If you’ve ever had a craving for Italian food at Walt Disney World, you know there certainly isn’t a lack of choices, particularly in the Crescent Lake Resorts/Epcot corner of the World. Recently, I took a trip to the Swan resort’s Il Mulino signature Italian eatery to see what it had to offer and how it compares to its neighbors.
I’d never been to Il Mulino before (but had always heard rave reviews), so I brought along a friend who had – as it turns out, this was an excellent decision, otherwise I never would’ve found the restaurant! The Swan hotel has two “lobbies” of sorts, so you have to walk through the main hotel lobby to the other central lobby to get to the restaurant. Once you’ve found it, you have to walk through the bar to get to the hostess stand (though I have occasionally seen a hostess outside the restaurant helping direct guests inside). After a few minutes of confusion about where to seat us in the bustling restaurant, we headed to a table in the main dining room. My first impression was that of an upscale modern eatery in a big city – a loud dining room with bare bones décor, filled to the brim with large parties of conventioneers and only a smattering of families. Our server was very quick to greet us (and introduce his serving partner), but then took a bit of time to come back to take our order. We were pretty overwhelmed by all the options on the menu; it’s probably twice as large as most signature dining options, with appetizers, salads, soups, pizzas, pastas, seafood, and meat entrees along with the family style dining section (available for parties with four or more people). Our server didn’t offer up any recommendations at first, but I had no idea what to order – so many options, many of which sounded fantastic. After a little prodding, he recommended a few of the pasta dishes and the steak entrees. We went against the grain and ordered a few items from several sections to try to get a representative sampling of the large menu.
Our drinks arrived in due time – I tried the “Piano Piano” ($13), basically an aviation cocktail you’d find at many other restaurants. After sampling this lightly-poured drink, I’d hazard a guess that most of the cocktails here follow suit – meant for conventioneers and tourists who rarely drink, so think light on the liquor, heavy on the sweet fillers. Sangria was recommended by one of our servers, as was the extensive wine list, but at convention prices (think: slightly higher than most Disney signature restaurant wine list), I was reluctant to order selections I’ve seen all around property for a few dollars cheaper per glass. I eventually caved and tried the red sangria, but it was, rather predictably, cloyingly sweet and lacking in any nuance. Along with our drinks, we received the restaurant’s bread service – several slices of crusty Italian bread, a few pieces of tomato herb focaccia, and a plate on the side with a few slices of salami and a healthy portion of eggplant caponata (a pretty standard mix of eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, with a few olive slices here and there). The salami was odd – very little flavor, no spice, no savory twang; but the caponata was excellent – not overly salty, and it brought out the sweetness of the tomato flavor in the focaccia.
About forty minutes after we sat down, twenty-five minutes after we ordered them, we received our three appetizers (quite a wait, but we weren’t in a big hurry). First up, the arancini: fried risotto balls over spicy marinara ($9). All three balls (relatively small in size) were dry inside, and bitter tasting from the overcooked exterior (likely the cause of the dry texture); most of the flavor came from the spicy tomato sauce, as there wasn’t much to the rice or the miniscule amount of meat filling inside each ball. For the price, I wasn’t impressed by the portion – I vastly prefer the same dish at nearby Via Napoli or the similar dish served at Citricos. The polpette al forno ($12) were better, but not by a ton – three large meatballs served over tomato basil sauce with parmesan cheese. The texture bordered on mealy, and though not mind-blowingly flavorful, the traditional spices and savoriness of the meat blended well together. This appetizer would be a nice choice for picky eaters, or those who are interested in more traditional fare. Our last appetizer selection was the carpaccio di carne ($14) – thinly-sliced beef with arugula and topped in “carpaccio sauce” (spoiler alert: it tasted exactly like Caesar salad dressing). The meat here was also mealy in texture, with only about four slices in total on the plate; I would gladly take the same dish from BOATHOUSE Restaurant at Disney Springs any day over this particular version (it is a larger portion for only a few more dollars, and better quality meat).
