chef, and Gallic precision is evident in his recipes. Order a spaghetti al pomodoro today or a month from now, and you’ll get the same tomato sauce, simmered for hours with a mix of 13 spices, that he served decades ago.
When you sit, a crusty loaf of bread and a dip of puréed eggplant, garlic and dill arrives. My suspicions about the dip’s origins are proved right when I ask Christini about his childhood, and why he got into the restaurant business.
“Poverty,” he replies. Born in Sparta, Greece, to Italian and Greek parents, Christini took a job in a bakery, a chance decision that led to a career opening restaurants in Montreal, Chicago and New York City, including the famous Four Seasons (not related to the hotel of the same name). Working for the company that owned the Alfredo alla Scrofa restaurant in Rome—where fettuccine Alfredo was invented in 1914—Christini came to Florida in 1982 to open L’Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante at Epcot’s Italy Pavilion. He left two years later.
Life after Epcot saw Christini open his eponymous restaurant in the relative wilderness of Dr. Phillips. The location was a gamble. Photos lining the walls show the owner, looking like a young Steve Allen, with Luciano Pavarotti, Magic Johnson and countless sports stars, musicians and actors. One of those celebrities, the late Bob Hope, arrived with Arnold Palmer shortly after Christini’s opened and put the struggling restaurant on the map. Appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Hope talked about the enormous size of Christini’s veal chop. That famous chop (market price around $65) is broiled with sage and finished with apple brandy, and is one of the most decadent and enjoyable dishes in town.
The meticulously prepared old-school menu is delightful. Linguine alla Genovese ($14.50) is a simple dish of pasta with pesto sauce, the distinct flavors of garlic, basil and pine nuts perfectly balanced. The oil made from Christini’s olives is the final, ideal touch. Aragosta fra diavalo ($62.50) coats firm chunks of lobster in a peppery tomato sauce for just the right amount of heat. Chicken scaloppine al Marsala ($32.50) combines a rich wine sauce with sautéed mushrooms and a thin-pounded chicken cutlet and is worth eating slowly.
A quick Google search of Christini’s will find reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Urban Spoon, ranging from many extravagant superlatives to a few comments that are disturbingly foul.
“Compliments and complaints are on the same level for me,” Christini says. “I take it very personal. We see everything that’s said online, and if somebody had a bad day before they got here, or they just didn’t like it here for whatever reason—if they don’t say something here, how can I fix it? But we have a 92 percent repeat. I keep track.”
Twenty-five bucks for a plate of pasta. Pasta that has been cooked to perfection every time for 28 years. Women leave with a fresh rose; whenever a jug of Limoncello, a homemade lemon liqueur, is steeping in the kitchen, everyone gets a glass. Christini’s may not be for everyone, but it is for some, and for Chris Christini, that is what matters.
“This is my home,” he says. “If I come back in another life, I would choose the exact same thing to do.”