Tuesday, December 9, 2014

BEEF O'BRADY'S

The first Beef O’Brady’s opened in Brandon, Florida, in 1985, so the chain isn’t all that new. And although I spent more time than I really wanted to trying to track down how many are in operation today, the best I could do is a report claims there were about 215 franchises in several states as of January 2011. On the downside, I also turned up a report naming the franchise to a list of 11 that posted the highest rates of failure of their federally guaranteed loans used to buy them in the first place. The financial issues may or may not have been resolved by now - and all I know
(or, for that matter, care much about) - is that there’s now one in Cortland. My husband Jack and I drove past a couple of times on our way home from photography outings at Ashtabula Harbor and/or Mosquito Lake State Park before it opened, saying each time that we’d have to stop in for a bite once the place got up and running. That finally happened this past Veterans’ Day, when the place was close to full when we arrived about 1 p.m. The parking lot is smallish and a bit tough to navigate (heaven help those driving vehicles with a wide turning radius), but we got lucky and found an open spot. Ditto with a booth; there might have been one other unoccupied table when we came through the doors.
Turns out there’s a small bar/pub at the back of the place, and it, as well as the main dining area, is nice although with a sort of nondescript decor. Sports memorabilia from the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Lakeview Bulldogs and 12 big-screen TV sets line the walls - most of the latter tuned to sports shows. Once we’d settled in and ordered a couple of beers from what we call the “normal” list - there’s a large number on tap including lots of funky stuff - we began to peruse the menu. And boy, is there ever plenty to peruse, from burgers to flatbreads to ribs and wings and just about anything in between. I gave up and simply gravitated toward items marked as “signature” dishes, and in the end Jack did the same. He picked the fish ‘N’ Chips basket ($10.49), which includes four fried, beer-battered cod fillets with tartar sauce, fries and coleslaw. I was determined to sample the beef, so my choice was the Roast Beef Garlic Melt ($8.79), with sliced onions and provolone cheese pressed on garlic Cuban bread. Fries are standard, by the way, but there are several items, like onion rings and chili, that can be substituted for $1.99 more. We might make a switch on our next visit, but the fries were exceptionally good, so then again, maybe not. When the food arrived, Jack really liked the tasty fish and the coleslaw. Just one bite of my sandwich made my taste buds sing - the beef was exceptionally tender and full of flavor - and with the second bite I realized it’s also the saltiest beef I’ve ever had (this coming from someone who tends to salt restaurant food without even tasting it; thank goodness I hadn’t done it this time out). So although I smacked my lips as I happily ate the whole thing, I told Jack - who’s on a low-sodium diet - that the bite I allowed him to sample probably exceeded his sodium allowance for the week. As it turns out, that’s not too far off; a bit of online research on nutritional values confirmed that the sandwich alone (i.e., without the fries), contains 3,940 mg of sodium. Whew! But flavor? My sandwich definitely had that “wow” factor; just for that alone, I knew we’d be making a return visit; given the sodium content on much of the food, we won’t stop often, though - once every several months will have to do. But because I wanted to write a review, we relaxed our rule a bit and made another trip in early December. Jack stuck with the fish and chips - again with that tasty coleslaw, but I decided a burger might be a good choice. There are about nine on the menu, including a build-your-own version for $7.99, but when I spotted the Amarillo Firecracker at $9.99 - called a “new” item at the time of our visit - I knew it was the perfect choice for me. An Angus burger is topped with bacon, fried jalapenos, pepper jack cheese and sweet jalapeno mayo - be still my pepper-loving heart. All burgers, the menu says, are seasoned with a blend of kosher salt and black pepper (there goes that sodium raising its head again), and they can be ordered medium, medium well (my choice) or well done. Because we loved the fries, we didn’t bother trying a substitute (especially since they all cost an extra two bucks). But we got a big surprise this time out - and not a particularly good one; this time out, the fries were a big disappointment. They were thinner, didn’t seem to have much flavor and, simply put, just weren’t up to par. I, of course, was looking forward to a sandwich filled with the zing of hot peppers. Alas, as far as the firecracker was concerned, I didn’t feel the heat, but I sure felt the love - it was absolutely delicious and cooked perfectly to order. In fact, it was so good I ate the whole thing - very unusual for me. The only suggestion I have is that sandwiches should be served with a sharp knife; even the burgers are too big to pick up whole, and I’m here to tell you that trying to cut a bacon-topped burger in half with a table knife is darned near impossible.



Oh yes, one other thing: I searched both the corporate website and the local restaurant's Facebook page, and while I found the address and phone number, nowhere could I find the hours the place is open (except for the day you happen to check on Facebook). C'mon, guys, it's not fair to force people to call ahead; the only reason I can think of for not posting hours is that they're subject to change with little notice. And that's definitely not a good sign!

If you go:

Beef O’Brady’s
3660 Niles-Cortland Road
Cortland, Ohio 44410
(330) 400-4815

Open for lunch and dinner


http://www.beefobradys.com

Sunday, November 9, 2014

GIORGIO’S RISTORANTE

Any time a new locally owned restaurant opens, I cross my fingers that it will be a success. And when it opens in a building that holds many happy memories for me and my husband Jack, I’m even more hopeful.

So it was that we could hardly wait to try Giorgio’s Ristorante, which held a grand opening in mid-October on the U.S. Route 422 “strip” just outside Niles. Most recently, it was a Brown Derby - which had become a routine stop after we returned from any overnight vacation and I wasn’t in the mood to even think about cooking dinner. In a more meaningful incarnation, though, it housed a Bombay Bicycle Club, one of my all-time favorite restaurants. Never, I’m quite certain, will I find a Cobb salad that can hold a candle to the giant bowl served up there (the bloody Marys and Long Island iced teas were memorable as well).

At the outset, I’ll say Giorgio’s is likely to have a tough go at it; in the first place, this is Niles; there’s an authentic Italian restaurant on just about every corner (no, Olive Garden doesn’t count in my book, although I do enjoy the food there). In the second place, while the exterior has a great new look, the inside offers virtually no hint of an Italian heritage. It’s a pleasant atmosphere, with dark wood booths and tables and a small fireplace at the end of one of the two dining areas; but for the most part the interior hasn’t changed much from the last couple of occupants.

I’m okay with that, actually. But from a marketing standpoint - and I confess maybe I've watched one too many episodes of Bar Rescue on Spike TV - there’s nothing special to stand out in the minds of customers (i.e., brand identity). Besides that, after two visits, I must say the place would do well by making a few improvements in food and customer service as well (more on that later).

Our first visit came not long after the grand opening with friends Jerry and Barb, and we arrived shortly before 5:30 on a Friday evening. We figured we’d have to wait a bit, but we got lucky and snagged what may have been the only remaining table. Shortly thereafter, all heck broke loose customer-wise; the waiting line just kept expanding (perhaps I should note that it was the night before Sweetest Day, so that may have had something to do with the large crowd).

Even then, we didn’t have a long wait for a server to appear; busy as she obviously was, she was friendly to the point of bubbly. We decided to start with shared appetizers - hot peppers in oil ($3) and bruschetta ($6) and, of course, something to drink (Jack and I picked draught beers, albeit different kinds).

