(Photo: ERIC PERA/THE LEDGER)
If the word Palace is on the marquee, it's all about famiglia, and very good food, made by Italians for the average American palate. So while you feel the amore, you know deep down that we have yet to see the true potential.
PALACE ITALIAN RESTAURANT
6120 U.S. 98 N., Lakeland; 863-853-1316
5720 S. Florida Ave., Lakeland; 863-619-5919.
Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
FOOD: 4 stars
SERVICE: 3½ stars
AMBIENCE: 3 stars
THE GIST: Family-owned and local, serving more than just pizza and spaghetti in a relaxed setting.
FYI: Beer and wine served.
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards accepted.
PRICE RANGE: $6.99 to $17.99
APPROPRIATE FOR KIDS: Yes.
MUST TRY: Any pizza, garlic knots, chicken soup, eggplant parmigiana, fettuccine bolognese, lobster ravioli.
Here at Palace Italian in south Lakeland, perhaps the most ambitious operation in a fleet of six restaurants with different owners, all connected by blood, a simple blend of sundried tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic vinegar takes center stage as a dreamy dip for dredging bite-size pieces of just-crisp flatbread.
The flavor is bright and sweet, and especially appealing paired with a glass of something red from the short-but-adequate wine list.
Kick back and take in a menu that has been thoughtfully refined over the span of 17 years, beginning with a counter-service pizzeria in downtown Lakeland. Its success in the hands of Sal Schiano and family has spawned other restaurants all bearing the Palace name but with menus that differ slightly.
Schiano and his son, Gianni, preside over the downtown establishment on South Kentucky Avenue, which does an astonishing lunch business, serving up mainly slices of pizza, hearty calzones, salads and hot sandwiches with blistering speed. The restaurants in Mulberry, Highland City and downtown Bartow are more ambitious with offerings such as chicken or eggplant parmigiana and other Italian favorites like gnocchi and ravioli filled with bits of lobster.
Two restaurants do not feature pizza on the marquee, though both proffer the same dizzying array of pies, luxurious and yeasty garlic knots and other nibbles. They include Palace Italian Restaurant north under the direction of Salvatore Esposito, and Palace Italian Restaurant south, owned by Joe Zanni and his cousin, Giordano Lanuto.
This review keys on these two, higher end restaurants, where similarities abound, especially their menus and a coterie of capable, efficient servers who are exceedingly helpful and friendly, anticipating every need even under madhouse conditions.
[ REVIEW ]
Palace Italian Restaurants Know How to Do It Right
Published: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 at 4:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 at 4:44 p.m.
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Zanni's restaurant is more cozy and romantic, with warm, terracotta-colored walls and shelves of wine. Despite the Friday-night bustle (and half-hour wait to be seated), orders arrived swiftly, including a very nice basket of calamari, thick rings of tender squid, minus tentacles, fried in a light, tempura-style batter, $9.99.
All of the Palace restaurants have mastered the same, light touch with their tomato sauces, especially the house standard at Zanni's place that layers a bountiful portion of eggplant parmigiana, $14.99, sitting atop a nest of perfectly cooked spaghetti.
Less interesting is a plate of chicken principessa, $15.99, swimming in a sauce uncharacteristically bland for the Palace brand.
Better to go with the abundantly light, flavorful, meaty bolognese served up at Esposito's restaurant, paired with rustic, weightless fettucine, $13.99.
While filling, none of the dishes at either restaurant rest heavy. Most entrees are more than enough for two, especially if you have splurged on appetizers, as entrees come with choice of soup or salad.
Speaking of soup, Esposito's kitchen at the north end of town delivered a chicken version worthy of note for its fresh, intensely flavored broth filled with small morsels of chicken and other ingredients.
The same kitchen produced a stunning plate of lobster ravioli, $18.99, covered in a tomato-based sauce best described as rustic and earthy with mushrooms and studded with shrimp more sweet than briny.
The skill deployed to deliver such regal fare unfortunately fails to do justice to a dessert of tiramisu, $4.95, merely cake soaked in coffee and drowned in thick, whipped cream.
During an Oct. 4 inspection Palace north was cited for three intermediate and two basic violations, while the south location on Feb. 19 was cited for one basic and one high priority violation for raw meat stored over ready-to-eat food in a walk-in cooler.
Both restaurants, as with the rest of the chain, keep prices at moderate levels while somehow managing to keep quality high. Sure, there are shortcuts, like boxed Parmesan in shakers, and few if any dishes that require tableside flourish.
But Palace isn't about fancy or fussy. It's about family. When in the presence of this particularly close-knit clan, you feel the love.