Friday, December 20, 2013


When The Fifth Season restaurant was located on Mahoning Avenue in Austintown Township, Ohio, my husband Jack and I went there only for special occasions. We lived in Niles at the time so it was a tad out of the way, and it wasn't exactly an inexpensive meal. But even on our infrequent visits, we agreed the food was wonderful.

That said, we've spent a few happy occasions at their banquet facility on State Route 46 (just beyond the Trumbull County line in Austintown Township). The band in which our son-in-law Jerry plays bass entertained there on several occasions, our daughter Chris hosted her hubby's never-mind-which birthday party there, and it was the site for the wonderful 50th anniversary Chris, Jerry, our son Scott, his wife Lilla and Lilla's Mum, Sheila, planned for us.

Now, the restaurant that was on Mahoning Avenue for 10 years or so is no more and the building was for sale the last time we drove by; the restaurant has been moved to the same building as the banquet center. The new facility is slightly smaller, but the same chefs and staff remain. The move, owners said, was made in part to cash in on the new racino that will be opening just up the road.

We got the first taste of the new digs during a two-day open house, where hors d'ouvres and a cash bar were offered at $5 per person. That day, we were accompanied by Niles friends Jerry and Barb; and we loved it so much that we returned the following day (after asking if it was permissible to go back for seconds, of course). Both days, we were able to see the new restaurant and enjoy samples of wonderful foods like flatbreads, hot peppers in oil, mini-sandwiches and much more. Oh yes, we agreed - we'll definitely come back for lunch and/or dinner.

Our first return happened about 12:45 p.m. on a sunny late fall day, again accompanied by friends Jerry and Barb. That late in the day, we could choose where we wanted to sit; the tables in the bar area just inside the restaurant entrance are very high and the chairs have backs - our aging backs just can't handle stools any more - but we still opted for the more private dining room this time out. The decor is relaxing, with trees painted on the walls for a very relaxing atmosphere. It's not a large room, but the the decor gives it a much larger feel.

Specials vary by the day, and there's almost always something that sounds appealing. I started with a cup of the potato and roasted red pepper soup ($3), which was outstanding. I've had and enjoyed so-called stuffed pepper soup before, but this was quite different, with chunks of potato and red pepper bits - and absolutely, I accepted our server's offer of fresh ground black pepper.

The blackened chicken sandwich called my name at first - boneless breast Cajun-grilled topped with mozzarella, sauteed hot peppers, fried onion straws and roasted red pepper remoulade on a toasted brioche bun ($9). But then I spotted the corned beef reuben sandwich on that specials list - layered with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on rye bread ($8). For my side, I picked bowtie pasta with marinara sauce. Both the 'wich and pasta were delicious, and the sandwich was large enough that I brought half of it home.

Jerry wanted to try the Cuban sandwich: pulled pork, salami, ham, melted cheese, pickles, garlic-yellow mustard mayonnaise and dill pickles on a 6-inch Cuban hoagie roll ($7). One bite and he decided he'd come back just to get it again. The fries here are quite good as well -- and this coming from four people who aren't big French fry lovers.

Jack, meanwhile, chose tuna salad on mini-croissants ($7) and the bowtie pasta. Good? Well, he ate every single crumb, noting that the minis were much easier to eat than trying to pick up an whole croissant. Barb, who loves lamg, got the Lamb Gyra flatbread with meat, Tzatziki sauce, diced tomatoes, red onion and feta cheese ($9). Even though it was cut into squares, the flatbread was very soft and hard to pick up without folding in on itself, but she deemed it delicious and said she'd definitely try it again.

Our second official visit was at lunch once again - dinner prices, generally speaking, are in the $15-and-up range, making this still a special-occasion-only place for us. We arrived a little before 1 p.m. a couple of weeks before Christmas and found several cars - turns out a group of elderly ladies were enjoying a holiday get-together. This time, Christmas music was playing in the background, and the "trees" on the walls were decked out in holiday finery. 

This time, it was just the two of us, and once again, I went for a lunch special. Remember that blackened chicken sandwich? Yep, this time it was mine, and once again I picked the bow-tie pasta with marinara for my side. Jack really likes the flatbreads, looking first at the chicken tzatziki with diced tomatoes, red onions and feta cheese. In the end, he stuck with his always favorite Philly cheesesteak with bell peppers, caramalized onions and garlic and Swiss-American cheese ($10). 

The pasta sauce is quite tasty, by the way - on the pinkish side and mild, but I jazzed it up with hot pepper seeds and sprinkle cheese. There was plenty of it (for a side), but I managed to get most of it down as well as my delicious sandwich and Jack polished off the rest. His flatbread was excellent as well, and it was large enough that he brought most of it home for later.

One day we plan to try the Sunday brunch here, served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.  It's not a buffet, but rather half a dozen (at least) menu items like steak and eggs, chicken and waffles, a BLT wrap and an egg-and-hot-pepper sandwich ranging from around $6 to $16.50 for a full order of those chicken and waffles. Everything sounds great - and based on our experiences here, we're sure it will be.

If you go:

1404 N. Canfield Niles Road
Mineral Ridge, Ohio 44440
(330) 799-3483

Open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Oriental cuisine is always a treat, even though - mostly for sodium restrictions on my husband Jack's diet - we don't indulge all that often. When it's a buffet, though, it's easier to pick and choose; so when a brochure arrived in our mailbox announcing the Oct. 28 opening of the Happy Buffet in the Liberty Plaza, we wasted little time getting there (just a couple of days, in fact).

Our friends from Niles, Jerry and Barb, share our fondness for Oriental food, so they agreed to tag along on our first visit. The dinner buffet costs $9.55 (after 3:30 p.m.; before that, the lunch cost is $6.95, both not including beverages). Our preference generally is for the dinner simply because it's harder for us old folks to stuff ourselves at lunchtime and when it's a buffet, we want to make sure we get our money's worth.

It's not a large restaurant, although mirrors on the wall make it look bigger. There are some booths and quite a few tables with four chairs. The buffet itself is at the back, with three "tables" that contain everything from soup to main dishes and a side table with appetizers, sauces and desserts. 

Once we'd placed our beverage orders (Diet Pepsi for the two of us and hot tea for our friends), we made a beeline for the buffet. Scoping it out before diving in is always advisable, and I did notice that several of the items weren't labeled so choosing those items was based on a guess and whether or not it looked appetizing. As is my custom, I zeroed in on the hot and sour soup, an egg roll, what appeared to be crab Rangoon (labeled as fried cheese) and a couple of chicken wings to start. Barb chose similar items, with was won-won soup and a spring roll. We all passed on sushi; even though I love Wasabi sauce, those roll-ups are way too fishy for my liking.