Just one swallow later, we learned that was a mistake. Jack’s beer was totally undrinkable (he sent it back and opted for a bottle instead); mine tasted watered down, but not so much that I wasn't willing to live with it. Thankfully, when we sampled the appetizers, the beer didn’t matter so much. The peppers were on the hot side with a wonderful flavor (great for me to eat straight from the dish but not so hot that the others weren't able to nibble on tiny bits on pieces of the rolls that arrived with our drinks). Fine with me, I said as I polished off almost the entire dish.

The bruschetta, which appeared to be two of the dinner rolls that were brought previously in a basket (much like ciabatta rolls) sliced in half, were topped with a very flavorful combination of cheese, tomatoes and basil. There are four on the place, but each is rather small; next time we’ll know to get a single order for every two of us there happens to be.

For entrees, Jack chose his usual Italian favorite linguine with red clam sauce ($12), while I finally settled on cheese ravioli, going with marinara instead of pink sauce ($12). Jerry and Barb picked chicken ($12) and shrimp Mediterranean ($14), respectively (same dish, different main ingredient). All except me ordered salads as their side; if wedding soup is on the menu - as it is here - I’ll always give that a try.

The soup broth was tasty, and the cup was loaded with lots of tiny meatballs. As is his custom, Jack asked for extra dressing on his salad (all three got the house Italian). As it turned out, he needn’t have asked; the iceberg lettuce - the only greens in the salads, BTW - was swimming in dressing (which was tasty, they agreed) so no extra was needed.

Then our entrees arrived, and we all tucked in. Jack really liked the red clam sauce. Sadly, it was only then (when, knowing my preference, Jack asked the server about it) that I learned it can be ordered with white sauce as well. I’d passed over the only other option I saw on the menu - seafood linguine in white sauce - which included shrimp, mussels and clams but at $17.99 is way out of my price range. Oh well, I said, maybe next time I’ll ask, although I questioned why it wasn't listed on the menu and thus no asking would be necessary. Meantime, I enjoyed the ravioli - and although the sauce didn’t have a to-die-for flavor, it was on the thick and very tomato-y side and quite good. 

While our friends weren’t unhappy with their choices, both said the sauce lacked flavor (in olive oil, fresh garlic, tomatoes and basil over fettuccine). The shrimp were tender and not chewy (although Barb said a couple more would have been an improvement); Jerry said he’d have preferred a whole chicken breast instead of chunks. Still, both of them cleaned off their plates, as did the two of us (well, I had one ravioli left when I ran out of room - not enough to bother taking home).

Our next visit came a couple of weeks later, when Jack and I stopped around 12:30 p.m. on a weekday for lunch. Although there were several cars in the parking lot, when we walked in the door, we almost gasped; the hostess table, located right at the entrance against a partition that separates the two dining areas, was completely dark (as was one side of the restaurant). Whoa, we said - is the place open for business?

Then we glanced to the right and saw the light: In that room, at least three tables were occupied. So, we stood our ground, waiting - and waiting some more - for someone to acknowledge us. After several minutes, we deliberately moved over to stand in the lit-up dining room. Even then, we waited a couple more minutes before anyone paid the slightest attention.

Okay, Macbeth took the words right out of my mouth: Hold enough! Walking into any restaurant and finding no one staffing the greeting station is an invitation for trouble; it’s unthinkable that the station would be totally in the dark, thus allowing customers to enter unnoticed. Clearly, other folks don't disagree; after we were seated, two couples came in, stood in the dark looking a bit confused for a few minutes - then turned around and walked right back out.

Although it was almost impossible to see it in the dark, a small chalkboard at the entrance listed one or two specials including $2 bottles of Corona. Sounds great, I said, and after we were seated and our server - another friendly one - came to take our drink order. But never one to trust signs (especially ones I can’t see very well), I asked her to confirm the beer deal. Another surprise: She had no clue what I was talking about. Finally, she agreed we were probably right, so Corona it was for both of us. But as we ordered, I made a mental note that when we got the bill and the charge exceeded the two bucks each, I would make my protest known all the way to the rooftops.

After a longer-than-should-be wait given the number of other diners, our server appeared once again - but to take our lunch order and apologize for not bringing the beers. “No one is behind the bar,” she explained. Say what? Even if that were true, all we wanted was bottled beer - the special of the day, no less. You can’t reach in and grab them for us?

For our entrees, chosen from the lunch menu, Jack decided on a meatball sub sandwich ($6), which comes with a choice of fries, soup or salad. He picked a salad once again, this time with thousand island dressing (again asking for double the usual amount). My choice was chicken piccata, a breast with fresh garlic, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, lemon and butter sauce ($8). Since I’d already tasted the wedding soup, I opted for the soup of the day, cheese tortellini.

It took several more minutes before our beers were delivered, along with a plate of rolls. Not long thereafter came the salad and soup, but wait: This time, the salad dressing was on the side in a small container, but no extra as Jack had ordered. And - yet another surprise - my cheese tortellini soup apparently had morphed into wedding soup.

Although I was relatively happy to eat the soup and say nothing, Jack - who needed to order more dressing anyway, insisted that I send it back and get what I’d ordered. That I did; but while he got his extra container right away, my soup didn’t make it to our table until the entrees did.

Still another shouldn’t-be happening thing; especially since my soup choice was tomato based (as was my entree), I really, really didn't want to eat them at the same time. More to the point, I'm not a happy camper when I'm trying to scarf down what was supposed to be a prelude to the main course while watching that main course get colder with every passing spoonful.

For the record, the soup was very good, as was my chicken piccata (why no capers in it I’m not sure - that’s a pretty standard ingredient in the dish). The chicken and artichoke hearts were fork tender and the sauce quite flavorful, so I gobbled up every single bite. Jack’s meatball sub, though, was so-so - to the point that he brought half of it home, where he ended up throwing it away.

Will we return? Maybe, but if we do it's only because we’re hopeful that the place will be a success; after our first two experiences neither of us is chomping at the bit to get back. And that's extremely disappointing, because this place has real potential (and I certainly like the location). Hopefully, the kinks we encountered stem from being new at the restaurant game and will get untangled before it’s too late. Stay tuned!

If you go:

Giorgio’s Ristorante
1231 Youngstown-Warren Road
Niles, Ohio 44446
330-544-9280

https://www.facebook.com/giorgios.ristorante.niles

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday. Find the menu under the “About” tab on Facebook.

Friday, October 31, 2014

LITTLE DAMASCUS RESTAURANT

Little Damascus Restaurant may be tucked away in a small strip plaza in Niles, Ohio, but there's nothing small about the food. If you love Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes (or follow a vegetarian/vegan diet), this place is a must-
visit; trust me, you won't go away hungry.

The interior isn't large, and there appears to be a lot of take-out business. But several tables are tucked inside and, when the weather's warm, there are a couple of tables outside for those who enjoy that kind of thing (which usually I don't. I hate to share my food with flying critters, and on hot days, I prefer to stay cool while I eat). We visited not long ago with friends Jerry and Barb from Niles, and our server immediately offered to put two tables together to make sure we had enough table space.

