Thursday, December 17, 2009

Margherita's Grille

Margherita's: Quick, what comes to mind? Tacos and refried beans? Wide-mouth glasses with salt and a slice of lime on the rim? If you're at Margherita's Grille in Girard, you can order the latter if you want, but surprise: For the most part, the food here anything but Mexican. In fact, the name is a clue: Spelled this way, it's Italian, and also the name of the grandmother of the owner of this wonderful restaurant -- or so our server told us at our most recent visit.

Once the cold weather, snow and ice hit this neck of the woods, my husband Jack and I tend to hunker down and put the brakes on traveling any distance from which we couldn't walk home if need be. I say that partly to "warn" readers that the bulk of the restaurants and attractions I'll be mentioning here for a while won't be too far from where I'm sitting right now -- and partly to say how delighted we are to have Margherita's relatively close at hand. After a couple of our friends introduced us to the place a few months back (thanks, Jerry and Barb!), we've put this place right at the top of our favorites list. If you haven't been here yet, you're missing a real treat.

Although adding Margherita's to our list of favorites was a no-brainer, it's extremely difficult to pick favorites when it comes to the food. Of course, there are the requisite Italian dishes like meat or cheese ravioli and sauce ($7.99; add meat, Alfredo or vodka sauce for an additional $1.99) as well as temptations like linguine with clams or mussels in white wine sauce or spicy marinara ($10.99) and eggplant parmigiana, breaded and topped with mozzarella and marinara sauce accompanied by spaghetti marinara ($9.99). If your taste runs to the more exotic, try the Pasta Margherita, which consists of cauliflower, pine nuts and raisins sauteed in white wine sauce over penne pasta ($9.99). Like veal? You can't miss with Veal Marsala, Veal Parmigiana, Veal Salty Bocca or Veal Francais.

For smaller appetites or the lunch crowd, sandwiches and pizza are plentiful here as well. The pizza burger, an Angus steak burger squashed between two slices of sheet pizza and spashed with sauce ($7.99), is reminiscent of the pizza burgers we used to love at another area restaurant -- ditto the meatball splash. Several calzones are available, as is a variety of pizza including the Four Seasons, a thin-crust topped with artichokes, black olives, mushrooms and red peppers (a 12-inch is $6.99).

We've already sampled several of these mouth-watering goodies, and trust me, we'll be trying more. That said, our most recent visit was one of our most satisfying, starting with blackened prime rib with a baked potato and wedding soup for me and Filet Siciliano with French fries and lobster bisque for Jack -- both were on the specials board and in the $15 range.

I should mention that except for Friday and Saturday evenings, we've never needed a reservation if we arrived by 5:30 p.m.; and the "early bird" specials served up between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., ranging from $7.99 to $10.99, are yet another reason to beat the rush. Still, especially if your party includes four or more, I advise erring on the side of caution by calling ahead.

The inside of the place is far from fancy -- in fact, the emphasis is on family atmosphere even during the Saturday evening entertainment. But there's a full bar, comfortable booths and tables and friendly, helpful servers, all of which help make for an enjoyable dining experience. The tables are close enough together that you can chat with friends and neighbors without shouting but far enough away that you won't feel cramped.

Ah, but I digress: Back to the reason we were here. We were hungry -- and hoped to have some leftovers from our entrees to enjoy another day -- so we chose a couple of appetizers. Actually, make that I chose; since I'm the one doing the post-eating write-up, I figured that gave me dibs on picking the starters. Since we'd already tried the delicious hand-cut, lightly breaded calamari with a side of marinara sauce ($6.99), I headed straight for the homemade hot peppers and oil ($2.99 for a small order), knowing full well the other half of our dinner party wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole. Then, I couldn't resist the Asparagus Bundle, or several stalks of the veggie wrapped in prosuitto and topped with melted fresh mozzarella ($7.99). That one raised the eyebrows of the guy sitting across from me, but he swallowed his concern, gave me a half-hearted smile and let me do my thing.

As it turned out, he was pleasantly surprised. He usually turns up his nose at any vegetable that isn't green beans, corn or potatoes, but even he had to admit the asparagus was quite tasty (I'll give it an absolutely delicious)! Those hot peppers, though, are to die for. The flavor is just wonderful -- hot pepper seeds are liberally sprinkled throughout -- and the peppers are crunchy without tasting raw. Even the small order was ample, and I polished off every single one even before the basket of warm, fresh-baked bread and herbed butter arrived at our table.

As for the soups, we encountered a bit of a glitch; our server forgot to deliver them (not that we cared a whit after chowing down on those wonderful appetizers). But without missing a beat, she offered to box up the soups for take-out if we preferred -- we did -- and we enjoyed them for lunch the next day. The lobster bisque is a particular treat, although I'm always partial to wedding soup (also delicious).

Then came the entrees, and there's nothing to say but wow! The slab of blackened prime rib was huge, and although I had my doubts as to whether it could be cooked to my specified medium rare without being a thicker slice, I soon discovered that yes, it was done to perfection. The seasoning was brimming with flavor, too. Meanwhile, Jack's filet was cooked to his liking -- he's a (gasp!) well-done kind of guy -- and it, too, was swimming in a wonderfully flavored sauce. The only problem, if you can call it that, is that I could finish only about a third of the prime rib and Jack was able to pack in just half of his butterflied filet. Oh well, our server to the rescue once again, adding our leftovers to take-home boxes (and fixing up a special package of all the bread that we weren't able to fit in our stomachs to boot).

