Thursday, September 30, 2010


I admit to coming to the party late. For quite some time, my husband Jack and a few of his retired teacher colleagues from Niles McKinley High School have made The Lake Tavern in Mecca a gathering spot for their "catching up" lunches. The two of us have passed by on occasion too, usually on our way home from covered bridge and/or wine forays to Ashtabula County.

And ev
ery time, he'd tell me we really should have a meal here, to which I'd heartily agree. But every time, we'd just had lunch or dinner somewhere else, so a stop just wasn't prudent at that juncture.

Finally, we made it -- and I'm happy to say we've been back several times and have put this place on our list of favorite restaurants. Most recently, we s
topped after a fall photography outing to Mosquito Lake, which is just around the corner.

The food here is great -- but more on that in a bit. The first thing I noticed is the old wood building and the interior, which reminds me of a rustic home in the woods. Turns out there's a good reason for that: It was built in 1837 as a home by David and Polly Lake (surprise -- the Tavern is named for a family, not because of its proximity to Mosquito Lake, which wasn't even there when the house was built). Many of the home's original features have been incorporated in the decor; the bar top, for instance, is chestnut and was cut from one of the home's basement beams, and upright posts are from the original building.

The dining area, which includes the bar, has a number of tables and chairs, and walls are decorated with nostalgic signs, neon lights and even a jukebox. It's comfortable, not fancy, and clearly popular with the folks who live nearby. An outdoor deck offers a wonderful alternative in good weather, and it's closed-in and accessible only through the restaurant since alcohol isn't allowed outside the premises. Sports and other special events are common here as well; the tavern has both indoor pool and dart leagues a well as two horseshoe pits and corn hole boards outdoors.

Speaking of alcohol, I'll mention that the goodly number of wines and beers here are quite re
asonably priced; Jacobs Creek Chardonnay, for instance, is just $3 a glass. On-tap beers go for $1.25 for a 12-ounce glass, and $2 will get you 23 ounces (our usual choice).

As for the food, be sure to check out the daily specials first. On one recent Thursday afternoon visit, I noticed a dozen wings for $4.95 and decided to give them a try. There are about two dozen sauce choices including at least three that are somehow connected with garlic -- a "must-have" on my wings. The one that sounded best was garlic pepper, but I checked with our server first to make sure it's a butter-based sauce and not the dry kind I've had -- and been quite disappointed with -- elsewhere.

Assured that indeed, there was butter, I made my choice, adding to that an order of the macaroni and cheese bites appetizer ($3.95). These are, for the
record, the best I've had anywhere; the breading isn't too heavy, and the flat triangle shapes are filled with ooey-gooey and delicious melted cheese. No dipping sauce is needed -- nor does any come with them -- but we both found that the buttery garlic pepper wing sauce makes a tasty dip if that's your style.

Meanwhile, Jack ordered The Lake Tavern Reuben ($5.95), with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on rye toast. Don't like all the extras? Try the plain extra-lean corned beef sandwich, also $5.95.
The wings are quite large as wings go these days, and the sauce is reminiscent of the buttery parmesan pepper wings at Quaker Steak & Lube before somebody got the bright idea to change it to a thick goop that to me is awful. These wings are back to swimming in butter, parmesan and black pepper, and after the first bite, my craving for more kicked in.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the seafood entrees here are great, too. I've tried the broiled white fish (two pieces seasoned with lemon pepper, Cajun or plain for $9.95) and the grilled Norwegian Atlantic salmon filet, served either plain, with teriyaki or Caribbean seasonings for $12.95. Also on the menu are a couple of seafood pastas, ribs and steak, so there's plenty left for us to try later.
Sandwiches, though, seem to be the most plentiful option, ranging from egg, tuna and chicken salad to a hot sausage hoagie to a variety of wraps. On our most recent visit, Jack tried the Buffalo shrimp wrap, stuffed with spicy fried shrimp, lettuce, tomato and onion with a choice of cheese and dressing (he picked provolone and bleu cheese, for the record). Priced at $6.95, he deemed it the best wrap sandwich he's ever had. Half of it came back home with us, and he repeated that best-ever opinion as he polished it off.