In fact, that was fortituous; once we saw the menu, we wanted to try just about everything. And although it took us a while to look over the menu and daily specials and decide, by golly, we came close to doing exactly that.

We started with what we considered to be appetizers: A small order of grape leaves ($3.99); a spinach pie ($2.99) and a vegetarian plate with hummus and tabboula ($5.99). Then came our choices for the main course, which included a lamb gyro with lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, pickles and sour cream for my husband Jack ($5.99). Barb is a lamb lover, so the lamb sandwich with grilled lamb, peppers, onions and shrooms with pepper sauce and garlic sauce on Syrian bread ($6.99) was the obvious choice. Jerry chose the kibbee platter (kibee with pepper sauce with bread and tossed salad ($6.99), while my pick was one of the daily specials -  collard greens roll-ups, which turned out to be much like grape leaves only stuffed with veggies and drizzled in olive oil ($6.49).


When the first batch of goodies arrived, we got a pleasant surprise: Food here is served on real plates with real silverware - none of that flimsy paper and plastic stuff we halfway expected because it's a small place that deals a lot in carryout.

The second surprise shouldn't have been one; the whatever-were-we-thinking awareness that we'd overdone it. Portions here are not small (my roll-ups, for instance, totaled six, and each was close to an inch thick and nearly a foot long. That said, we dug in and ended up with yet another surprise: Nothing left to take home except four of my collard greens. 

Needless to say, we all sampled a little of everything. The spinach pie turned out to be the least favorite for all of us - a little too much pie and a little too little spinach. The kibbe, which none of us had tasted before, was perhaps our favorite; good-sized oval breaded chopped meat that was very flavorful, especially with the garlic sauce. The gyro was gynormous - Jack couldn't even come close to finishing it - and Barb's lamb sandwich was quite large as well. Not only that, she said it was more flavorful than she'd expected. Three of us gave a thumbs-up to the grape leaves, although we all agreed that my collard greens roll-ups were even better. 

The hummus was delivered spread out on a plate rather than in a bowl, garnished with three hamburger pickles. Say what? We said, accompanied by skeptical looks all around. We all tried dipping using the rolls that came in a basket and loved the flavor, but no one made an effort to try those pickles. That is, until I finally caved in and said what the heck. I dipped one in the hummus to coat it well, then popped it in my mouth. And guess what? Another surprise. It was delicious, so I quickly polished off the other two as well. Yum!

As you might expect, we stuffed ourselves so full that we couldn't even think about dessert. But next time, I, at least, won't be so foolish. A chunk of baklava that was on display- one of my all-time to-die-for sweets - has my name on it. In fact, make that two!

If you go:

Little Damascus Restaurant
1112 Niles Cortland Road (State Route 46)
Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 469-6623

https://www.facebook.com/littledamrest

Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Monday, September 22, 2014

VASILIOS RESTAURANT & PIZZERIA

Sometimes, my husband Jack and I are really slow on the uptake. Make that really slow; Vasilios Restaurant & Pizzeria is celebrating 30 years as we speak - but would you believe our visit in mid-June was our first time there? Sure, we've driven past the place countless times, usually - as was the case with our first visit - on our way home from poking around somewhere in Ashtabula County. 


On this occasion, we'd been to historic Ashtabula Harbor and Geneva-on-the-Lake, where we enjoyed a large appetizer platter at the Old Firehouse Winery. We weren't terribly hungry when we got to Vasilios, but we figured we could get something to nibble on and take the rest home for later.

There's a banquet room that can handle up to 60, and one of the big attractions here is pizza (the first thing diners encounter - pun intended - is the pizza stand right at the entrance). The restaurant is open and airy, and in good weather there are a couple of small cafe-type tables outside. Admittedly, the views of busy highways are less than
spectacular there, but hey, we didn't come for the scenery; it's food we're most interested in.


Breakfast is served here all day, for the record, and for me, that's a Martha Stewart good thing. That's the main reason I like Bob Evans, to be honest (that plus the fact that they're extremely generous with the buy one, get one free breakfast coupons). Neither of us enjoys eating breakfast at the "regular" time, but put that incomparable sausage gravy and biscuits in front of me any other time and get out of the way!

Here, though, we stuck with non-breakfast foods; in part, that's because we figure it's pretty hard to totally ruin bacon and eggs so that's not a good choice for review, and partly because we were in the mood for something a bit more substantial. And unlike Bob Evans, this place has a liquor license (I don't know about you, but eggs and beer just don't mesh). There's no beer on tap, but that's fine with us; it always tastes better in a bottle (and the beer and super-frosty mugs are just the way I love it). Several wines are available as well, including Canyon Road, one of our favorites.


Because pizza is a specialty here, we ordered an Old World to take with us when were done (a medium 12-inch for $8.50 plus $1.50 to add pepperoni). We both ended up getting linguine with clam sauce ($9.50) - red for him and white for me. 

I got wedding soup, always a favorite, to start - and the broth was delicious. There wasn't much of those tiny round things (orzo??), but the chunks of chicken, meatballs, greens, onions and carrots were generous. Jack ordered shrimp gumbo, which I normally don't care much for, but it was quite good and had a noticeable kick. Italian dishes are a specialty here, by the way - everything from veal, chicken and eggplant parmesan to ravioli to stuffed shells to gnocchi.

The linguine entrees were totally non-standard, topped with chunks of celery, black olives, onions, mushrooms and clams. My white sauce didn't have much of a distinct flavor, but it was good - and Jack liked his quite well. The bowls were huge, and we each brought home more than half of our orders and even had enough to share with our daughter Chris and her husband Jerry next door. As for the pizza, it smells and tastes very much like our favorite Brier Hill-style at Sunrise Inn in Warren, but with a thicker crust. Outstanding!

We didn't waste much time going back, and once again it was for a very late lunch after taking photos at several of Ashtabula County's 18 covered bridges. Several other folks were here as well - always a good sign when a place is busy other than at peak dining hours. 

This time, I settled for broiled whitefish, choosing my favorite soup in the world, wedding, instead of a salad. Jack picked the seafood platter with fries (salad instead of soup). The platter, a reasonable $9.95, contains four scallops, three jumbo shrimp and whitefish.

The soup was quite tasty (truth is, I don't recall ever eating a wedding soup I didn't like), but the fish was a bit of a disappointment. It was described as having a "light" red sauce, which I interpreted to mean not thick and heavy like pasta or marinara (I'm not a fan of red sauce and fish; both of us absolutely love linguine with clam sauce, but we disagree on what kind. I'm a white, he's a red, and never the twain shall meet.

As it turns out, the sauce here was very tomato-flavored and bright red - and the whole thing was covered with chunks of zucchini, onion and green peppers (all good) plus those funny olives that I think start with a K (not so good; give me a green olive by itself or in anything, but that's as far as my olive-loving goes). Actually, the sauce was very flavorful - but for me, just not on fish, please. Once I scraped most of that off, though, the fish itself was quite good. There were three substantial-sized filets, and I took quite a bit home to be consumed happily by Jack the next day.

