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For some, like me, it isn't home until I find Ye Ole Reliable Pizza Place - the sort of institution that makes the same tasty pie over and over again, and it never changes, no matter who makes it. That's right: Aside from proximity to a hospital and the highway, a criterion for where I call home remains access to decent pizza.
Imagine my delight when I discovered the Illiano's Trattoria chain of restaurants in southeastern Connecticut. Not only do we have access to good pizza, we have nine times the access at Illiano's restaurants from Norwich to Middletown, and the next best thing to finding good pizza near home is finding good pizza near the office. Done and done: not only can I grab a pie in Niantic on the way home, I can also grab one - among other fine dishes - at Illiano's in New London. Well played, Illiano family.
For these purposes, we'll be talking about the New London location, and naturally we'll start with the pizza. The Paesana appears on Illiano's Gourmet pizza menu and it's really exactly what I'm looking for in a pizza: fresh-cut tomatoes, basil, garlic, olive oil and a hearty layer of mozzarella cheese. It's all about the execution, of course, and my Paesana won not only my raves but also those of my Pepe's-raised husband. The tomatoes were delicious (pre-summer!), the thick crust crisp then a little dough-y, the garlic allowed to do its job of keeping the whole thing from being a cheesy-bread bomb. Highly recommended.
Not that there's anything wrong with the simple things like cheesy-bread bombs, and if you try one thing at Illiano's, grab a garlic knot ($0.40 each) and prepare to reek of said garlic for the rest of the day. Not that you'll mind as you bite into these Parmesan-sprinkled, hot, dough-y, olive-oily little gems. Lots of pizza joints toss in garlic knots, but not all of them actually take as much care as Illiano's in making them memorable.
For another meal I paired a Greek salad with Gnocchi alla Sorrentina ($13.95, comes with bread and side salad) - two of my favorite things to get at an Italian restaurant. The salad is a more than generous portion, piled with tangy feta, cucumbers, pepperoncini and olives. I could've dealt with a more leafy-green mix of lettuce, but the dressing is a terrific herb-loaded concotion that renders this green mountain quite tasty.
The gnocchi come tossed with a tomato sauce, hunks of fresh mozz, basil and some Romano, and this rustic combination makes for a very enjoyable dish that easily could sate two people. The bright, fresh sauce is the real star of the gnocchi dish, but I particularly love when pasta comes with dollops of fresh mozzarella within. Total comfort food by way of Italy.
Speaking of which, Highly Recommended Item #2 is Illiano's Tortellino en Brodo soup (tortellini in chicken broth). I haven't had broth this flavorful since my own dear departed grandmother fed me hers, and it was a real treat to savor serious soup once again. Not only is the broth flavorful (green onion offers just a little snap), the chef allows some chicken fat to offer the dish some depth. Ample tortellini bob around and get better and better the longer they sit in that broth.
And because I like to be contrary, I just had to try the Cheesy Fries on the appetizer menu ($4.95). When the fries arrived tableside, I regretted not making them solely my lunch. This app is another huge portion and features some of the best crispy fries I've ever tasted - covered in cheddar cheese and bacon (served with ranch dressing, which isn't at all necessary because the fries are just fine without it). I told myself I'd sample the fries, for the sake of science, and save the rest for later. Half a plateful later, my sandwich arrived and I regretfully tore myself away from them.
But I was able to return to them once again, as the sandwich - the Classic Italian Panini ($7.95) -- was a bit of a letdown. The menu items promises a panini constructed of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, basil and "a touch" of EVOO. Sounds great, right? We've got a swing and a miss here: too much olive oil overpowered the overall flavor of the sandwich. The prosciutto - which I envisioned as thinly sliced curls of salty accent to the mozz - was a relatively thick slab of the stuff (think ham steak) that offered very little in the way of flavor. And on a sandwich in which cheese is pretty much the star of the show, you'd expect a goodly amount of it, right? Not so much this time, and I had to settle for a few relatively thin slices of mozzarella. The toothy ham took over, which was not at all what I'd been looking for.
We might chalk all that up to misdirected expectations, but no basil appeared on the sandwich and neither did the chips that were supposed to accompany it (not that I really wanted them after all those fries), which only added more disappointment to the less-than-exciting main attraction. On the plus side, the bread had nice texture and the whole package was perfectly grilled.
Still, I will return to Illiano's because, overall, the eating is good. Plus, the staff are genial, pizza comes by the slice, catering is available, online takeout orders are an option, and they'll deliver after $25. Considerations like those matter, and coupled with the convenience of nine locations, it's clear, like its website says, that Illiano's aims to impress their customers.
929 Bank St.
Cuisine: "Truly Authentic Italian," per its website.
Atmosphere: Spacious casual dining room with cleverly painted dome ceiling; takeout area offers seating, too.
Service: Pleasant and courteous all around, slow in the dining room. Takeout operation seems a tight ship. Online ordering available, which worked flawlessly both times used.
Prices: Moderate. Pizzas in the Gourmet section of the menu get pricey; the admittedly delicious Paesana is $15.50 for the smaller size pie. Pasta dishes are $12.50, and entrees average around $17.
Hours: Sunday to Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All majors
Handicapped access: Takeout area and dining room provide ample maneuvering space. Walkway to entry is flat, no steps.