My soup was quite good, although perhaps not quite as lip-smacking as what I get at the Sunshine Buffet on State Route 422 in Niles. Here, I polished off a good-sized cup, but I didn't go back for seconds as I usually do at Sunshine. Both the egg and spring rolls were excellent as well, but Barb said her won-ton soup lacked any real flavor.

The chicken wings, however, were to die for; on my return trip, I snagged a couple more (apparently, they're a favorite of other diners, too, since only two were left when I went back for seconds). I also restocked those fried cheese thingys - they taste like there's crab in there even though the sign doesn't reflect that. 

As for entrees, there's something to suit everyone's tastes, and the dishes marked as "hot" were mild enough for just about anybody we know. The sweet and sour chicken and shrimp, chicken with broccoli, General Tso's chicken and pepper steak with onions were outstanding - so much so that I didn't try any of the noodle or rice dishes on this visit - they're just too filling.

Two things were worthy of note here: On the positive side, we were impressed that we really liked just about everything we sampled; that's hard to say about other buffets, where at least one or two items just don't cut the mustard. On the other hand, the diet soft drinks have a bit of an odd taste, so I quickly learned to opt for plain ice water. The hot tea got excellent marks from our friends, so maybe we'll try that next time.

We returned a week or so later for lunch, mostly because I wanted to see if there were fewer buffet items. The answer, happily, is no; just about everything we'd found and enjoyed at the dinner hour was here for lunch as well. And yes, I chowed down four of those fried cheese goodies.

I will say that although it may have been a fluke, the chicken wings and egg rolls didn't taste quite as fresh as at dinner - more like they were leftovers or had been in the warming dishes too long. Jack loved the pineapple chicken, and this time I tried the Lo Mein, sesame chicken, black pepper chicken, chicken and chili and fried rice. The Lo Mein wasn't much better than passable and the rice didn't have much flavor on its own, but topped with one of the chicken dishes or add some soy sauce it works very well. All those chicken dishes, however, were outstanding.

Speaking of the soy sauce, go easy at first. It's extremely salty, and a little goes a long way. I also sampled the cold crab salad, which was quite good.

While the food itself gets a big plus overall, we did uncover a couple of negatives. First, we couldn't find any smallish containers to hold various dipping sauces; the only options were to grab a soup cup or ice cream dish, both of which are too large for that purpose. Also, the number of servers, busboys and buffet refillers seemed to overwhelm the number of customers - and they were always on the run, not walk, nearly colliding with customers in a couple of instances.

Then, too, we'd ask if perhaps at least one of them could manage a smile now and again? Every single face ranged from impassive to an outright scowl - constantly - even when we tried smiling first. Definitely not an incentive to keep customers coming back.

If you go:

Happy Buffet
3551 Belmont Ave., Suite 19A (Liberty Plaza)
Youngstown, Ohio 44505
(330) 759-8889

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Anyone who knows me knows I love to visit places that have a variety of merchandise, whether it be food (Middlefield Cheese and End of the Commons General Store in Mesopotamia) or just interesting "stuff" (Andrews General Store in Howland Township). If there's a chance to combine those visits with food, it's like frosting on the cake.

So when I learned about The Valley Marketplace on South Avenue in Boardman Township, Ohio, I couldn't wait for it to open so I could check it out. The official grand-opening was Sept. 19 to 21, and you bet, my husband and Jack and I were there front and center, shopping basket in hand.

This is part of a third-generation family business that started the original Farmers Market in 1932 about 20 miles south of Philadelphia, according to website information. Most of the 100 vendors are Amish from Lancaster County, Pa. The same market concept has been brought here, where the majority of vendors are from Middlefield (the heart of Geauga County's Amish settlement, reportedly the fourth largest in the world).

At last check, there are about 30 vendors at the local market, but the list is expected to grow (there's plenty of available space). Products, most of which are made onsite, range from fresh-baked goods like pies and breads as well as wicker items, candles, Amish-made furniture, cheeses, fresh fruit and even fresh-made ice cream, a butcher shop and a small Amish restaurant. Wide aisles allow for easy wandering up and down, and I'm here to tell you that the smells of the baked goods is almost impossible to resist (in particular, huge apple fritters that were a reasonable $2 each). Many of the sections offer samples; because we love cream cheese spreads and they were a grand-opening special at buy two, get one free, we brought three home (bacon horseradish, garlic-herb and bacon-cheddar. All were delicious - and disappeared in our happy stomachs within two days.

Breads are my downfall, but I stayed in control and bought a single loaf of garlic-cheddar for $5. As a special, anyone who spent $5 got a free mini-loaf of wheat bread - still warm - which I popped into the freezer at home to eat later (yes, it was yummy as well). I should note that here and there are small alcoves with benches (and sometimes tables and chairs), so you can eat comfortably and gather your strength to do more shopping.

In fact, our taste buds got nailed right at the entrance, where there's a place to get breakfast and other goodies. In the center is Our House Restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the three days the marketplace is open (Thursday, Friday and Saturday only). The offerings even include a family style, all-you-can-eat Amish Wedding Banquet ($20 per adult), which includes oven-baked chicken and a meat of the day plus plenty of stick-to-your-ribs sides, dessert and beverage. If you prefer (as we did), create your own meal by purchasing a la carte items like a chicken drumstick for $2, mashed potatoes and gravy ($2.50) and a slice of pie ($2.50). If that's not your thing, check out the wonderful delicacies at Harley's Smokehouse, another vendor that offers seating.

The Killcreek Meats butcher shop is nothing short of awesome; the just-cut array of beef and poultry almost begged to jump into our shopping basket. We spent a bit of time looking through some of the crafts, gift and sign shops as well. Display cases and open racks let it all hang out, and prices are clearly marked. 

If there's a downside, some of the vendors don't accept credit cards, so if you plan on serious shopping, be sure to take some cash. 

If you go:

The Valley Marketplace
6121 South Ave.
Boardman, Ohio 44512
(330) 248-7034

Open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Just one bite was all it took. The minute I sank my teeth into "The Russo" at StoneBridge Grille & Tavern some three years ago, I added it to my Top 5 all-time sandwich favorites list - and that's where it's remained ever since. What's in it, you ask? Well, it goes something like this: Scrambled eggs, sweet and hot peppers, chopped pepperoni, melted provolone cheese and mayo on grilled Italian bread ($7.69). The bread is crunchy and buttery, and those hot peppers added just the right amount of pizzazz.

Admittedly, my husband Jack and I don't get to Boardman all that much, and when we do, it's usually because we've driven all the way through Mill Creek Park from the Velma and D.D. Davis Visitor Center to U.S. Route 224. More often than not, it's somewhere around lunchtime and we're hungry; our first stop here was when we turned toward Canfield to go to the White House Fruit Farm and noticed that StoneBridge had replaced an old favorite sandwich place, Rockne's, and decided to give it a go.