All was good with the fish platter, except turns out one of the items on it was smelts, which is not one of his favorites. The breading was relatively heavy and crispy, so I threw caution to the wind and tried one - not bad at all, although I won't say they'll ever be a favorite seafood dish.

Vasilios does have a posted list of daily specials: Monday, it's a combo eggplant and chicken parmesan; Tuesday, chicken marsala; Wednesday and Friday, all-you-can-eat fish; Thursday, eggplant rotellini; Friday, Greek spaghetti; and Saturday, Italian platter. I expect the specials change occasionally, though, so if you want to make sure your favorite is on the menu, give them a call before you go.

If you go:

Vasilios Restaurant & Pizza
500 Trumbull Ave.
Cortland, Ohio 44410
(330) 638-3718

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Vasilios-Restaurant-Pizzeria/119898652449

Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Saturday, July 12, 2014

TEXAS ROADHOUSE

For many years, my husband Jack and I - often accompanied by our son Scott and daughter Chris - made an annual trek to the North Carolina Outer Banks, usually in early June before rental prices headed sky high in peak season. Almost always, we stopped in Winchester, Virginia, for a night on the way just to break up the nearly 11-hour trip into manageable drive times. We'd arrive in plenty of time for dinner and head straight for the Texas Roadhouse there. It was our first experience with the chain, which started in 1993 in Clarksville, Indiana.

The food was wonderful - no way to beat those steaks and filets. But I love peanuts, so I had a great time diving into the tin bucket on the table, cracking them open and pitching the shells on the floor. The decor was fun - lots of western "stuff" on the walls, a large jukebox and such - but it was the taste that was as big as all outdoors.

So the announcement that a Texas Roadhouse would open in the Eastwood Mall Complex here brought a Texas-sized cheer from our house, and we couldn't wait for it to open. Unfortunately when it did, we waited, and waited and waited some more before we could manage to get in.

During the week, the place doesn't open until 4 p.m.; and every single time we drove past shortly before that time for at least a month and a half, the parking lot was overflowing into other store lots. The first time we tried, in fact, was on a weekday perhaps a week after the opening; it was so crowded that we turned tail and headed across the way to Lone Star Steakhouse. It, too, was fairly crowded - and we learned we weren't the only ones to pass on a wait of an hour or more at the new place.

In fairness, Texas Roadhouse does offer call-ahead seating, but all that means is your name will be on the waiting list when you arrive so you don't need to push through a throng to get to the reservation desk, but that doesn't quite do it for us. There's also a restaurant in Boardman, but restaurants there usually are even more crowded than in the Niles and Howland area so we didn't want to chance driving that far and having an even longer wait. In the end, we held off for a few months till, we hoped, some of the newness had a chance to wear off - finally picking a Saturday when the place is open for lunch. We timed our arrival  at about 3:15 p.m. - after lunch but before most folks are thinking about dinner - which would give us the best chance of getting right in, we figured.


We figured right. We had no wait at all this time, but by the time we left an hour or so later, the place was nearly filled to capacity and a few people were waiting. 

As for those peanuts, it appears the option of tossing the shells on the floor is here; but when we were seated, we noticed that the bucket on the table was empty - apparently you ask for peanuts if you want them. We're not sure whether that's an attempt to save money on peanuts by giving them away to people who really want them or trying to cut down on the mess on the floor. Since the floor didn't exactly crunch under our feet, it could have been either one.

As often happens, we dragged our friends Jerry and Barb along (or maybe it was the other way around; they'd been wanting to try this place as well). We were seated almost immediately, walking past a glass display case of various cuts of beef. There are many booths and tables in several sectioned-off areas, all surrounded by lots and lots of wood.

We placed our order for drinks and appetizers right away: a Cactus Blossom (a Texas-sized onion deep fried and served with Cajun horseradish sauce for $4.99) and Rattlesnake Bites (diced jalapenos and jack cheese battered and fried with that same sauce (also $4.99). By the time our drinks arrived, we'd decided on entrees - but not without some difficulty. For openers, there are several special entrees for $8.99 available Monday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., including a 6-ounce sirloin and a pulled pork dinner.

There are plenty of steak choices here as well, plus burgers and other tasty-sounding sandwiches, "country" dinners like pork chops and beef tips over rice or mashed potatoes, several big salads and more. If I have a complaint, it's that seafood options are very limited (three items were on the menu at the time of our visit, one of them fried catfish, one of few fish species for which I don't care much).

As a huge fan of ribeye, Barb's choice was a no-brainer; the 12-ounce bon-in at $11.99, with a salad and veggie - broccoli and carrots on this afternoon. I went for steak as well, but an 8-ounce choice sirlous ($11.99) with a Caesar salad and cup of chili.


Jerry and Jack took different paths, with Jerry choosing the pulled pork dinner with a Caesar salad and baked sweet potato ($9.99). The slow-cooked pork is covered in the restaurant's signature barbecue sauce and comes with toasted bread. If beef tips are on a menu, it's a pretty good bet Jack will go for them - and he did ($11.49). They're served over seasoned rice (or mashed potatoes if you prefer them) with sauteed mushrooms, onions, brown gravy and sour cream. For his side, he chose fries with cheddar and bacon.

The appetizers both were delicious - especially the rattlesnake bites. The onion was a little on the overly browned side, but it was quite good, as was the sauce. A ranch-type sauce came with the rattlesnake bites, and it was exceptionally good with what we figured was a hint of horseradish.

Jerry  I enjoyed the Caesar salads; the dressing was quite mild with no strong anchovy flavor, and the greens were cut into manageable bites. I'm not a huge fan of croutons so was happy that the salad wasn't covered with them, although they were exceptionally good as croutons go. Barb said the broccoli was done as she likes it - still slightly crispy - which means I won't order it (I like mine very tender). Meantime, Jerry raved about his baked sweet potato.

My steak was outstanding - relatively thick and cooked perfectly to medium rare. Barb raved about hers as well - also done to medium rare perfection.  Jerry loved the pulled pork, saying he wouldn't hesitate to order it again, and Jack was happy with his beef tips. The gravy was very rich and the rice had a great flavor - and there was plenty left to bring home. 

As we finished up and were waiting for the checks, we all agreed we'd be back here any time we're in the mood for a great steak. We'll definitely try to get here for at least one of our birthdays; the special person gets to sit on a rolling "steer" saddle while servers sing to you and yell "Yee-haw!"

If you go:

Texas Road House
2260 Niles-Cortland Road S.E.
Warren, Ohio 44484
(330) 349-9488

http://www.texasroadhouse.com

Open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Friday, June 20, 2014

INNER CIRCLE PIZZA

My first experience with Inner Circle Pizza happened quite a number of years ago, when my husband Jack was teaching freshman English classes at Youngstown State University. The final “class,” at which students turned in the research papers on which they’d been working during the quarter, usually took place at the Inner Circle that at the time was on Lincoln Avenue across from the YSU campus. Some students sat and chatted a while, some had to run in, drop off their papers and run to another final exam, and one or two stayed long enough to enjoy pizza or a burger.


