Inside the restaurant’s walls decked in charming wood panel, antique paintings, and floral flourishes, a world-famous accordionist strolls around playing melodies while business people in suits (perhaps visiting from the nearby convention center) and locals alike dine on 32 ounce veal chops and house made pasta dishes, impeccably served by waiters in full black suits, white shirts, and bow ties.
Located on Orlando’s Restaurant Row – Sand Lake Road – in the Dr. Phillips area, Christini’s Ristorante Italiano was founded in 1984 in a time when much of the area was orange groves.
Since then the restaurant has earned countless awards, accolades and celebrity endorsements, much of it due to founder Mr. Chris Christini’s warm hospitality, the exemplary service of its staff, attention-to-detail and a tasteful menu specializing in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.
This summer, Christini’s celebrates their 35th anniversary and recently announced the hiring of new executive chef Jason Gonsalves, an alumni of Johnson and Wales University and a student of Michelin starred French chef Daniel Balud in New York.
During a recent media visit to Christini’s in celebration of their 35th anniversary, Founder Chris Christini shared with us his story – a classic immigrant story from being born in Greece to coming to America and finally finding success.
He was born into a humble Greek-Italian family in Sparta, Greece, spending his childhood watching his parents struggle to feed their family of eight with no running water, no electricity and without the cooking knowledge to even boil an egg.
As a young man, Christini’s path led him to Canada and then to the United States, where New York Restauranteur Joe Baum took him under his wing, hiring him to work at the Four Seasons New York and ultimately guiding his immigration and jumpstart his career in the United States.
Christini quickly gained industry notoriety for his warm approach to creating a memorable epicurean experience, traveling the country to open 19 restaurants and hotels, including the five original Alfredo’s of Rome restaurants.
In 1982, Walt Disney World selected Christini to open L’Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante in Epcot Italy Pavilion, moving Christini to Orlando, where two years later, he realized his lifelong dream of owning and opened the doors of Christini’s Ristorante Italiano.
Tasty Chomps recently interviewed Mr. Chris Christini on this special 35th anniversary of Christini’s.
Interview with Founder Chris Christini of Christini’s Ristorante Italiano
Tasty Chomps: What were your favorite dishes from your childhood?
Chris Christini: Since I grew up in extreme poverty, with no electricity or running whatever, we relied on seasonal, fresh fruits and vegetables. For the holidays we ate whatever was prepared that day, lamb or goat over a wood fire. This needed to be consumed the same day because we did not have refrigeration.
Share a little about the experience of opening the Alfredo’s at the Italy Pavilion at Epcot.
As I had opened up five Alfredo’s of Rome, I was chosen to open up Alfredo’s at the Italian Pavilion at Epcot. Seven months before we opened, I had to hire over 900 employees. Once we opened, we served about 3,000 people a day. I did not sit in the office. I was always training our staff, many of whom were here on a visa, with no restaurant experience. I trained twice a day and was recognized by the President of Disney as the most experienced director on Disney property. I learned to treat every Disney guest like royalty.
What made you decide to open Christini’s restaurant way backk in 1984?
After all of my experience in the top restaurants and hotels in the country, like the 21 Club, the Four Seasons, the Forum of Twelve Caesars, I decided it was finally time to venture out on my own.
Can you share a few thoughts about opening your restaurant in Dr. Phillips in Orlando in 1984?
There was nothing but orange groves and Disney around here when we opened. Everyone doubted me and gave me more than two months to survive.
A Chinese friend of mine, upon seeing the location, told me not to open my restaurant here because the tower in front was taller than the building, which apparently was bad luck.
Fortunately, I ignored his advice. I put every cent that I had into the restaurant. Failing would have been a disaster for me and my family. There was no choice but to succeed, so I gave 100 percent every single day. I ran from the front of the restaurant to the kitchen. I did whatever it took to make Christini’s a success.
We also had a bit of luck when Bob Hope came in for three nights during a visit to Orlando and subsequently made a joke on the Johnny Carson show about the enormous size of our veal chops. From that point on, we were packed.
Today, restaurants are opening and closing left and right. There are very few fine dining restaurants that actually have the owner present and overseeing operations. I am proud after 35 years to still be present and overseeing the restaurant daily.
What are some of your favorite memories of the restaurant over the past 35 years?
My best memories involve the beautiful people that I have met. We have 92 percent repeating guests from all over the world. We have also entertained some of the top celebrities, including the Rolling Stones, Arnold Palmer, Brooke Shields, Stan Lee, Pele and Michael Jordan. We have had hundreds of celebrities from different sports and the cinema. Beyond that, my best memories are of receiving the Ivy Award (which the Vice President of Disney, Jim Armstrong, had to explain to me what this incredible award was at the time) and the Restaurateur Award for the Hall of Fame for the United States.
What are your tips for running such a hugely successful restaurant?
Owners with years of experience (20+ years) provide a unique perspective – understanding all of the aspects of the restaurant. He or she must be a chef, a manager, a dishwasher and a bartender… nimble and able to do it all. On top of this, and most importantly, he or she must love people.
Tell us about the Christini family’s olive farm in Grace.
The farm has been in my family for generations. We get both the restaurant’s olive oil and fresh olives from it. Agricultural scientists discovered a new way of crafting, which is why our olives are six times the size compared to Kalamata olives and the fermentation is completely different, as well. We use our own family recipe.
What are the most popular Christini’s dishes today?
The Chilean Seabass over a shrimp and lobster Risotto, our home made pastas and our enormous veal chops.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I am a huge golf fan. I enjoy fishing and spending time in my garden. I also enjoy traveling all over the world and especially to Italy.
Can you share anything about the menu and restaurant in the coming months?
We will always have our traditional menu, that guests continue to ask for. We will be adding seasonal additions, and new dishes incorporating ingredients like Maine Lobster, white truffles and Beluga caviar.
Linguine alla Primavera
Seasonal fresh vegetables sautéed with garlic and extra virgin olive oil over a bed of linguine, served with Pesto Pecorino cheese
Fettuccine alla Christini’s
Christini’s interpretation of Fettuccini Alfredo (Parmigiano Reggiano, butter and cream)
Fresh made potato dumplings served in a hearty meat sauce
Artichoke and Fennel Insalate
Artichoke hearts, shaved fennel, nicoise olives, artichoke puree
Vitello con Funghi Morel e Aragosta
Veal scaloppine with Morel mushrooms, Maine lobster medallions, deglazed with a dry sherry and brandy sauce
Eggplant napoleon seasoned with four types of cheese, fine herbs and light tomato sauce
Spigola Alla Christini
Pan-seared Chilean sea bass served with shrimp risotto in a lobster tarragon sauce
Grand Marnier Souffle
Christini’s Ristorante Italiano
7600 Dr Phillips Blvd, Orlando, FL 32819