StoneBridge, for the record, is locally owned; everything is made from scratch, or so the Web site says (and based on our visits, we have no reason to doubt that claim). There's a banquet/conference room that can accommodate up to 45 complete with a gas log fireplace and large-screen TV, and the restaurant has free WiFi.

Inside, there's a restaurant side and a bar side, and we always choose the latter. The dark wood is offset by windows that let the sunshine in, and the booths are very comfortable and maintain a secluded feel. Several beers are on tap including some of our favorites, giving us something to sip while we check out the daily specials. 

Although we're here for lunch, we always look longingly at the entrees - in my case, that's always seafood like Haddock Francaise ($15.99), Sesame Seared Ahi Tuna with Jasmine rice, Asian slaw and an Aioli drizzle ($18.99) and grilled Wild Caught Mahi-Mahi that can be ordered blackened ($16.99). Veal lovers should be happy here too, with a couple of choices that sound good even though it's not my meat of choice. 

Several pasta entrees are on the menu as well, as are grilled beef delicacies including a center cut filet, ribeye and 14-ounce New York strip. Love salads? You'll find 10 here, so there's something for everyone (more on that later). If you can't decide on an appetizer, you might try the sampler ($13.99) with stuffed peppers, hand-breaded fried Provolone, Italian greens, hot peppers & oil, pita bread and homemade pomodoro sauce. Quite honestly, that would make more than enough to satisfy the two of us for lunch.

If for no other reason than to delay our decision, we ordered a chicken quesadilla appetizer ($8.99) with cheddar jack, tomatoes and scallions with salsa and sour cream the first time we came. It was quite tasty -- nice and hot with lots of melted chees and cut into six good-size wedges. Jack doesn't care much for salsa, and in this case it was a good thing he didn't take a taste; it was packed with enough hot pepper punch to knock him cold (I, of course, loved it).

On our most recent stop, we both went for the half-sandwich and soup, salad or side combo ($8.49) - something we've done before. All the sandwiches marked with the SB logo are included - six in all. My usual choice is the Reuben, and Jack's is the Philly steak. Once I ordered the shaved turkey, with roasted red pepper Aioli, roasted tomatoes, Provolone and argula on multigrain bread, and it's temped me ever since.

We part company with the side, though; I'm a fan of wedding soup, and he absolutely loves the fabulous strawberry vinaigrette dressing here so he picks a salad. I agree that dressing is the best I've ever had; deep pink in color and an amazing fresh strawberry flavor. He's also had the lobster bisque and deemed it outstanding, but that's more appealing in cold winter months.

The wedding soup is quite good, although I've had better elsewhere (I pined for the wedding soup we used to get at the old Niki'z in Niles for years after it closed. Now that it's reopened on Mason Street, I've been nagging owner Nick Logan to bring it back). Here, the generous size cup includes lots of shredded chicken, meatballs, assorted veggies and greens, but the broth flavor is a bit lackluster. 

As for the sandwiches, the half versions probably aren't large enough to satisfy a medium-sized football player, but coupled with the soup, they always fill us up just fine. The Philly steak was good, and my shaved turkey was piled high. But the whole versions - like my favorite Russo and another of Jack's favorites that was a daily special, an open-face roast beef with mashed potatoes and pan gravy on toasted Italian bread ($8.99 at the time) - are guaranteed to satisfy even the biggest appetite.

Ah, now I've gone and done it; my taste buds are tingling at the mere thought of that Russo as I write this. Methinks we'll have to take another drive through the park a little sooner than we'd planned!

If you go:

StoneBridge Grille & Tavern
1497 Boardman-Canfield Road
Boardman, Ohio 44512
(330) 629-8040

Kitchen open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Reservations accepted.

Friday, July 26, 2013


Alert: This restaurant has closed.

It's not often that I review a restaurant after just one visit. Sure, I know how much first impressions count, but especially when it comes to food, seconds and thirds can be deal-breakers. And as I update this after our second visit, I'm even more certain that once isn't enough (but more on that later).

My husband Jack and I have been watching for Jack Perry's Gastropub to open ever since Jeremiah Bullfrog's closed and we got the word on its replacement. The opening happened July 17, in fact, and we didn't waste much time trying it out. Although we couldn't sample much on a single visit, there's absolutely no doubt we'll be back soon - and since it's brand new, I wanted to help get the word out as quickly as possible.

According to a brochure we picked up at the front desk, owners Dan Perry and Randy Spencer named the new bar in honor of Perry's father, Jack, who they say was a "sports fanatic." The gastropub concept, they say, originated in the United Kingdom, a name coined in 1991 by the owners of The Eagle Pub in London. 

Inside, the decor is quite different from the predecessor - nary a frog anywhere to be seen - and perhaps, with black, chrome and silver everywhere, could even be called minimalistic (and leading Jack to quip that it's a great place for Oakland Raiders fans). There's still a bar side and a restaurant side, the former highlighted by several large flat-screen TV sets, all tuned to sporting events the day of our visit.

The menu isn't terribly extensive, but the offerings have a bit of a unique flair and there's plenty to suit us. Prices are reasonable, although if you're looking for cheap munchies or a hot dog while you watch a game, you might want to go elsewhere. If you want something to drink while you watch, however, you've come to the right place.

That's because in addition to a full bar and a number of specialty drinks, there are 25 beers and ales on tap here, ranging from IPAs, strong ales, fruit beers, wheat beers/dortmunders/blonde ales and stouts - most in the $3.50 to $5 range. Yuengling, in fact, was about the most "standard" on-tap brew I noticed.

But if you aren't sure what you'd like, you can sample. I'm not a big fan of IPAs and funky ale, but the Fathead's Bumble Berry from Fathead's Brewery in North Olmsted sounded good (it's brewed with fresh spring honey with sweet malt flavors and a blueberry finish). I tried a sample and yes, it was delicious, so I ordered a whole glass at $4.50.

As we perused the menu, we noticed several interesting appetizers, including a hummus of the day with baked pita bread ($6.99) and blackened yellow fin Ahi tuna bites with sweet and spicy Szechuan ($11.99). Ah, we said, another time; we'd come for lunch and wanted something more than an appetizer and less than a dinner entree.

Since we're not big salad fans, that left the sandwich list, and our very friendly server said the burgers are great here. Actually, there are four what I'd call "real" burgers on the menu, the most appealing of which to me is the Perry Pepper Burger, with Tri-Pepper Sirachi Salsa, fried Anaheim pepper and American cheese ($8.99).