When Jack stopped classroom teaching and switched to supervising student teachers in the English Department, those quarterly outings at Inner Circle came to a halt as well. From then on, I doubt we went there more than once or twice. More recently, we enjoyed visits to the Inner Circle that was open for a while in the Eastwood Mall complex (where Wing Warehouse is now), and after we moved from Niles to Mineral Ridge, we made it a couple of times to the Inner Circle on Mahoning Avenue in Austintown.

Needless to say, it’s a place we’ve enjoyed over the years, but one location we hadn’t visited is the Inner Circle in Canfield. That omission came to an end a few weeks ago - and we found that this one is noticeably different from the others. First and foremost, the wide variety of pizzas has been pared down considerably. My all-time favorite, the IC Hot, wasn’t on the menu - although happily, my second favorite, spinach and tomato (spinach, fresh-cut tomatoes topped with cheese, spices and garlic is still there.


The interior is quite spacious - the familiar brick is here as at other locations - and there’s a large bar in the center of the main dining area. Lots of windows let light in, and there are several large-screen plasma TV sets here and there (eight, the website says, but we didn’t count). 

We’d come because we bought one of those dining coupons - spend $10 up front for a $20 certificate - and, of course, because we wanted to see this location. We got there about 1:30 on a Thursday, and the place was fairly crowded, although we had no trouble being seated right away. Much of the crowd was gone by the time our food arrived - more on that later - so we figured folks in Canfield tend to eat lunch a bit later than elsewhere.
We did have a bit of a wait after being seated, but once our server appeared, we ordered drinks (ignoring the extensive list of martinis and specialty drinks and sticking with beers). Then we took some time to look over the menu, although we both had a pretty good idea what we wanted when we went in. We peeked at the list of daily specials (on Thursdays, it’s penne with meatballs, chicken parmesan  and baked Tuscan pasta with sausage, peppers, mushrooms, onions and cheese. The penne was tempting, but the others just seemed to be too much for lunch.

There are quite a number of salads, including one called the Youngstown Chicken Salad that sounded especially good: Grilled chicken breast with greens, tomato, carrots, black olives with French fries and cheese. Calzones and stromboli are specialties here as well, with several options from which to choose. From the appetizer list, I want to try the hot peppers in oil with breadsticks sometime soon - this time out, my stomach just wasn’t ready to take the heat for some reason.


Of course, I was disappointed that “my” hot-pepper pizza wasn’t available, but judging from past experience, I was confident that the spinach and tomato one would work just fine. I went with the small 6-inch version ($4.75) so I could add a cup of wedding soup to start ($3.95). Remembering how great the burgers used to be, Jack ordered the Circle burger for $7.75. Sandwiches here don’t come with fries, but you can add them for $2.49; because he wasn’t all that hungry, he declined. 

Once we’d placed our order, we really had a wait until my soup was delivered. It was quite tasty with lots of broth, fresh greens, celery, chicken and those tiny meatballs in a generous-sized cup. I would have preferred it much hotter - it was just a cut above lukewarm - but since it was delicious I made short work of it anyway. 

Next up was my pizza, neatly cut in four pieces. Our server told Jack his burger would take “a few more minutes,” and I finished half of my pizza (and gave Jack about a third of my soup when it was apparent his burger wasn’t going to be forthcoming) before the sandwich arrived with an apology from the server, who told us the cook didn’t see the burger on the original ticket and had to play catch-up. It was, however, worth at least some of the wait, loaded with mushrooms, onions, peppers and melted cheese.
 


As for the pizza, it was as yummy as ever - the flavored dough is especially wonderful. There’s enough spinach to taste but not turn the whole thing green, and it’s topped with very thin whole slices of tomato, plenty of cheese and enough garlic to add zest but not overwhelm.

When my pizza arrived, I told our server I also wanted an order of cinnamon dippers - fried warm breadsticks about an inch wide loaded with cinnamon sugar and a container of ooey-gooey white frosting to dip them in ($3.99). They’re a treat I enjoyed back in those YSU days, and I was delighted that they hadn’t gone by the boards. In fact, I waited to place the order because I was afraid they’d be delivered too early and cool down by the time I was ready to eat them.

Once we’d finished up, our server stopped to ask if we wanted anything else, and I reminded her about the dippers. Oh yes, she said, scurrying to put in the order. In five minutes or less, we were happily scarfing them down as fast as we could. Yum!

If you go:

Inner Circle Pizza
6579 Ironwood Blvd.
Canfield, Ohio 44410
(330) 533-7575

http://innercirclepizzacanfield.com

Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.

Friday, May 23, 2014

MIKE’S PLACE

Have you ever happened on a restaurant you absolutely love from the minute you walk in the door? Well let me tell you, it’s a treat. Such was the case when my husband Jack and I went to a family get-together at Mike’s Place in Kent. Even before we took a bite, our eyes took in the decor - which might best be described as All-American Clutter - and knew we’d found a culinary home.

For the record, Mike’s has been around since 1987, created “in the honor of salt, sugar & grease,” or so the website says. Also of interest on that website (see below), are the “Rules of Mike’s Place - a sampling of my favorites follows:

Special Orders DO UPSET US ! (our kitchen is staffed with former professional wrestlers).

Tips may be thrown at cooks. (in appreciation or as an incentive to never cook again).

Yes, burping is allowed and appreciated. (please, no rolling your placemats into megaphones).

We will not split orders. If you are that cheap, split it yourself.

We serve breakfast all day (cuz we never know when your lazy butt is getting out of bed).

At that aforementioned party, which was arranged by our son Scott, his wife, Lilla and Lilla’s brother Iain, we had a room to ourselves next to a real bus - empty except for the driver’s seat (a special attraction for restless youngsters) and several tables and chairs. Turns out, in fact, it’s rentable, as are other rooms here with intriguing names like Twin Coach Bus Room, Da Tequil Room, Thortan O'Grady "Filthy Oar" Irish pub room and (my personal favorite), "Ship Happens.” On that occasion, we chowed down on delicious munchies like wings - with way too many sauce choices to count here - as well as baskets filled with yummy breaded mushrooms, fries and such washed down with equally yummy margaritas.

We very much enjoyed poking around in all the other rooms, which are filled with all sorts of kitschy “stuff,” but since we were there mostly for the camaraderie we didn’t pay much attention to the menu except to make a mental note that we’d have to come back. And that we did a month or so later on our way home from drooling over the snazzy cars at the big auto show at the Cleveland I-X Center with friends Jerry and Barb from Niles. The first thing we learned is it’s absolutely impossible to review the entire menu and pick what you want in less than a couple of hours.

Yes, it’s that extensive. The sandwich section alone had 39 entries (and that’s not counting burgers or wraps); the whole menu takes up most of four pages of newspaper tab-size paper with print so small that if you’re our age or older, you’ll need a magnifying glass to read most of it.

Oh yes, and then there’s The Stu-anator - nearly 70 ounces of ground beef, onions, mushrooms, American and Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard and mayo topped with fries, curly fries and at least one pickle. Eat the whole thing and you get a shirt and your photo on the wall, but don’t get your hopes too high: 152 have tried it but only five have been successful.