Several desserts are on the menu, but one is special to Jack: Spumoni. Stuffed as he was, he couldn't resist. Piled high in a large martini glass and topped with a mound of whipped cream, it was tempting even to someone like me who isn't fond of spumoni. Anticipating what might happen, our server brought an extra spoon without even asking -- and I admit it was good (well, the few bites of the strawberry part that I picked out were; I'm not big on the pistachio and other flavors). As for me, I simply tried to wash down all my gluttony with a cup of coffee.

In the end, we waddled out fat and happy once again, knowing that once the dust settled overnight, we'd get a second go-around with the leftovers. Oh, almost forgot: Sweetheart that he is, Jack got me a take-home order of those super-good hot peppers. They were gone long before lunch the next day!

If you go:

Margherita's Grille
728 N. State St.
Girard, Ohio 44420
(330) 545-2424

Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday

Monday, December 14, 2009

Roby Lee's Restaurant and Banquet Center

It's always wonderful when you hope for bronze and end up with gold. Such is the case at Roby Lee's Restaurant and Banquet Center in Newton Falls, Ohio -- a place perhaps best known for its all-fours Zip Code and historic covered bridge almost smack dab in the middle of town.

To be honest, we've heard of Roby Lee's for several years; but in part because it's a bit of a drive from our home to Newton Falls, we've never bothered to check it out. All that changed when a couple of friends purchased a $25 gift certificate for the place at Since the requirement is to spend $35, they figured they might have trouble hitting that total and offered to share the wealth with us. One Friday evening, we hopped in the car and headed out.

The address and phone are printed on the certificate (and a map can be viewed at that site as well). Even though we don't go there often, though, we're relatively familiar with the town and had no trouble at all finding the place. And what a find it was!

I'm not really sure exactly what we expected, but it was something along the lines of a rectangular, one-story building with parking for a dozen cars or so. When we pulled into the large parking lot, though, the consensus from the four of us was "Wow -- this sure isn't your father's family diner!" From the bright red awning over the entryway to the expansive interior that includes both a restaurant and a banquet facility that can provide seating for up to 450, we were both surprised and impressed.

Just in case, we'd made reservations; and although we wouldn't have needed them at the relatively early 5:30 p.m. hour, had we wanted to eat later, without reservations we'd have been standing in line. By the time we'd made it through the salad bar line (more on that later), the restaurant was starting to fill up. By the time our main course arrived, there wasn't an empty seat in the house.

Since we had $25 of our bill covered by the certificate, we decided to splurge on a couple of appetizers. My top choice was spiced hot Hungarian peppers in oil, so I was disappointed to learn they were out of them on this evening. Oh well, I reasoned -- guess I'll just have to come back. Instead, we ordered the Bruschetta (six pieces of Italian toast topped with diced tomatoes, chopped garlic, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil and melted mozzarella cheese glazed with a Balsamic reduction) at $5.99 That's quite a mouthful to say, but trust me, it was easy to eat. One bite and we knew we should have ordered a second batch.

Our other appetizer was the Western Twizzlers, or five "Southwestern" egg rolls with a blend of spices, chicken and a side of salsa ($5.99). They were quite tasty, but nothing tasted better than the Bruschetta.

Nothing, that is, except the white pizza on the salad bar. As a standalone meal, the salad bar is $6.29, but it comes at no cost with most of the entrees here. One of our friends made two trips to get more of the pizza; the rest of us made do with salad with delicious dressing and soup -- two varieties are offered -- trying not to go so hog wild that we had no room for the rest of the meal.

It took quite a while to decide on entrees, simply because everything sounded wonderful. There are plenty of sandwiches, but the entree selections were even more tempting. In the end, we each ordered something different so we could sample. Doing that, we realized that we would have been quite satisfied with anything on our table.

One example: Chicken Roberto, chicken breast sauteed in extra virgin olive oil, garlic, roasted red peppers and greens in scampi butter sauce tossed in fettuchini ($12.99). Wow! Or, how about fresh grouper filet, fried or grilled with several options including my choice, Cajun ($11.99)? If those don't get your taste buds tingling, how about chicken sauteed in Marsala wine sauce with sliced mushrooms and garlic at $11.99 ($12.99 if you want veal instead of chicken)?

The beef lover in our crowd was delighted with Roby's House Sirloin, an 8-ounce chunk seasoned, char-broiled and topped with two crispy onion rings ($12.99). Each meal came with a couple of sides and fresh-baked bread. And even after making complete pigs of ourselves, we left with enough to enjoy back at home the next day.

Although we weren't trying to watch our pennies this time out, I should note that you won't have to break into your kid's piggy bank to eat here. In the "Family" meals section, for instance, most entrees are in the $8 to $9 range, and the amount you get is quite substantial. Will we go back? You bet -- and next time we do, I'll tell you how hot those Hungarian peppers really are!

If you go:

Roby Lee's Restaurant and Banquet Center
425 Ridge Road
Newton Falls, Ohio 44444
Robert J. Lee, owner
(330) 872-0984

Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (no liquor sales)