But that was not to be once I spotted the Kase Melt, made with Rust Belt beef, sliced mushrooms, caramelized onions and horseradish cheese ($8.99). Meanwhile, Jack settled on the Portobello sandwich, a marinated portobello with spinach pesto and roasted red pepper (also $8.99). Sandwiches come with fries - or you can substitute one of the other sides including baked potato, mashed potatoes, broccoli or the vegetable of the day.

As it turns out, I made the right choice; the Kase Melt was to die for. After I gave him a bite, I ended up giving nearly half of it to Jack, who announced that this may be his all-time favorite Philly cheesesteak-type sandwich (surpassing the one he loves best at Mojo's up the road). The shredded beef is delicious, and the horseradish cheese really adds flavor, gives it just a hint of a kick and makes it unique.

Jack's portobello was delicious as well - that spinach pesto is especially good. We both opted for fries, which have a light coating and are quite tasty as well.

Just as notable as what we ate, though, is what we didn't eat - and we saw way more than enough reasons to come back here soon. Our server said he's particularly fond of the Chicken Diane ($9.99), sauteed garlic chicken with romano cheese and red pepper, and the Shepherd's Pie with Rust Belt Beer bruised beef, Jack Perry's Mirepoix and caramelized mashed potato ($8.99). Also of interest to me is the Bangers and Mash (which, for who-knows-what reason, are called Bangers and Mashed here) - sausages, mashed potato - singular, so we guess that means you get just one - and onion demi ($9.99). Jack has his eye on the Chorizo Meatloaf with brown sauce, that singular mashed potato and vegetable ($8.99).

But none of those compare to the treat that will get me here in a flash - the Ahi Tuna Fillet, or poppy seed encrusted Ahi tuna served with 2 sides ($13.99). Served rare, it's a delicacy I'd be willing to travel to the ends of the earth to enjoy. Locally, I've found it only as a generous-size to-die-for appetizer at The Phoenix Fire Grill and Bar near Canfield, so trust me, I can't wait to try it a little closer to home.

Now for the rest of the story: A couple of weeks later as we were leaving Mill Creek Park after a photography session with the starting-to-bloom dahlias, Jack told me he really, really wanted one of those Kase Melt sandwiches - this time all for himself. Fine, I said - I'll try a different sandwich this time. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon about 1:15 p.m.; just one other couple was there at the time, although a third came in while we were eating.

Not in the mood for fancy beer, we both ordered draught Yuenglings. And after one sip, we sent it back; it was so weak it might as well have been copper colored water (an experience we haven't had in many years, I hasten to add). The Coors Lights we asked for as a replacement were just fine, though.

Jack, of course, had his mind made up on what to eat before we got there; my sandwich choice took a little longer. I considered the Smoked Monte Cristo ($8.99 with fries), but when I saw it's mostly cheeses, tomato and some bacon, I decided against it - the Monte Cristo I love is made with ham and turkey, fried in an egg batter and served with a fruity sauce, usually red currant jelly. Then I spotted the Pepper Burger, and that's all she wrote. A cooked-to-order burger topped with tri-pepper sirachi salsa, a fried Anaheim pepper and American cheese, it had my name on it from the git-go (also $8.99 with fries).

If you can't stand the heat, though, this burger isn't for you. The pepper and salsa are quite spicy to say the least, but absolutely delicious and nowhere near too hot to suit me. I also love the seasoned fries here, and after I ate several of those I wasn't able to finish my burger and brought half of it home.

But alas, Jack was supremely disappointed with the sandwich he'd had his heart set on. The beef was tasty as before, but he kept waiting for the kick from the horseradish cheese (that's what makes this one three cuts above other Philly steak-type sandwiches). About halfway through, he was still waiting; finally, he opened up the other half of the sandwich to find there was no cheese or sauce of any kind on it at all.

So, live and learn. We'll give it another try for dinner sometime, though - I've still got my heart set on that Ahi tuna!

If you go:

Jack Perry's Gastropub
5529 Mahoning Ave.
Austintown, Ohio 44515
(330) 953-3224 

Friday, July 12, 2013


It's a bit out of the ordinary for me to review a chain restaurant, and even more uncommon when it's one that doesn't serve alcohol since most of the time, my husband Jack and I eat out for very late lunches and dinners when we enjoy a glass of wine with our food. 

Breakfast, however, is a bit different. Except for the year Jack retired after 33 years of teaching at Niles McKinley High School and the day school started that fall we were sitting on the beach at the North Carolina Outer Banks lifting plastic glasses of champagne toward Ohio at 8 o'clock in the morning, the spirits never have moved us at that hour of the day.

And breakfast, I would argue, is what Bob Evans does best; besides that, it’s an Ohio staple, starting out in the small town of Rio Grande (for you tenderfeet, that’s “Ryoh,” unlike the river that separates Texas and Mexico). Corporate headquarters are being relocated from Columbus to New Albany this year, and the company today is a $1.7 billion restaurant and retail food products company with somewhere around 600 full-service restaurants in 18 states and more than 100 company-owned Mimi's Cafe locations in 22 states.

That's not to say the other meals aren't good, though; in fact, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say we've never had a "bad" meal here. And now that the chain has undergone a substantial remodeling outside and in, it seems a good time to give it a plug.

There's another little secret I'll share up front for what it's worth (and to us, it's worth plenty): Sign up online to get email news, and you'll get great deals on meals. Just about every week, we get BOGO offers for breakfasts and dinners. To be honest, some are good for a single day and usually don't arrive much in advance (they tend to be on holidays like July 4 or days like the day after Thanksgiving when, we suppose, business is slower). Still, there have been very few we haven't cashed in. There's also a requirement of purchasing two beverages - which aren't the cheapest on the block - but especially when you consider that we're usually able to bring home some leftovers, these are not-to-be-missed deals.

When it comes to breakfasts, I have two favorites here to which nobody else can yet compare, starting with sausage gravy. This does, however, require a bit of background. Coming from a farm and a cook-from-scratch mother, sausage gravy was a staple of growing up. But when I got married, it was to a handsome fellow who (gasp!) didn't much care for sausage in any shape or form, although he did manage to get some down when I'd cook sausage gravy and biscuits for whatever crowd we were with the morning after our New Year's Eve celebrations. But once we stopped partying quite so hard probably 20-plus years ago, the sausage gravy just never got made. Luckily, it was served at Bob Evans; so once or twice a year, we go there for breakfast (served all day, I should add) and I'd get my fix. 

And then they changed it. No longer was it the white gravy with visible and plentiful sausage crumbles; suddenly, it was dark brown, the sausage seemed harder to find and that wonderful down-home taste took a turn for the worse. 