We made a half-hearted attempt that lasted perhaps 15 minutes as we polished off the first of our beers, and then we simply gave up. The special of the day was all-you-can-eat breaded fish (cod, if I recall correctly) for $9.99, so we threw up our hands and went for it. Then, of course, we were faced with choosing two sides apiece - not an insignificant challenge. In part, that’s because the food here is a bit out of the ordinary; yes, there are mashed potatoes and fries and a couple of other standard accompaniments, but other choices are spicy Baja rice, Texas style baked beans with sausage, sprats with bacon & kraut, Southern green beans and, well, you get the point.

The fish turned out to be two rather large filets - so big that only Jerry polished them off and had room for a refill. It was delicious - as was the homemade tartar sauce that came with it. Our sides ranged from the simple to those baked beans with sausage for me, and I’m here to tell you I’ll be having that side dish again.

It didn’t take long for us to head back again, this time also on the way home from Cleveland but  just Jack and I. Once again, we wrestled with the menu, looking at dozens of yummy-sounding entrees like shrimp tortellini alfredo, ($11.39) and others with oddball names like The Hog Wild Mother Clucker, The Wild Salty Dawg Horseshoe and The Reagga Reefers Seafood Combo. Ah, what’s a diner to do?

We know what we did - revert to the old standard grilled whitefish ($9.99 with two sides, but not all you can eat). I got mine blackened, while Jack opted for basic lemon butter. For our sides, he chose simple cole slaw and applesauce, while I couldn’t resist trying the sprats with bacon & kraut and yes, those beans again. The sprats were good - lots of paprika - but I probably won’t try them again. And next time we’re here - and there will be a next time very soon - I’ll have had a chance to look over the menu I brought home and at least narrow it down to a couple of sandwich and  entree possibilities.

And then hope to heck I don’t like the special of the day and have to start from scratch.

If you go:

Mike's Place
1700 S. Water St.
Kent, Ohio
(330) 673-6501

http://www.mikesplacerestaurant.com

Open 6 a.m. - 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 7 a.m. -10 p.m. Sundays.

Friday, April 11, 2014

CHEF PENG CHINESE RESTAURANT


"The most beautiful adventures are not those we go to seek."

Intriguing quote, but more on that later. When I said back when winter was in full swing that my husband Jack and I would be staying relatively close to home to find restaurants until the Spring thaw, I wasn't thinking quite this close. But one very snowy night when our friends, Jerry and Barb, asked us to join them at a restaurant near Youngstown, fate intervened. Just as we started out, we ran smack dab into driving snow and a very icy road and made an instant decision to not push our luck. Well, Jerry said, is anyone up for Chinese? Sure, we agreed, after which he pointed the car toward downtown Niles and the Chef Peng Chinese Restaurant. He and Barb, he explained, eat there often.

Since that fateful night, we’ve eaten there a few more times simply because it’s close - not far from the center of Niles - and the food is outstanding. 

The entire place is far from lavish and it’s on the small side - not a lot of tables and just a few booths -  but the Oriental-style decor is quite pleasing nonetheless; on the way in, there’s a huge fish tank filled with colorful critters. When our server arrived to take our drink orders -- no alcohol here, for the record -- we all jumped at hot tea on that first visit, no doubt because our coats still were dusted with a few snowflakes and our insides craved something warm and soothing.

I'm a tea-lover, and this was quite good; each couple got a pot to share. If I had a complaint, it is that the little handle-less cups got very hot very quickly once the liquid was poured inside. That's fine for those who don't want their tea almost boiling hot -- just wait a few minutes for the tea to cool down -- but that's not me. Once the cup gets cool enough to pick up with my fingers, the tea has passed its prime as far as I'm concerned, so I was forced to wrap the cup with my napkin before I could pick it up.

On a recent occasion when we all got together here, we started with soup. Only won ton can be purchased by the cup ($1.75); crab meat corn, hot and sour and a couple of others are sold only in large bowls starting at $3.95. Two of us - Barb and Jack - went for won ton, while my favorite is hot and sour. Jerry, meanwhile, tried the crab meat corn just to see if we liked it.

I say “we” because we enjoy sharing, especially when it’s something a bit out of the ordinary. The won ton soup was filled with dumplings and other "stuff" I didn't bother to write down but probably should have, and my hot and sour had the usual tang, though possibly a bit less than at other oriental restaurants. But since none of us had tried the crab meat corn (and the bowl was huge), we all dug in. It was quite tasty, creamy with corn and bits of crabmeat, but we all agreed we wouldn’t want a lot of it.

The list of entrees is extensive -- both "combination plate" with an egg roll and fried rice and "dinners," larger portions served with steamed rice or, for 50 cents more, fried rice. Several appetizers are there as well, and and a four-item kids menu ranges from $3.95 to $5.95. There are three desserts: A deep fried banana or apple and Lychee (Chinese fruit), each priced at $4.50.


While we perused the dinner menu, we decided to splurge on a couple of appetizers, considering first the Pu Pu platter to share -- fried shrimp, egg roll, crab meat rangoon, beef teriyaki, fried won ton and paper-wrapped chicken for $9.50, which we’ve enjoyed on previous visits. No, we decided, we'd rather go for three different appetizers that offered more sharing possibilities for the four of us: Crab Meat Rangoon (eight for $3.95), Beef Teriyaki (two skewers for $2.95) and steamed or fried dumplings (six for $4.50, and we chose steamed).

Admittedly, it took us a while to decide on entrees, which are divided by categories like Pork, Chicken, Beef, Shrimp, Lo Mein or Chop Suey and Vegetables as well as portion size -- with quite a number of choices in each. Finally, we all picked something different so we could sample as many things as possible (sorry, Martha, but we're among friends here; sticking our forks in each others' plates is permissible, at least within reason). Our choices included Mongolian Chicken with steamed rice (large portion at $8.25), Sweet and Sour Shrimp ($7.50), Orange Chicken ($6.95) and -- for me, the cast-iron stomach member of the group, the spicy Szechuan Chicken ($6.50, and I ordered it extra spicy). 

First came our appetizers, and very quickly we decided we should have passed -- but because they were so good, not because they weren't. The Crab Meat Rangoon -- those little folded handkerchief-like pastries filled with a crab meat-cream cheese mixture -- were delicious. The dumplings were tender and wrapped around tiny balls of sausage; for dipping, there was an intriguing sauce that was cold, slightly spiced with what we suspected might be ginger. The Teriyaki Beef, two fairly large flattened pieces of beef on wood skewers, looked very dry and overcooked. The taste was what I'd call "satisfactory" and they weren't tough like we'd expected, but we agreed we'd all stick with other choices next time out.

Once our entrees arrived -- discerning diners that we are -- we realized that these are not "cookie-cutter" meals. Much to our delight, each had distinctive flavors and ingredients. Trust me, the forks were flying right and left as we tasted our own choices and moved on (again!) to one of the others. Our collective favorite, perhaps, was the Orange Chicken -- a simply wonderful dish we agreed we'd order again in a heartbeat. The Mongolian Chicken was a close second, a huge mound of chicken and grilled, thinly sliced onions (make that lots of grilled onions)! The Sweet and Sour Shrimp comes with the typical bright pinkish-orange sauce that for me (and our friends) is a bit too sweet, but Jack absolutely loves it and devoured every single bite.