The appetizer list is quite impressive as well, with at least two dozen from which to choose (giving us lots of possibilities to try on future visits). In addition to those mac-and-cheese bites, the onion rings are quite good, and we just found a new gem: Pepperoni pizza balls served with marinara sauce. For $4.95 you get about a dozen with a diameter about the size of a 50-cent piece, and they're wonderful. Somewhat crispy on the outside, they're filled with melted mozzarella and pepperoni bits. The marinara sauce is delicious too, although the pizza balls are good enough to stand on their own.

It is perhaps the burgers, though, that really shine here. The variety seems almost endless, and in addition to dozens of flavor and add-on varieties (like sour cream and onion, horseradish, salsa, grilled onion and brown sugar), diners can choose chicken or bison for a buck more. Never having tasted bison before, I decided to give it a try at our most recent visit, picking the one with Cajun spices, pepper Jack cheese and sliced jalapenos ($5.25 for beef, $6.25 for the bison). Since they're cooked to order, I asked for medium well just in case -- I love my steaks just shy of still mooing, but ground meat is another story altogether.

All the sandwiches here come with chips, but you can switch to fries for $1 more and add mushrooms or bacon for another buck. Since we'd just polished off most of two appetizers, we stuck with the chips. For the record, they were very fresh, as was the crispy dill pickle spear.

As for the bison, it was delicious -- and nearly indistinguishable from beef except it was noticeably leaner (guess I'd liken it to eating upscale cow). After polishing off the whole thing, though, I felt both self-righteous and sad. The self-righteous part no doubt stemmed from knowing that bison meat is an excellent choice in terms of health benefits -- reportedly it's lower in calories than grilled chicken breast and very low in saturated fat.

The gloomy feeling I'm sure was an offshoot of my sudden flashback to the times we've stopped at that bison ranch north of Salem to see if the giants are out so we can snap a few photos. Good grief, I reasoned, it's possible I just ate one of the guys who posed for me!

If you go:

6071 State Route 46 NE
Mecca, Ohio 44410
(330) 637-1971

The kitchen is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 11 am. to 1 a.m.; Sunday noon to 9 p.m.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Editor's note: When my husband and I stopped for lunch at the Rotelli restaurant in Austintown, Ohio, on Aug. 25, we found a sign on the door saying this location is closed. No word yet on whether the locations in Liberty Township or Boardman have closed as well, so stay tuned!

Some might think that the last thing the Mahoning Valley needs is another Italian restaurant, but when one of the newer kids on the block is Rotelli, I think it's a welcome
addition. Headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla., parent company Rotelli Pizza and Pasta Inc. has stores in six states including Ohio and Pennsylvania. Locally, there are restaurants in Austintown, Liberty and Boardman townships.

My husband Jack and I noticed the place some time ago when we'd stopped at the corner of State Route 46 and Mahoning Avenue for a treat at the Cold Stone Creamery in the shopping plaza there. Making a mental note that we should check it out sometime, I then discovered a couple of coupons in that year's Entertainment Book -- and that was all it took to get us inside the doors.

Having a discount coupon is a good incentive to get us to try a restaurant, but we certainly won
't return if the food isn't great. That's certainly not the case at Rotelli; we've eaten here many times since that first stop -- with and without coupons -- and we really love the food.

The restaurant is fairly small and not what I'd describe as fancy, but there's a very Italian flavor that shows up in paintings and other decor (not to m
ention the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen at the back). There's a small bar near the kitchen, too, as well as comfortable booths and tables. We've never come here at peak mealtime hours, and so far, we've never had a problem being seated immediately.

One of our measures of a good restaurant may not be something anyone else cares about, but for folks like us who enjoy beer or wine with our meals, it's important that they don't cost more than the meals do. Most of the time, there's a special deal going (recently, for instance, it was Sam Adams Summer Ale at two bottles for $5). Nothing is on tap here, by the way, but neither is anything outrageously priced.

Alcohol isn't the only thing that's on special here, either; Rotelli is known for its "World Fa
mous Lunch Special," which consists of one slice of pizza, soup or a salad and half of a submarine sandwich -- a very good deal for just $5.99. Sandwich choices include chicken, eggplant or meatball parmigiana, grilled spa chicken, Italian combo or ham and cheese. And, at most locations, Tuesday night is "Pizza Night," when a 16-inch hand-tossed cheese pizza goes for under $7 at most locations. Still other specials are posted on a board just inside the entrance.

