When it comes to Italian restaurants, I am definitely hard to please. Three-quarters Italian, my blood runs thick from Calabria and Apulia in the deep Italian south — a vibrant, sunburned land where the food and wine are heady and strong. Put me in an Italian restaurant, and I can't help but measure everything against the countless, savory, home-cooked meals of my Italian-American childhood: slow-simmered garlicky meat sauces, hand-cut pasta, sublime meatballs smothered in sauce.
What hope could any restaurant have against this heritage, against a lifetime of sacred family recipes and food lore passed down from my great-grandmother? With her thick accent, strong will and industrious hands, she created for her family in America a small piece of the old country — raising basil and tomatoes on her porch, cranking out homemade pasta nearly every day of her life and vigorously pinching the cheeks of my brother, sister and me every time she saw us.
Imagine, then, how happy I am to discover an Italian restaurant, like Pitrelli's Italian Deli and Café in Mason, that taps into this vein of tradition and authenticity.
Located on Reading Road in downtown Mason (the old part, not the shopping mall-office park suburban miasma that has bloomed in recent years), Pitrelli's offers simple, comforting food and unadorned service in a homey, unpretentious setting. Neither slick nor chic, Pitrelli's is not about high style or fine dining, offering instead a bona fide Mom and Pop experience. While dining at Pitrelli's, I kept thinking of a great little restaurant I went to while traveling in Italy over the Christmas holidays. A no-frills trattoria in an out-of-the-way quarter of Milan, it served simple, delicious, Italian food to a crowd of enthusiastic regulars and locals.
Sound familiar? If you can't get to Milan, head to Mason.
A big part of what makes Pitrelli's unique is the family that runs it. Jim and Linda Pitrelli are retired first- and third-grade teachers with 30-plus years of combined teaching experience. To stay in that line of work for so long, you have to really love kids, families and people in general (I know — my parents were both teachers), and the Pitrellis certainly seem to. Walk into their restaurant and you'll feel like you're a guest in their house.
The Pitrellis also have a lifelong love of food that draws on Jim's Sicilian family heritage. Owners of a successful catering business for eight years, they started bottling their homemade Italian sauce a year-and-a-half ago (it's now sold in over 40 stores, including Jungle Jim's and Meijer); they opened the restaurant in September 2004. Their daughter, Kara, Pitrelli's manager, has worked in the restaurant industry for 15 years.
For starters, we ordered the Formaggio di Capra ($6.75). This warm goat cheese dip served with bread was excellent; a mix of herbs added a distinctive taste to a very smooth and creamy dip. The Antipasto Plate ($6.75 for two; $12.50 for four), was less distinctive. Dominated by piles of salami and cheese cubes, it looked more like a party platter than an antipasto to me. Although the marinated olives and artichoke hearts were tasty, portions were way too scanty. Adding other traditional items like roasted red peppers and marinated eggplant would definitely heighten the appeal.
For my entrée, I ordered a special, Baked Pasta with Three Cheeses ($14). Shells were baked in a flavorful cheese sauce (provolone, mozzarella and romano) that had a nice amount of heat. With all this cheese, it wasn't exactly light as a feather, but I confess I enjoyed every bite. It was served in a large bowl, along with delicious green beans and other vegetables tossed in a garlicky red sauce.
My companion opted for the Spaghetti and Homemade Meatballs ($13), served in a Basil and Garlic Marinara sauce. She gave the meatballs high marks. I had to agree — to a degree. Although nothing can compare to the family meatball recipe, passed down through my grandfather and on to my mom, they were light and flavorful, and about as good as any I've had out.
Pitrelli's also serves a good pizza with a nice light crust and a variety of toppings including pancetta and spicy olives ($13 for an 18-inch cheese pie, toppings $1.50).
For dessert, we ordered Tiramisu ($6), and the Chocolate Pté ($5.50). Both were quite good. The tiramisu was an interesting variation on an old standby — more of a multi-layer cake than a soft, loose, creamy dessert, while the pté was a rich, decadent combination of chocolate cake and mousse.
After our ample, unhurried meal, my companion and I went out the door into the night, riding a wave of good feeling and sheer joy from the smiling owners and their daughter.
"People tell us that it's so nice to come to a restaurant that is not a chain," says Jim Pitrelli.
I couldn't agree more. ©
Pitrelli's Italian Deli and Café
Go: 312 Reading Road, Mason
Hours: 4:30-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday
Prices: Reasonable to moderate
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken parmesan, cheese ravioli, pizza
Accessibility: Fully accessible. On-street parking