As for the Szechuan chicken, it was spicy -- but not even close to what I'd call "hot" -- but I'd made my choice in the knowledge that I probably wouldn't have to share (clearly, my momma didn't raise a fool). Only Jerry had the intestinal fortitude to sample it (and then only a tiny bite). It was filled with chicken, of course, plus tons of thinly sliced veggies like onions and carrots, and quite delicious.

The portions here aren't what I'd call gigantic -- two of the four of us brought home leftovers -- but on the other hand, we went there totally famished and there was plenty to more than satisfy our cold-weather appetites (and the prices are quite reasonable). In all, we went home stuffed at far less cost than we would have spent had we ventured to the restaurant we'd originally planned to visit.

Ah yes -- almost forgot! As at any self-respecting Chinese restaurant, the end of the meal comes with fortune cookies. And of course, as any self-respecting diner would do, we cracked them open to read the advice. The first was a ho-hum: "Goodness is its own reward." The second wasn't much more exciting: "Turn off the TV and computer and exercise your mind with a good book." The third? A big improvement, and advice -- albeit a bit sexist -- we'd all do well to heed: "Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such."

By far the most prophetic, though, was this one, with which I started this write-up: "The most beautiful adventures are not those we go to seek."

No, we didn't "seek out" Chef Peng's, but for sure we won't let grass grow under our feet before we go back again!

If you go:

Chef Peng Chinese Restaurant
517 N. Main St.
Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 544-8132

Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday Noon to 9:30 p.m.; closed Sunday. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

BARRY DYNGLES RESTAURANT & PUB

If I had to describe my favorite type of place to eat, there's little question it would be one with a casual atmosphere and a bar. My husband Jack and I enjoy sipping a beer or two or perhaps a glass of wine with our meals, and we want to be able to put our elbows on the table or gnaw on that chicken leg without threat of glares from other diners. Throw in a few big-screen TVs and a bowl of popcorn on the table, and we're hooked.

Barry Dyngles Restaurant & Pub in Austintown is that kind of place, and apparently other folks agree; according to a post on its Facebook page, the first two months of this year are the best in the restaurant's history. 

There are plenty of on-tap beers, from standards to more trendy IPAs and crafts. The bar is sort of horseshoe-shaped and quite large; there's plenty of room to belly up and do some serious sipping while games on the larg-screen TVs. Some of the walls are brick, and all are covered with all sizes of framed photos, mostly sports-related. 

Our most recent visit happened after we'd made a quick trip through part of Mill Creek Park just to get out of the house - the awful winter weather has had us snowed and suffering from cabin fever. We decided to treat ourselves to lunch to stretch our away time, and since this place is not out of our way to get home, it filled the bill perfectly. As is our custom, we sat on the bar side rather than the main dining area.

Barry Dyngles has racked up numerous awards for barbecue sauce, BTW (with good reason - it's absolutely delicious), and I absolutely love the loaded baked potato soup. So when I learned that one of the day's specials was a half rack of ribs with two sides for $10.99, it was a no-brainer. My sides were baked beans and that fabulous soup.

Meanwhile, Jack ordered the beef brisket sandwich, also a daily special with one side for $7.99. He picked macaroni and cheese for his side and then paid a couple of bucks extra to get a cup of French onion soup. Bottles of domestic beer were on special at $1.50 each, so we indulged ourselves with a couple - one while we waited and another with our meals - without breaking the bank.

That soup, which is thick, creamy and topped with cheese, bacon bits and chives, is close to the No. 1 spot on my Top 5 list of favorite soups from any restaurant, and the baked beans, with a barbecue-flavor sauce and shredded beef, are quite different from the usual doctored-up Campbell's variety. If I had to quibble, I'd say the half rack of ribs seemed a bit on the small side so I had nothing left to take home, but this was lunch and the price was more than reasonable.

Jack loved the brisket - it's his usual choice here - which he took out of the bun and ate with a fork, dunking it in the container of barbecue sauce that came with it. The mac and cheese seemed a little dry to me, but Jack certainly wasn't complaining. He said the onion soup, too, was a standout.

An earlier visit came at the dinner hour on a Friday night when we and our friends Jerry and Barb decided on a whim to have dinner, and they suggested Barry Dyngles. Of course, we readily agreed, and off we went. This time, we opted for a table in the main dining area, looking first at the special two for $25 menu that offers an appetizer to share and two entrees from a list of about a dozen. That option went by the boards rather quickly, though, when (believe it or not) we couldn't agree on two entrees from that list. 

Turning to the regular menu, Jack went for healthy over hearty with broiled haddock ($12.99), choosing a salad with thousand island dressing and mac and cheese - well, so much for the healthy part. I had no such allusions, going straight for the ribs and wings platter for $13.99, as did Barb; Jerry chose the ribs and pulled pork platter. My sides, potato soup and baked beans, come as no surprise. Jerry picked a regular baked potato and clam chowder, while Barb upgraded to a loaded baked potato and a salad with bleu cheese dressing.

For sauces, Barb stuck with the "regular" BBQ sauce on both ribs (there were about five ribs and six wings). Jerry ordered the regular sauce on the wings and the Carolina style for what turned out to be a mound of pulled pork (the sauce comes as a side for dipping or pouring). I chose the regular sauce on my ribs and butter garlic on my wings. Everything absolutely delicious; in fact, we were so stuffed we could barely waddle out.

Speaking of wings (we were, weren't we?), they're exceptionally good here, and there are plenty of sauces from which to choose. My personal favorite is butter garlic, but I've tried several others and liked them quite well. If you like your wings to stay crispy, you can order the sauce on the side.

Sandwiches are excellent too - we love the pulled pork, Reuben and Y-Town burger, the latter of which is a half-pound patty topped with Italian greens, hot peppers and provolone on ciabatta bread ($8.99 each). Sandwiches come with fries, and while I'm not a big fry fan, I love these. Slightly spiced, they're a bit crunchy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. Yum! 

Last but hardly least, I should mention that Barry Dyngles also has a large carry-out menu great for parties or large families, and they have mobile units that cater parties of any size anywhere you need them.

If you go:

Barry Dyngles Restaurant & Pub
1601 S. Raccoon Road
Austintown, Ohio
(330) 259-4788
http://www.barrydyngles.com

Kitchen open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m. and noon to 9 p.m. on Sunday.

Friday, February 14, 2014

ICE HOUSE INN

If you've ever driven on State Route 46 from Austintown to Niles, you've probably noticed the upside-down sign marking the Ice House Inn at the corner of Webb Road. A popular watering hole and community gathering place for many, many years, the Ice House has undergone renovations inside and out, including the menu.

Oh, it's still a community bar, and if you go on a Bike Night (or for that matter, just about any night much beyond 6 p.m.), you'll have a tough time getting a seat inside. Most often, my husband Jack and I show up for lunch or, as old folks like us are wont to do, an early dinner. If we're just snacking, we'll pick one of the high tables close to the bar; when we're eating something more substantial and need more room to spread out, we'll choose one of the booths on the other side of the bar partition. I love the booth tables, which are inlaid with colorful "business cards" from [mostly] local companies.


