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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mini Review - Roberto's Ristorante - Downtown Youngstown

Roberto’s Italian Ristorante is the latest entry to the downtown Youngstown dining scene. I still can’t believe I am actually writing this. Kudos to Roberto Faraglio for braving the new frontier in our rapidly gentrifying downtown. Located on Federal Street directly across from the defunct Rosetta Stone, don’t be put off by the unassuming façade and sign. These folks have done an outstanding job on the interior space which puts me in mind of the likes of Patsy’s in New York City. Crisp white table cloths with candles make this a neat place to eat.

Roberto’s has only been opened for three weeks or so and is still going through its soft opening period as it tries to work out the kinks. The owner’s background is in portable Italian food and catering, so he is no novice to the food business which is always a hopeful sign. This is a family run operation and it shows. The staff is extremely friendly and tries almost too hard to please. I had a quick homemade spaghetti dinner, and the sauce is very, very good and well presented with a house salad and homemade roles. They have some spectacular desserts. The bombe should be declared illegal it is so rich with peanut buttery filling and a chocolate and caramel shell. It gets a big OMG!!!!! Prices are in the $10.00 - $20.00 plus range.

The good news is it has a really nice bar. The bad news is it doesn’t have a liquor license, but working on it. The good news is that although it doesn’t have a liquor license or a corking license, the owners encourage patrons to bring their own bottle of wine and they will supply the bottle opener and the glasses. That means no corking fee which makes for a very economical evening if you are a wine drinker.

I don’t even have picture to put on this mini-review. Suffice it to say that when it is going full throttle in a couple of months, Roberto’s has the potential to spark a rebirth of classy restaurants in downtown Youngstown close to our “theater district.” Try it out now while you can still get in.

Takes all credit cards. Don’t know about reservation policy, but if a show is downtown, it is probably worth giving them a ring a ding.

Roberto's Italian Ristorante
103 West Federal Street
Youngstown, OH 44503

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Red Lobster and Cousins - Boardman and Everywhere

Yes, I know it’s a chain…and I usually get groans about Red Lobster. But the fact is I eat there probably twice a month, and it’s is actually pretty good. The décor is great. The service is usually more than capable. The food is good. My wife and I use it as a backup standby on the weekends if we can’t get in anywhere else. My Friday lunch group eats there regularly. And it has a great story with some interesting restaurant “cousins”.

Here is what you DON’T know about Red Lobster. It was founded in 1968 by a guy named Bill Darden in Lakeland, Florida. He wanted to test a seafood restaurant in an inland area, and Lakeland is the most inland city in Florida. It met with critical success, and over the next several years Mr. Darden had built three more restaurants with two more under construction when he hit the financial brick wall and sold the business to General Mills. Yes, the cereal people. Very sensibly General Mills kept Mr. Darden on to run the thing, and by 1985 there were over 400 restaurants nationwide.

Along the way, the Darden division of General Mills picked up York Steak House (‘Memba them?), one of several restaurants trying out the budget (translate tenderized) cafeteria steak concept…and the salad bar. Don’t forget the salad bar. Well…it didn’t do so hot, so Mr. Darden decided to try Italian, and in 1982 opened the first Olive Garden in Orlando. It was a bomb according to restaurant critics, but who listens to them! What the reviewers hated the public loved, and it is the most successful national chain Italian restaurant in the country…just look at the parking lot pretty much anytime.

Over the years Darden also acquired other restaurants, most notably the mid-level Longhorn Steakhouse, and Smokey Bones, which it has since sold off, and the uber, uber expensive and exclusive Capital Grill originally based in Washington DC but now operating 32 restaurants across the country. Closest to us is downtown Pittsburgh.

In 1995 General Mills spun off its Darden division into a separate publically traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. It is considered to be one of the most successful publically traded restaurant operations in the country.

So in case you haven’t been counting and have forgotten your Boardman geography, it’s hard to go out to eat in Boardman without going to a Darden facility. Red Lobster on one side of 224, and Longhorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden on the other side of 224, and up until a year or so ago, Smokey Bones. It has also purchased several other restaurant chains, keeping the nation well fed in cholesterol heaven!!!!

So, back to Red Lobster!! Generally speaking, Red Lobster is an expensive place to eat. I am always amazed how continuously busy it is at lunch and dinner given the price point. For the life of me I can’t figure how folks can afford to take a family of four out for dinner with dinner prices touching $20.00 then rapidly escalating higher; maybe Cleveland or Pittsburgh, but not here. Nonetheless Red Lobster packs them in with shrimp specials and lobster specials with availability being what’s special as opposed to prices, but folks gobble them up. 

I am not a fish fan, so I rarely get a “fish” dinner at Red Lobster. But here’s the secret, its grilled non fish items are outstanding. I love the grilled chicken. And they do more than an adequate job on steaks. As to their lobster, I have had mixed results with it being overcooked and too dry one too many times. So I stick to the basics.

Like any successful chain, they make money by portion control. I have found some of the entrée portion sizes, especially items like simple broiled fish, somewhat lacking. They offer numerous shrimp entrees prepared an infinite number of ways, but use smaller shrimp than I prefer. But they make up for it with these wonderful Red Lobster rolls filled with butter which makes them doubly good…More Butter – More Salt!!!

