If you’ve been craving freshly made Italian food and haven’t yet tried Oronzo Honest Italian, located in the outparcel building to The Walk at Highwoods Preserve plaza on Bruce B. Downs Blvd., I suggest you go now because it’s a one-of-a-kind fast-casual dining experience that’s sort of an Italian take on nearby Chipotle.

Owner Dan Bavaro, who started his career in the food service business at the age of 16 in New Jersey, when he worked for a food truck/caterer who provided food for movie sets. Two years later, he started a high-end limousine company and made enough money when he sold the business to open his own restaurant.

“I knew I didn’t want a ‘slice joint’ or a fine dining Italian place,” Dan says, so after moving to Tampa in 2007, “I ended up becoming one of the first three places in the country to serve wood-fired true Neapolitan-style pizza (that has since become all the rage) when I opened the original Bavaro’s Pizza Napoletana on Franklin St. downtown in 2009.”

Dan Bavaro (far left) with his family.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Dan says that when he first opened Bavaro’s, his whole menu was maybe ten items — including two pizzas, two appetizers, two salads.

By his third year in business, however, Bavaro’s had added pastas and sauces, all made in house and started selling the sauces in the restaurant.

“When we started, I got up to making 250 pizzas a day. Once we added other items, only 60% of the business was still pizza.” By 2015, Bavaro started franchising his place, with new locations popping up at Tampa International Airport and in downtown St. Pete and downtown Sarasota.

In 2016, he began talking with Bob Johnson, the owner of the uber-successful The Melting Pot franchises in our area and the two decided to start working on a fast, casual Italian concept together that four years later became Oronzo, which was named for Dan’s grandfather when it opened earlier this year. Oronzo and Angela Bavaro emigrated from Italy to Brooklyn, NY, where he owned and operated a trucking company, delivering fresh ingredients to local markets and restaurants. 

What About The Food?

Dan is proud that even though Oronzo is a fast, casual concept, the restaurant is a true scratch kitchen, where the pastas, sauces, bread for the piadina sandwiches (aka Italian burritos) and crispy, Roman-style flatbreads (Dan warns that they are not pizzas, although they’re yummy, whatever you call them) are all made in-house. Even the salad dressings and amazing tomato basil zuppa (soup; Jannah’s favorite, which is served with crisp, toasted rosemary focaccia bread) are all house-made.

Start with an Italian-inspired salad (the Italian chopped, classic Caesar and “Iconic Caprese” are all delicious (we added grilled chicken to the Italian chopped salad on this page). Our favorite dressing is the Caesar, but the roasted pepper vinaigrette gets Dan’s vote.

Jannah and I love the spaghetti with meatballs (and I love adding the fresh Italian sausage to it) and the fresh-cut zucchini noodles with antico pomodoro (fresh tomato sauce). You can choose from Oronzo’s pomodoro, spicy arrabbiata, crema, pesto, butter or extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) sauces.

I’m also a big fan of the chicken pesto pasta. The only pasta on the menu I haven’t tried is the primavera, which you can get with spaghetti or zucchini noodles.

Also outstanding is the Caprese forza bowl, made with farro, an ancient grain from Sicily that has become popular here, too. The Caprese bowl features farro, crispy baked chicken, heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, pesto and a balsamic drizzle. So savory!

Senior video producer/photographer Charmaine George, who took most of these pics, also raved about the Caprese piadina (above) and Dan says his favorite is the chicken parm piadina.

My favorite flatbread so far is the Carne (with San Marzano tomato sauce, spicy Italian sausage, prosciutto cotto and spicy soppressata, fresh mozzarella and EVOO).

For dessert, Oronzo has three unique options. The only one I’ve had so far are the cannoli crisps, which are house-made cannoli cream, served with almost cookie-like cannoli crisps for dipping (above). There’s also a warm Nutella piatto flatbread and Italian wedding cookies. There’s even a great kids menu (labeled “Bambino”). 

Oronzo also features an easy-to-use ordering kiosk which quickly walks you through all of the available menu items and Dan says his online ordering system is state-of-the-art, too.“You can go on there and order for a week from now at a certain time and the system will remind us to make your food fresh a few minutes before you’re set to pick it up,” he says. “Technology is a key part of what we do and it’s been made better by listening to our customers.”

And now, Oronzo also offers beer and wine. The new additions include a Montepulciano D’Abruzzo red, a Pinot Grigio white and a sparkling prosecco, plus Peroni beer on draft and an Oronziata non-alcoholic beverage made from scratch with blood oranges, plus delicious espresso and Americano coffees.

Oronzo Honest Italian is located at 18027 Highwoods Preserve Pkwy. And is open every day, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. For more information, call (813) 730-0100 or visit Oronzo.com.

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