Still another section is used for live entertainment set-ups, small parties and such. To be sure, the place hosts great parties; we've attended a few (it's rare for us to go out for an evening since neither of us enjoys driving after dark, but this place is so close to our house that if we could crawl as the crow flies, we'd be home in no time). It's no holds barred for really special occasions like New Year's Eve and, more recently, Super Bowl Sunday.

Wings have long been a specialty of the house here, and we know quite a few folks who rave about them. Quite honestly, until a year or so ago, we weren't that impressed; but lately, we've been raving as well. Boneless versions are available now for those who are so inclined - I still want to pick around the bones, thank you very much. They're meatier now, and the sauces are quite tasty (the butter garlic, lemon pepper and teriyaki come to mind immediately). A dozen goes for $10.99; usually, though, Jack opts for something else and I get six of the butter garlic for $5.99.


For the record, other sauces include mild, hot, gold rush, barbecue, ranch and parmesan; if you want extra sauce, add 50 cents. Wings also are available for carryout; 50 cost $39.99.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, wings are 50 cents each, by the way, so we try to remember to stop in then when we're in the mood for the popular appendages. And while we're on the subject of specials, the Ice House serves up prime rib beginning at 4 p.m. every Saturday for $10.99. Honestly, I haven't tried it yet, but it's very near the top of my food bucket list.

Sandwiches are always a good choice, and both of us are especially fond of the Greek Gyro ($6.99). I love the chicken park sandwich, a lightly breaded  breast topped with mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce for $7.99. Also tasty are the Reuben, chicken and greens and 1/2-pound sausage patty - you won't leave hungry, that's for sure (all sandwiches come with fries).


With the remodeling has come a very welcome expanded dinner menu - and just about everythings sounds delicious. On our most recent visit, Jack tried the fish & chips ($8.99), ordering cole slaw and pasta - the latter spaghetti with red sauce - while I wanted the fried perch with pasta and a salad ($9.99). Alas, mine wasn't to be; the perch wasn't available on the day of our visit, so I made  last-minute switch to that chicken parm sandwich. While we waited, we sipped one of the beer specials for the day - bottles of Bud for just a buck. 

I expected the standard fries with my sandwich, but when our orders came I was happy to see they'd given me the pasta I'd wanted with the perch that wasn't to be. The reason? There are a number of pasta dinners on the menu, from plain old pasta and two meatballs to chicken parmesan (a breast fried, topped with mozzarella and marinara over pasta to chicken diablo (not peppers in marinara sauce with chicken over the pasta of the day). Since I'm always leery of ordering nothing but pasta unless I've tasted the sauce, I figured I'd try it as a side before shelling out the 11 bucks or so for the dinner version.

In fact, the sauce was quite tasty - so when and if I'm in the mood, I won't hesitate to order one of the pasta dinners. Between the two of us, we had quite a bit left over to take home, and a couple of days later we learned it heats up quite well.

If you go:

Ice House Inn
5516 W. Webb Road
Austintown, Ohio 44515
(330) 544-8800

Open from 9 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday; 7 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ice-House-Inn/110580002328124

Friday, January 31, 2014

SALVATORE'S ITALIAN GRILL


For quite a few years, my husband Jack and I enjoyed occasional visits to Salvatore's Italian Grill in Howland Township, Ohio. We'd work in a visit for lunch or dinner and stop at the wine shop next door to replenish our supply. Once in a while, we'd head south from Niles to the Austintown restaurant, which is familiar to many as the former site of The Lodge.


Since we moved to Mineral Ridge, though, the Austintown location has become the place to head; most recently, we acquired a taste for flatbread-style pizza and discovered some real treats here. A late lunch of the Monte Cristo (white pizza with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, $8.50) for me and an Old World Brier Hill for Jack (sauteed green peppers, onions and marinara sauce sprinkled with Romano cheese to which he adds pepperoni, $6.50 plus a buck for the extra topping, became almost a habit during the hot months of last summer. 


Much of the ambience from The Lodge is still here - the dark wood interior and booths, exposed beams and a few things stuck up near the ceiling like an old clawfoot bathtub. There's a good-sized bar near the kitchen, and plenty of cold beer on tap.

Not long ago, armed with a $20 certificate for which we'd paid $10 at MyValleyDining.com, we headed back for lunch. This time, though, we weren't in the mood for pizza; instead, Jack ordered his always-favorite Philly steak sandwich ($9), substituting a salad for the fries for a $1.50 upcharge. The raspberry vinaigrette dressing, he said, is outstanding.

First came the usual basket of "regular" pizza squares and two crispy-on-the-outside warm Italian rolls. We tried hard not to fill up on them so we'd have no room for our entrees, but it was a struggle. 
Since I was on the hungry side (plus I figured I could bring anything left over home for later), my choice was the lunch special sausage and green peppers over penne pasta ($8.99). Instead of a salad, I picked wedding soup, which is always delicious here, filled with lots of goodies. The pasta was excellent, and as expected, I brought home more than half of what was in my very large bowl.

Those who prefer baked Italian specialties should love the Eggplant Parmigiana or Lasagna Classico ($12.50 each, dinner portion) or the Stuffed Eggplant Rollantini (eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese and ham topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese with a side of angel hair pasta ($11.50). My all-time favorite is Linguini Fra Diavlo - crab meat, shrimp and clams in a spicy tomato sauce and served over linguini (I ask for it to be made extra-spicy). Since it blows $15 all to heck I save it for very special occasions, but it's absolutely wonderful. There are a couple of salmon choices on the seafood menu that are delicious as well.

As for Jack, he swears the chicken alla cacciatore is better here than anywhere else ($13.50). The mushrooms, green peppers and fresh tomatoes complement the boneless chicken breast, and the marinara sauce is outstanding. I've also sampled the Chicken Francaise, a boneless breast in lemon white wine sauce served with capellini ($14.50), and still other favorites are the Penne Alla Vodka (penne in cream sauce with prosciutto, shallots and vodka, $14.50) and Penne Alla Arrabiata, or penne with prosciutto in that terrific spicy marinara sauce ($13.50).

For those so inclined, there are several vegetarian specialties here as well, including Penne Primavera with broccoli, spinach, asparagus, mushrooms and tomatoes with either garlic and extra-virgin olive oil or marinara sauce for $13.95. Or, you can built your own, choosing one vegetable and one pasta for $10.50.

Not too long ago when a couple of friends were visiting here from Columbus, we took them to Salvatore's for dinner and discovered a really great deal: Two dinners and a whole bottle of wine for $29.99. The wines (we picked cabernets) were quite good - no $4.95 unknown brand here - and each of us got to choose the entree we wanted (for me, it was that Penne Alla Arrabiata). One of these days, we're going to go for dinner just the two of us and do it all over again.

If you go:

Salvatore's Italian Grill
4831 Mahoning Ave.
Austintown, Ohio 44515
(330) 799-2285

http://www.mysalvatores.com


Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday noon to 8 p.m.