Then one fine day much, much later I saw the photo in the menu and realized it was white once again - be still my heart! Needless to say, I wasted little time ordering it, and it's become my go-to, blues-chasing breakfast ever since. Prices can vary from place to place, but around here, a good-sized bowl of gravy with two of those giant buttermilk biscuits goes for around seven bucks.

When we get one of those breakfast BOGO coupons, though, we try our best to get the most for our money by ordering items that are very close in price (with these deals, you get one free, but it's always the least expensive of the two). My pick of the litter is the Farmer's Choice ($8.29), which comes with eggs (any style), hash browns, home fries or grits, bacon or sausage (patties or links) and your choice of a fruit crepe, two hotcakes or two slices of French toast. It's a great deal, and if you haven't tried those crepes yet, you're in for a real treat.

Jack usually opts for the Big Egg Breakfast - same price - with three eggs, sausage or bacon and a breakfast side (several choices here, but most often he gets whole wheat toast).

Lunch and dinner entrees are all over the map, ranging from big salads to pasta to fish, and there are several "55 & Over" possibilities that are smaller and a bit less expensive. One of my favorites is the slow-roasted turkey breast, with plenty of tender meat over bread and celery stuffing with mashed potatoes and gravy and a side. Jack, however, is fond of the potato-crusted flounder filet, which usually comes with a baked potato, broccoli and baked rolls or buttermilk biscuits (he substitutes other things for the potato and broccoli depending on his mood at the time). He's had the salmon filet, too (with a choice of Bob Evans Wildfire BBQ sauce or garlic herb butter) and likes that almost equally well.

Bob Evans has other options that aren't readily available at other restaurants, too, such as a $5 carryout value menu that includes a number of items including signature soups (we especially like the tomato basil and beef vegetable). Every once in a while we'll take one home for later - it's plenty for two very large bowls.

Another option is the family-size meals to go (there were 10 on the menu last time I checked). Priced at just under $20, they include a main meat - such as chicken breasts or tenders, turkey breast or country-fried steak - and one large side and freshly baked bread sufficient to serve four; call ahead for quick pick-up. Other options are offered for special occasions like Thanksgiving, with prices based on the number you'll be feeding. When you factor in not having to spend hours cooking, the price isn't bad at all.

Here's another tip: Bob Evans puts nutritional information on its website as well as recipes for quite a number of the foods for which they're known (slow cooker meatloaf, Italian Sausage, Tortellini Soup and yes, that sausage gravy, for instance). 

Each store also has a small selection of gift items, and on several occasions we've purchased whole pies from the in-store bakery (the cookies and banana bread are delicious as well). On one occasion, I bought bags of Bob Evans medium roast coffee when they were on sale at two for $10; it's good coffee, but much too mild for my taste. There's a new bold roast being advertised now that I'd like to try, but so far it hasn't been available by the bag at either the Austintown or Niles locations where we're frequent diners. Neither is the company's new loyalty card (spend $60, earn $4), launched in Dayton not long ago. We'll keep an eye out!

If you go:

Bob Evans
1100 N. Canfield-Niles Road
Austintown, Ohio 44515
(330) 652-8211

Open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; Sunday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


For many years, my husband Jack and I were big fans of Nicolino's Restaurant in Niles (the best linguine with clam sauce anywhere, IMHO). Later, it became Niki'z, a makeover primarily spearheaded by Nick Logan, one of the sons of owners Anthony and Mary Ann Donatelli Logan (or so we were told at the time). Then one sad day, it was gone - to be replaced by a couple of different eateries, most recently the High Pointe Restaurant & Tavern. The only constant is that things change, we sighed, wishing we could turn back the hands of time.

Imagine our delight, then, when friends told us that Niki'z is back in town! Sure enough, it's now on Mason Street, in a corner building that once housed the Naus Club. It's quite small, and the menu primarily consists of pub food (except once a month, but more on that later). Alas, no linguine or pizza, but Nick told us plans are in the works for an expansion that could include a pizza oven. And, they still have that lunch rewards card - buy nine items, get the card punched and get a sandwich free next time you go.

The first wonderful surprise is a popcorn machine just inside the door. I absolutely love popcorn - there are relatively large containers and a scoop right by the machine for DIY scoops. The surprise, though, is that there's a noticeable kick of heat. I've asked our server a couple of times how they do it, but she's just smiled and said it's a secret. One day, however, I discovered the "secret" - but no, I won't reveal it here.

Although the menu is limited compared with what the restaurant used to have, everything we've tried here has been excellent - including one important carryover: Niki's homemade Italian hot sausage patty sandwich, topped with sauteed peppers and onions and provolone cheese on a toasted Italian roll ($6.99). Yum!

There's a good selection of appetizers here, including Italian fried greens sauteed in olive oil and garlic ($4.50), Jalapeno bottle caps ($4.99) and even fried pickle slices ($4.99). That last one, however, we'll leave to someone else to try. One thing that's still on my to-eat list as of this writing is Niki'z Stuffed Hot Peppers - yellow Hungarian peppers stuffed with special cheese mix served over marinara sauce ($6.50). I used to love them at the old place, and I have no doubt they're delicious here as well.

Daily specials are listed on a board - at this writing, Tuesday is 50-cent wing day, for instance. But generally, we stick with our favorite things, and if I don't get that hot sausage sandwich it's likely to be the traditional gyro ($6.50). A grilled chicken gyro is available, too, but  nothing will do for me except the traditional. It's a pita filled with thin slices of gyro meat plus tomato, black olives, onion, lettuce and homemade cucumber sauce.

Still another fave is the chicken fingers basket with fries ($6.50) - the breading isn't too heavy and tastes great, as does the dipping sauce. Prefer clams? There's a basket of them as well, also $6.50. You'll find several dinner-size salads, and build-your-own burgers, with half a pound of ground sirloin, start at $5.50.

The wings are good here as well - both traditional and boneless (six for $4.50 and six for $5, respectively). Our sauce preference is butter garlic or garlic parmesan, but there are plenty of other choices. Niki'z does catering, too, and a tray of 36 wings is $22.50, for instance. 

On our most recent visit, though, we tried a couple of different items (for us, at least). Jack had the chicken melt pita ($6.50, and he asked for it on a regular bun). It was delicious - grilled chicken breast topped with sauteed mushrooms and onions and topped with melted American cheese. I tried - and loved - the pulled pork BBQ ($6.99), a large sandwich of shredded hickory pit roasted pork shoulder on an Italian roll. It comes with a side of Niki'z special BBQ sauce, which is delicious as well. All sandwiches, I should add, come with either pasta salad or cole slaw; for a buck more you can substitute fries, and an extra 50 cents will let you turn just about any sandwich into a wrap.