Also a nice (and delicious) touch is the basket of hot rolls; you don't get butter, but it's really not needed, either. The tops are nicely browned, buttery and sprinkled with garlicky cheese sprinkles; we've fallen into the trap of eating them all before our entrees arrived, ending up with not much room left for the main part of our meals.

The first time we ate here, my entree of choice was Penne Chicken and Broccoli, and I'm happy to say I've ordered it most of the times we've come her
e -- yes, it's that good. You get a substantial bowl of grilled chicken, sauteed broccoli, garlic and fresh tomatoes in a "light" white wine sauce over penne; even the lunch portion is large enough that I always bring some home. The broccoli is tender but not mushy, and the grilled chicken flavor is distinctive. It is that wine sauce, though, that really makes this dish a standout.

Once in a while, though, I feel more adventurous -- and I'm happy to report that I've yet to be disappointed. One entree that's become a favorite is Angel Hair Alla Rotelli; this one is loaded with mushrooms, artichokes, peas and sun-dried tomatoes in basil garlic white wine sauce. Here's another: Ziti Diavolo, in which garlic, onions, green peppers, sauteed sausage and chicken breast chunks are covered with hot Sicilian sauce (this one packs a zing).

Just recently, I discovered four new pastas on the menu for $9.99 each; the one with red and green roasted peppeers, roasted garlic and onions with nothing more than olive oil sounded great -- and it was. The flavor was very mild and I added some salt and red pepper seeds for zest, but I'd get it again in a heartbeat. As with most entrees, you can choose the type of pasta you want -- I picked plain old spaghetti. The bowl was large enough that I brought about half of it home.

Lunchtime options include fresh pizza -- traditional or gourmet -- that are excellent, as well as a number of calzones, stromboli and those aforementioned subs. Lunch and dinner entrees, by the way, come with eithe
r soup or a salad. We both love the wedding soup here; the broth is extremely flavorful and it's filled with chunks of chicken, tiny meatballs, loads of greens and a few carrots. Most times, though, Jack opts for clam chowder, which he says is quite delicious.

On one of my adventurous outings recently, I decided to try pasta fagioli. I've never been particularly fond of it, but this one I wouldn't hesitate to try again. The broth was light red and slightly creamy -- nowhere near heavy -- and swimming inside were finely chopped carrots, tomatoes and teensy sewer pipe-style pasta. Yum!

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a couple of Jack's favorites; topping the list is linguine with spicy red clam sauce -- and no, it's not too spicy for him (I, on the other hand, am a firm believer that tomato sauce and fish don't play well together and prefer the white clam sauce, which is delicious as well). Jack also loves the eggplant parmigiana, which includes a layer of ricotta cheese and is baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. It includes a side of pasta. The lunch portion, which is quite substantial, costs just $6.99.

Most recently, as we returned home from photographing the gorgeous dahlias in the garden at Mill Creek Park, I noticed several tilapia entrees on the specials board, all priced at $10.99. Fish-lover that I am, I couldn't resist trying the version that was almond encrusted with a light balsamic glaze in a Tuscan cream sauce of garlic shallots, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and pepperoncini. It arrived in a huge bowl and was loaded with tender artichoke slices, and a few hot banana peppers cut thin added a bit of zing. There were two good-sized filets of breaded tilapia, and the sauce was exceptionally thick and rich (almost too rich -- I could barely eat half, but then I'd also pigged out on those rolls). It came with a side of pasta, and my choice was plain old spaghetti. The sauce is relatively sweet and chunky with chopped tomatoes rather than a heavy marinara or meat sauce. It's quite tasty, although for me, it only works as a side dish; I don't like it quite well enough to make it an entree.

A newer addition to Rotelli is a lunch buffet, which offers nine items for $5.99 and is available from 11 a.m. till 2 p.m. In the interest of full disclosure, we haven't tried it yet -- it's that new -- but next time we're out here at lunchtime, we'll make it a point to make it our choice.

If you go:

5553 Mahoning Ave.
Youngstown, Ohio 44515 (Austintown)
(330) 270-8349