About twenty minutes after our lackluster appetizer plates disappeared, our entrees arrived, though during this wait, one of our servers did drop by to tell us the dishes were on the way shortly – that’s always an appreciated touch, just to know you haven’t been totally forgotten about. We chose to take advantage of the option on the menu to order half-portions of the pasta dishes so we could try more than one alongside our entrees. The rigatoni con funghi ($25 whole portion, $15 half portion) came highly recommended by one of our servers, and based on the menu description (“rigatoni with wild mushrooms, spicy cherry peppers, garlic and truffle oil”) I was pretty excited to try it. When we started examining the dish, though, it was a little disappointing. The creamy broth sauce had a strong pepper flavor that gave way to an earthy flavor from the singular mushroom that had been sliced into the dish and the dash of truffle oil. Not helping matters: the dish was room temperature, same as the spaghetti carbonara half portion ($22 whole, $14 half). Though the egg yolk was already mixed in to the carbonora (I love playing with my food, so restaurants who still serve it whole for guests to mix in are so fun for me), the sauce was pretty close to traditional – creamy, though slightly grainy, and safe for alfredo sauce lovers. There wasn’t a ton of pancetta or chive flavor overall, but the pasta was well-cooked and we managed to finish the dish, though we did not with the rigatoni.
For our full entrees, we ordered the gamberi francese ($30) and the veal saltimbocca ($34). The francese dish was described on the menu as egg-battered and sautéed jumbo shrimp with white wine lemon sauce, and that’s precisely what we got: four fried (think soft batter, not crispy fried) shrimp, a few bites of sautéed spinach (bitter greens with a little acid to cut the richness of the fried, buttery dish), and a lemon beurre blanc sauce that was so tangy and rich (and fantastic), I’d dare call it drinkable. I wasn’t bowled over by the shrimp – they were a bit tough, but I think anything could’ve been served with that sauce and it wouldn’t have mattered. The saltimbocca, in contrast, had next to no flavor; we were surprised, considering the prosciutto that had been fried into one side of it and the thin marsala sauce – I expected at least a bit more saltiness or something, but alas, we we were a little disappointed. The portion here was also on the small side. Remarkably, after three appetizers, two half portions of pasta, and two entrees (~$120 worth of food, mind you), neither of us were terribly full; this speaks to the small portion sizes here, though we were both surprised that the half-portions of pasta were as large as they were, and commented that neither of us could’ve finished a whole portion of pasta.
As we entered hour three of dinner (yes, hour three, and we are pretty quick diners), we got a glance at the dessert menu; at the same time, we were told they were out of one of the selections – kind of surprising for 8pm on a weekend evening, but seemed to be a theme, as other tables around us were told they were out of a few of the entrees as well when they were seated. We settled on the tiramisu ($11) and the flourless chocolate cake ($10), which arrived shortly along with a complimentary portion of limoncello (served with a ladle from a bucket – an odd sight if you’ve never seen it elsewhere, but still a nice touch). The tiramisu was incredibly sweet – we felt it overwhelmed the espresso flavor and creaminess of the marscapone, but the chocolate cake was the winner of the two. The cake was dense, though not as moist as others I’ve had (easy to resolve with a dab of the whipped cream served on the side), and had a deep chocolate flavor. It’s nothing outside of the box, but it’ll cap your meal off nicely and satisfy most palates.
Overall, I left Il Mulino a tad underwhelmed, especially after paying the bill – our check came out to nearly $200 for two adults (before Tables in Wonderland discount), and though we tried many more dishes than an average pair would, we left the table only just satisfied, given the smaller portions of each dish. For a family of four with kids who want more than just a small side of pasta, a meal could easily hit this price or exceed it; for a group of adults, you’re probably looking at closer to $300, before the bar tab hits the bill. Truthfully, that’s a lot of money for a meal that didn’t quite hit the spot. Admittedly, based on the wait times for each course, and the basic issues in execution and temperature of the food, I assume the kitchen was having an off night. The problem, though, is that I didn’t have anything great enough to compel me to give it another shot at those prices – I’d much rather venture into Epcot and have a great meal at Via Napoli or Tutto Italia. Even without park admission, you can have a similar quality meal for much less just a few steps away at Trattoria al Forno at the Boardwalk Inn Resort. Il Mulino is probably a great option for those taking advantage of their convention per-diem expense accounts, but most diners at Walt Disney World would likely prefer any of the other quality Italian cuisine options nearby.