For a really big treat, come here on the first Saturday of each month, when Nick cranks up that hickory pit to crank out roasted lamb, pork (including ribs), chicken and ham - all available for takeout (meats are sold by the pound and chickens are sold by halves and wholes). I've been told there's quite a crowd, so it might be a good idea to call ahead and order what you want. We haven't yet tried most of these, although ham and chicken are on our must-eat list. We can, however, attest to the deliciousness of those ribs, which are available other times. On a recent Saturday evening, in fact, we and friends Jerry and Barb from Niles licked our fingers as each of us got a half rack ($10, including two sides). Yum!

If you go:

508 Mason St.
Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 544-6100

Open daily at 11 a.m.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


Flashback: It was a beautiful spring day - one of the first of the season when the sun was shining brightly, the temperatures were heading a bit north of 60 degrees and a few flowers were in bloom. Looking for somewhere to go for a drive, I happened to look first in our refrigerator and notice that our supply of cheese was dangerously low.

Ah yes, I said - what better day to head for Middlefield, Ohio, and replenish that drawer with some of that wonderful stuff from Middlefield Cheese? It's in the heart of Geauga County Amish country, so I knew the scenery would be great for viewing and photographing as well.

As my husband Jack and I neared downtown Middlefield, we passed Mary Yoder's Amish Kitchen. As if on cue, we said to each other, almost simultaneously, that it's a place we really need to visit. That's when Jack's "Aha!" moment hit; we'd be leaving the cheese shop right about the time we usually have lunch and we'd be hungry, so why don't we give it a try? Never one to turn down a meal, I quickly agreed and the deal was sealed.

This is quite a popular restaurant, I should add - reminiscent of Hartville Kitchen in Hartville, Ohio, and Das Dutch Haus in Columbiana, the food is hearty, down home stick-to-your ribs stuff. And that means it's best not to get there at peak meal hours. In our case, we didn't arrive till close to 1:30, but even then, we had plenty of company. 

Like those other restaurants I mentioned, Mary Yoder's has a nice gift shop and bakery for take-home treats. There seemed to be an abundance of doggie-related goodies - found a hanging sign I almost bought for our friends in Powell, Ohio, who are "parents" to two beautiful Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. The picture on it looked just like their sweet Lucy. 

Hungry as we were, though, we pressed on to the waiting line, which wasn't long at all. I imagine it would move fairly quickly, though, because there's plenty of room inside with at least four rather large dining rooms. The white woodwork and large windows make for a very light, airy look and feel, and the Amish quilts hanging on the walls (for sale, we assume) are absolutely gorgeous.

As luck would have it, we arrived on a day when the lunch buffet was a happening thing ($12.69 per person on Friday, Saturday and Monday). The price includes the salad bar but not beverages or dessert - unless you want fruit from the salad bar as your dessert as we usually do. Since this was our first visit here, we both decided on the buffet just so we could sample more different things. That turned out to be a smart decision, and if you're making a first visit, I encourage you to do the same. 

The servers here are noticeably friendly and attentive and are, in keeping with the decor, dressed mostly in white. Learning that we were first-timers, in fact, ours suggested the buffet. She then took our drink orders and brought dinner rolls (there's a choice between white and wheat and we chose the latter).

Then it was off to that buffet. First up was the salad bar, where I was delighted to find a container of my favorite pickled hard-boiled eggs as well as the basic greens and plenty of add-ins like chopped eggs, bacon bits and fresh radish slices. Another section had macaroni and potato salads, cottage cheese, Greek-style pasta salad and more. I especially enjoyed the pasta salad (besides those wonderful pickled eggs), and the bleu cheese dressing was excellent. Jack said the thousand island dressing was extra-good.

The entree section is very much a mother lode of down-home comfort foods, from green beans and corn (neither of which had that "canned" taste that's common on other buffets we've tried), and the mashed potatoes are the real thing. To top them, I passed over brown gravy and what appeared to be sausage gravy and opted instead for a sauce filled with healthy-size chunks of chicken I figured was to be put over biscuits (confirmed later by our server, who told me lots of folks do exactly what I did and use it to top mashed potatoes instead). It was so good, in fact, that it was the only thing I put on my plate when I went back for seconds.

Let's see, what else did we love? In short, everything we sampled, from fork-tender roast beef pot-roast style in juice, beef and noodles and stuffing (Jack's favorites) and to-die-for breaded roasted chicken that literally fell off the bone. The breading was quite flavorful but didn't overwhelm the meat - very much like my mama used to make.

We didn't have room for any dessert save some of that fruit from the salad bar for me, but I know the homemade pies are a real treat here ($3.69 per slice) as are the apple dumplings with sauce ($4.69, with a sugar-free version available as well).

Of course, just about any item on the buffet can be ordered as a standalone dinner, which includes those homemade rolls and two side dishes that range from home fries to mac-and-cheese to a tossed salad and more. The restaurant also serves family-style dinners, which are nice for larger groups. With one meat, the cost is $16.19 per person, and the other items included with it are too numerous to mention here. There's also a list of sandwiches and hot sandwiches, to which you can add the salad bar for $4.69 more.

If you go:

Mary Yoder's Amish Kitchen
14743 N. State St.
Middlefield, Ohio 44062
(440) 632-1939

Open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Friday, May 17, 2013


Growing up on a farm in southwestern Ohio was for the most part a wonderful experience (except maybe when my Dad refused to buy me the horse I always wanted). But from a culinary standpoint, diversity wasn't a strong point. I didn't taste pizza (or for that matter, even know it existed) until junior high; heck, we were thrilled when an A&W drive-in and Dairy Queen came to town. I was even more thrilled when I got my first real summer job at DQ, too - and I'll bet I still could do a pretty good job of putting those curls on ice cream cones.

"Real" food, whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner (back home we called the meals breakfast, dinner and supper) was mostly eggs, meat, potatoes and veggies - and often, it came right from our own land or maybe one of our neighbors. Finding anything that had origins in any country other than the US of A was next to impossible.

I suppose that's why I went a little wild and crazy when I arrived in this neck of the woods courtesy of marrying my husband Jack. There seemed to be an Italian restaurant on every corner, interspersed here and there with Greek, Lebanese and a few other ethnic groups. Hot peppers in oil? Check. Wedding soup? Check. Stuffed grape leaves? Double-check. This must be food heaven, I thought.

But one type of food wasn't easy to find on local menus back in the 1960s - Mexican. That is, not unless we made the drive to Lake Milton to El Carlos. Before we got tied down with two munchkins and full-time jobs, we'd enjoy a meal out there every once in a while. After that, for the most part we settled for pizza delivery and Mickey D's.

But in fact, Mexican food has always been a favorite of mine, although like oriental cuisine, every couple of months is often enough to satisfy my cravings. And clearly, it's become a favorite of many folks especially in recent years; Mexican restaurants seem to have taken the place of Italian joints on those street corners.