I like Red Lobster, but it is never a place I go to for dinner because I want to go there. I go there because I end up there, if you can understand the difference. But once there and I am over the sticker shock on some of the dinners, I usually leave pleased and well fed. And it is wonderful for lunch or I wouldn’t keep going there.

I give it 3 ½ meatballs. A few more shrimp on the skewer might bump it to 4.


Red Lobster – Boardman
1410 Boardman Poland Rd
Youngstown, OH 44514
(330) 758-0979

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Boulevard Tavern - Youngstown

This past Saturday night my wife and tossed our plans for a gala evening out with dinner and show, and opted for a casual plate of spaghetti and a pay per view movie.  Looking for comfort, we visited an old standby where folks in this area have found comfort for years.

The Boulevard Tavern located, on Southern Boulevard just south of St. Dominic’s Church, is a Youngstown mainstay. It has been there forever, well at least since the late 1930’s. It’s tough to deal with a legend, and the Boulevard Tavern is certainly that.

Like all local taverns, it started out as a neighborhood gathering spot to service mill workers and their families that chose Youngstown’s far “southside” to call home. It stood in the middle of the Catholic neighborhood served by St. Dominic’s Church, my family church. As far back as I can remember, my parents stood in line with the rest of Youngstown at the Boulevard’s kitchen door to get take out fish on Friday nights…the best in the city, I was told. As I got older, I noticed a lot of Mahoning County politicos would hang out there, especially the local “Irish” mafia. The place was filled with folks with white hair and ruddy complexions; at least that is what it looked like to me at a very young age.

When I got older, my wife and I used to go there for spaghetti. We would see everyone that we knew. For my aunt and uncle, going to Ang’s place was a regular ritual, and over the years we would have many a family gathering there. They loved it.

The restaurant has two sections. The front is the original bar with several booths and tables. It is classic old style bar and tavern right down to the ornate tin roof. Go through a little hallway, and the main dining room is in the back. It is a big space. I believe the addition was put on sometime in the mid 1980’s. Forgive me if I am wrong. It is attractive, and well lit with lots of booths. There is Youngstown memorabilia everywhere, and it’s fun to walk around and look at the old pictures. One favorite of mine is the picture of the interior of the old St. Columba’s Cathedral that burned down in the mid 1950’s. I was too young to remember it all that well, but it must have been something to see.

The Boulevard has taken on new meaning as of late. What was once a thriving Youngstown neighborhood has deteriorated faster than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago. Two horrific murders involving St. Dominic’s over the past three years put the entire neighborhood in the spotlight. This is urban decay at its worst with gang and drug violence spilling out of Youngstown into neighboring Boardman just a few blocks away. From the Uptown area to Midlothian, it is gut wrenching to see what has happened to this neighborhood many of us used to call home…and to listen to the local news every night. This is where my mother was raised. I was raised just across the Boardman border. My father’s office was located on Indianola Avenue. And now it is…well…all gone.

St. Dominic’s has taken the lead in calling for rehabilitation of the neighborhood, and the Boulevard has also joined in the fray along with St. Patrick’s Church on Youngstown’s near southside. Local and state dignitaries from the Ohio Attorney General on down have attended numerous meetings and neighborhood gatherings outlining plans to “fix things.” Demolition of vacant housing around the neighborhood has begun in earnest. Police have increased patrols. And those who have fond memories of the Boulevard are not about to watch another Youngstown landmark fall victim to the bad guys. These efforts have been effective and are working, and the Boulevard is perfectly safe. 

Let’s get down to business. The Boulevard has a rep for the best Friday fish in the Mahoning Valley. The restaurant is packed on Friday nights, and takeout is brisk. It also has a reputation for high quality home cooked Italian food. Many Italian families swear this is how grandma used to cook. And last but not least, the tossed salad comes with the best vinegar and oil dressing you will ever have. I don’t know how they do it, but I have never seen it matched anywhere. We have tried to duplicate it at home and have failed.

The service is good, and male. The parking lot has an attendant on most nights so you feel safe. The “tavern” does not have a full liquor license…beer and wine only. It also does business the old fashioned, no credit cards!!!!

Here’s the thing. EVERYBODY I know loves the food at the Boulevard…so I must be the one definitely out of step. I don’t like fish generally, so it is difficult for me to judge the fish dinners. I didn’t like these fish dinners as a kid, and I never got over that. Chalk it up to one of those quirks of age.  I am also picky about my spaghetti sauce. The spaghetti is good here,  but there are other places in the area I prefer. But my mother and father and aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins and friends love the sauce here. Maybe you should listen to them and not me.

I don’t feel too bad having to write this because just about everyone in the area that counts has already been here and made up their mind, and it’s probably different than mine!!!! So feel free to send in comments telling me my Italian taste buds are located somewhere else on my anatomy other than my mouth.

But there are plenty of other things on the menu, all of them great...good down home tavern food and menu.  Please take some time to support this wonderful Youngstown institution. If you haven’t been here for awhile, come back and visit. That many people for this many years can’t be wrong.

The Boulevard Tavern
3503 Southern Blvd
Youngstown, OH 44507-2046