One afternoon not long ago, though, we were driving around Lake Milton to get some photographs in the state park and decided we needed sustenance. As fate would have it, we spotted El Carlos - and in we went. Since then, I'm happy to report, we've been back several times. 

The first time we came we noticed is that the place has been spruced up. Located in what's basically an old house, it's never been fancy; but now, the exterior has been spiffed up, and the interior has colorful walls, larger windows and some pretty spectacular sombreros hanging on the walls. There's a dining room and separate room with a bar and more tables and chairs; neither is huge, but both are comfortable and inviting. 

Come here Tuesday through Friday (it's closed on Mondays), and you'll find $2 lunch specials from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. For that amount, you can choose a beef and been burrito, beef enchilada, crispy beef taco, beef and bean chalupa, fries or a taco salad - so one of the Mexican treats plus fries or a salad will set you back a modest four bucks. We didn't notice any on-tap beer, but domestic bottles are a reasonable $2.50 and they also have Mexican and other specialty beers as well as mixed drinks including the requisite margaritas (except on Sundays, when you'll have to settle for beer).

You won't find sandwiches here either, except on the "American" food list, which is short and includes things like a hamburger, grilled cheese, grilled ham and BLT sandwiches (all quite reasonably priced from $1.75 for the grilled cheese to $4.25 for a Texas cheeseburger). But that's fine with me; I can't imagine coming here for anything except the Mexican stuff anyway.

Food here can be purchased ala carte, such as a variety of burritos, tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, chalupas and quesadillas; most range from a couple of bucks to $4.75 for the combo fajitas with steak, chicken and veggies. There's even a Mexican pizza for $5.25 - two crispy flour tortillas topped with beef and beans, cheese, peppers and onions and black olives.

Whatever you end up with, though, you'll get a basket of wonderfully delicious corn chips and a bowl of homemade salsa (the salsa is very mild, so I always add hot sauce). One order (one bowl of each) is complimentary, but you can buy more if you want. Usually, we opt for the chili con queso appetizer; the bowl of creamy warm cheese-and-salsa for dipping is absolutely irresistible (and a pretty substantial quantity for $4.50).

A few dinner salads are on the menu as well - served in tortilla bowls with greens and various toppings - and our daughter tried one at one of our visits and was quite happy. But generally, we'll go for one of the whole dinners, which are served with rice and refried beans. I'm partial to the seafood enchilada, while Jack is especially fond of the Mexican stuffed pepper with melted cheese on top ($8 for the full dinner). But the menu lists somewhere around 17 different possibilities, so there's something for just about everyone.

The dinners are quite substantial, too, so you won't go home hungry and, if you're like us, more than likely will end up going home with something in a box. The tacos are fairly large with plenty of meat, although  will say the beef was on the salty side. The refried beans are as tasty as I've had anywhere, but the rice lacked much flavor even after I doused it with the hot salsa I had left from the complimentary bowl.

Another tip: Unless you're sharing it with several someones, it's likely you won't be able to eat all of the chili con queso sauce. If you're having tacos, adding some of the cheesy sauce will make them even more delicious. If all else fails, ask for a container to take it home; our server told us it heats up quite well in the microwave, and she's right.

If you go:

El Carlos Mexican Restaurant
17679 Mahoning Ave.
Lake Milton, Ohio 44429
(330) 654-3257

Open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.

Friday, April 26, 2013


Quite honestly, I could probably live the rest of my life without having another hamburger. Some of that is because I just don't eat much red meat any more, but I suspect another reason is that I so miss the wonderful Maid-Rite sandwiches from Greenville, Ohio, near the farm where I grew up. Not sloppy joes but "loose meat," the recipe has remained a secret ever since the place started in 1926 (no, I was not a customer back then). Every single time my husband Jack and I go back "down home," though, I insist on grabbing a big bag of the treats from the brick building that's known as a hangout for the used chewing gum teenagers stick on the walls.

That said, every once in a while I do get a hankering for a good ol' burger, whether it be plain with mustard, lettuce and tomato or a fancy schmancy job topped with bacon and/or bleu cheese. Generally, I satisfy the urge at Gasoline Alley in Niles or Fudruckers in the Eastwood Mall. But when we spotted a Five Guys Burgers and Fries near the Walmart store on Elm Road in Cortland a while back, I started to salivate and said, "Let's give it a try."

Other shops are in Boardman and Austintown (we've been to the latter), and the closest Pennsylvania location I could find is in Meadville. For the record, the whole thing started in Arlington, Va., in 1986; today, there are more than 1,000 locations nationwide and another 1,500 or so under development, or so the website says. You can hook up with them on Facebook and Twitter, place orders online and enjoy a totally trans-fat free menu. They do, however, use peanut oil, so anyone with a peanut allergy should stay away.

The restaurants are relatively small, but quite colorful and fun. Food is packed in brown paper bags, you can grab a container of peanuts in the shells from a huge bin -- they're free) -- and huge bags of potatoes are stacked to form the entrance to the order-your-own counter. In addition to burgers, Five Guys is known for fries, which come in a big plastic cup reminiscent of Idora Park. The cups are so full that they spill out, making big grease spots on the brown paper bag.

Although this is a neat place for kids, it's not the least expensive burger joint on the block; our total bill at our first visit was $17.74 including tax, and that was for two "regular" hamburgers, one order of fries, one large soft drink and one bottle of water. But those regular burgers ($4.89 at the time of our first visit and $5.29 at our second) are double patties, and all the fixin's are free, including jalapenos, tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, pickles, relish and a variety of sauces. As it turns out, the "little" burger, which is a single patty, would have been less expensive and quite sufficient for me - and I'm sure would be enough to satisfy young children.

Comparatively, a regular bacon cheeseburger (now $6.69), a kosher style hot dog is $3.59 and a grilled cheese $3.59. The beef is always cooked well done and is fresh - there are no freezers in any of the restaurants, the website says. There's a veggie burger as well ($2.99) into which you can put any or all of the vegetables that are on the menu into a bun. I haven't tried that yet, but it sure sounds yummy.

The hamburgers are unusually flavorful, and in Austintown, I tried the kosher hot dog topped with onions, jalapenos and mustard. The dog is split in half lengthwise and grilled, exactly the way I do them at home. The jalapenos, I hasten to add, pack enough heat that they're not for the faint of heart.

Jack got a hamburger with his favorite grilled onions and mushrooms as he did at Cortland, noting - as he did then - that's is really nice to get all those toppings at no extra cost. In addition to finding a bit of a price hike, we ran into a newfangled push-button drink dispenser here; it's just different enough that it took a little extra time (and more than a couple of sloppy mistakes) to figure out how it works. Pretty cool, actually!

If you go:

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Cortland: (330) 372-0232
Austintown: (330) 953-2880
Boardman: (330) 629-8038

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

CAFE 422

One of the many pluses of living in the Mahoning Valley, as I've said time after time, is accessibility to some of the best restaurant food anywhere in the country. Conversely, one of the minuses is that restaurants come and go. Sometimes, the demise falls under the Who Cares? category; other times, not so much.

As longtime Valley residents (my husband Jack from birth and me after we got married), we well remember the bustling U.S. Route 422 "Strip" that was lined with wonderful places to eat. At the heart were Alberini's, El Rio, Cafe 422, Jimmy Chieffo, Cherry's Top of the Mall, The Living Room and the Town and Country where we got to see big-name Kenley Players after the shows at Packard Music Hall. The parking lots overflowed every evening, and at least once a week, our car was among them.

Today, these treasures are gone, the most recent of which to close its doors is Alberini's. That is, with one notable exception: Cafe 422. The folks who started the place back in 1939 - the late Guerino "Greenie" Abruzzi and Orazio Rossi - are long gone, but the restaurant was sold to Serdar Dede a few years back. Since then, he's kept the name, the hot peppers in oil and good food, and in 2012 he opened a second location in the former Rusty's Southside Grille in Boardman.

Our first visit for review purposes was at the original location with our usual friends Jerry and Barb from Niles - on Valentine's Day, no less - and the first time we've been there since it changed hands. The interior configuration hasn't changed much from what we remember, but it's been updated. The main dining room now has windows that reflect the Route 422 scene, for instance - much more airy and light. In another area, a large bar dominates (we sat in this section).

Needless to say, I had to try the hot peppers in oil as an appetizer ($3.50) - diners no longer get a free dish as was the custom long ago. Water was poured automatically - which I always take as a sign that customers are well cared for. Right after we ordered drinks and entrees, our server returned with a basket of fresh bread and butter.

Immediately, we dug into those hot peppers in oil. While I'll say they're different from the ones I remember, they were quite delicious (and hot enough to be not too popular with the others at our table, much to my delight).

It took us a while to decide on entrees, but decide we did. Barb chose the broiled salmon with lemon butter sauce, one of several three-course dinners priced at $17.99. They come with soup or salad, one side and a dessert (chocolate cake, raspberry cheesecake - her choice - coconut cream pie, tiramisu, creme brulee, a brownie sundae, Italian spumoni or ice cream. How's that for choices?

Jack finally picked the Italian-style whitefish, sauteed with hot peppers, olives and onions in a light marinara sauce ($16.99), but not before he asked if he could substitute less hot peppers - certainly, our server said.

Jerry and I are huge walleye fans, so we couldn't resist the walleye over sauteed greens, one of the specials of the day ($17.95). He chose a Caesar salad, while I went with wedding soup. Since the entrees also come with a side, I asked what my choices were, but the server said the sauteed greens counted as the side and I didn't get a second. Not a big greens lover, I almost switched entrees, but when our server said the fish was ample in size (and did I say that I love walleye), I stuck with my original decision.

The results? For openers, the wedding soup definitely ranks among my top three favorites; the flavorful broth is filled with a couple of tiny meatballs and veggies but not to the point of having very little broth. If there's a downside, it's that it comes in a very tiny cup - I'd love to have enjoyed a few more spoonsful.

Barb's salmon was excellent, and Jack's whitefish was a goodly size with an abundance of veggies in the topping (he did say he could have done without a few of those olives, though). Jerry and I loved the walleye as expected, but as it turned out, it's a good thing I also loved the sauteed greens. Had I not, the filet wouldn't have come close to filling me up; I hadn't eaten much the whole day to "save up" for our special Valentine's Day splurge. On the whole, we all agreed the meals and ambience here are wonderful and a refreshing change from our usual casual dining - but we also agreed prices are a bit on the high side so it's not a place we can afford to visit very often.

We didn't waste a lot of time heading to the Boardman location - also with Jerry and Barb in tow - but this time it was for lunch (Jack took this photo of the three of us). The building is quite impressive, and the decor is absolutely elegant. Soft muted grays and browns blend comfortably with blonde wood tables with comfy chairs.

There's a separate lunch menu as well as a daily specials list; our server said the menu is virtually the same as Warren, although Boardman doesn't have the three-course specials. Here, too, we had a tough time making up our minds. I was the first to decide, although I fluctuated between Cajun tilapia over orzo for $7.99 or clam linguine with white sauce at $9.99 (the latter won out). Opting for soup over salad, I ordered pasta fagioli instead of clam chowder.

Jack was in a fishy mood as well, choosing parmesan crusted haddock with sauteed greens and tomato vinaigrette salsa plus a salad with sweet-and-sour dressing for $9.99. For Barb, it was eggplant parmesan with a salad (the blue cheese dressing added a $1.25 upcharge). She also asked if she could have the standard red sauce on the eggplant and just olive oil on the accompanying pasta and was told that would be no problem.

Jerry broke ranks by going with a sandwich, prime rib with sauteed onions, peppers and mozzarella on ciabatta bread ($9.99). He picked a salad with sweet-and-sour dressing.

We also got a loaf of delicious warm bread before our entrees arrived. The lunch portions weren't huge - we all polished off every single bite - but each was well worth the price in terms of size. Barb raved about the eggplant, mostly because it was an exceptionally thick chunk and the coating was crispy, just as she likes it. The pasta seemed to have an overabundance of butter rather than "straight" olive oil, and our server confirmed Barb's assessment, adding that there was a bit of garlic in there as well. The extra cost of the bleu cheese dressing, Barb said, was money well spent.

Pasta fagioli's never been a favorite (I ordered it simply because I didn't want a salad or clam chowder). But this was quite different; light pink, relatively thin broth filled with tiny pasta rings and other goodies. I doubt I'd want an entire bowl, but I wouldn't hesitate to order it again - although those salads, with a variety of greens - looked great as well.

My linguine was especially tasty, with no shortage of shredded clams. After I added a few sprinkles of hot pepper seeds, I was in pasta heaven. Meanwhile, Jack deemed his fish excellent, and he said the greens were unexpectedly flavorful and the tartar-like dipping sauce was unique and delicious.

Jerry - who's usually the most loquacious of our foursome, for the most part chowed down quietly until every bit of his sandwich disappeared. Did he like it? "Kick-ass! he pronounced.

If you go:

Cafe 422
4422 Youngstown Road S.E.
Warren, Ohio 44484
(330) 369-2422

Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. The Boardman location is open on Sunday only for private parties and one hour later than Warren on all evenings.