Restaurant review: Best of Everything Country Gourmet in Niantic

Let's start with this: if you're a staunch, self-reliant cook, you probably don't tend to shop for ready-made dinners. But here's the thing: good cooks know good food, and good cooks deserve nights off. So I suggest you devoted cooks (and eaters) out there take that night off sooner rather than later and make dinner with the many meal items available at Best of Everything Country Gourmet in Niantic.

The Pasta Vita fans out there will be familiar with the Best of Everything model: chef opens storefront at which chef and co. sell freshly made meals, side dishes, breads, soups, sauces, hors d'oeuvres, etc., to the harried masses who don't have time to prep a full-on meal but do like to eat and serve them. Specials abound, and one day's freezer case might not be identical to the next day's. It's advisable to shop earlier in the day if you hope to nab a hot item.

The bonus at Best of Everything? Fresh thin-crust and Sicilian pizza available by the slice or pie, which keep company with other "breaded delights" like homemade calzones and stromboli.

The first hot item at B and E that I was tipped off to was the homemade fresh mozzarella. Now that it's garden-fresh tomato time, my household needs an accompaniment for them, so we sampled B of E's mozz; we now have a new stop to make for cheese on the way home from work. The cheese is more flavorful than most with an enjoyable density (read: it doesn't turn to paste when you slice it), and it's tasty enough to nibble on as is.

Having earned a return trip just on the merits of that cheese, I soon discovered one of my very favorite foods prepped in the fresh salad case: orzo salad, nestled among dishes like tuna and "fruity" chicken salad; red bliss potato salad; cucumber salad; and more. B of E's orzo salad, a vinegar-y, feta-cheese-laden mix, is what I'd like my own recipe to become with more practice. Finely chopped spinach mixed with herbs and spices and bits of red pepper and onion provide a nice base for the white Greek vinaigrette zip. Feta makes everything better, so there you have it.

I also picked out a "proper" dinner - something my mom would be pleased to see me feed to my husband. One pan of Chicken Franchese and another of red-bliss mashed potatoes with goat cheese (!), and I was on my way home to warm up the oven and smugly serve dinner.

A dish made from satin-y red-bliss mashed potatoes and tangy goat cheese is naturally pretty much guaranteed to impress, and B of E's did not disappoint. The smooth potato flavor didn't succumb to the goat cheese tang; the two very different flavors shined through independently and sometimes together with very enjoyable results. A careful dash of scallions added welcome texture and a nice palate-cleanse. If it was a cool dish, it would be a fantastic potato salad.

As for the chicken, it was fine - pounded nice and thin, and the breading and butter sauce were tasty, but I've had better elsewhere in the world.

Another night and another dinnertime sent me back to Best of Everything after Hurricane Irene hit and blew out our power for a few days. When the lights came back on, I wanted comfort foods, so I picked up a cheese lasagna, "Grandma's homemade meatballs," and a calzone, which comes with sauce, although if you like extra extra sauce, or have some pasta to serve and no sauce, B of E offers a variety of fresh sauces including vodka, bolognese, Alfredo and white clam. A glance into a tub of the marinara sauce revealed a thick slice of garlic in bright red suspension.

Since the calzone was so fresh, we noshed on it first, and I discovered what should be the next big fair food. I've never had a deep-fried calzone until now, but my husband grew up on them and assures me B of E's is what needs to happen in a fried calzone: a layer of salty ham meets with a layer of mozzarella over a center of ricotta. It all gets better with a dab of mildly tangy marinara sauce. I've added these calzones to my list of approved guilty pleasures.

The very-cheesy-indeed lasagna comes sliced in three pieces, which makes for easy serving, and a goodly portion of sauce lining the bottom of the pan. The lasagna is incredibly basic - cheese, sauce, pasta, some garlic and herbs - and emerges a standout, even for so common a dish. It's smooth, filled with velvety cheese that is well-flavored.

And as common as meatballs can be, I sincerely hope the grandma responsible for B of E's meatball recipe is well-loved. Not shy on the garlic, these juicy, good-sized, tender meatballs would make for the ultimate meatball sandwich and will do any pasta accompaniment proud. De-li-cious.

Devoted cook or the complete opposite, it's a very safe bet that food lovers will find something at Best of Everything Gourmet that they'll be pleased to serve to dinner guests. Even if you didn't make it, you can be sure the hands that made that evening's dinner take great pride in their craft, which is the next best thing to a home-made (at home) meal.

Best of Everything Country Gourmet

214 Flanders Road, Niantic
(860) 739-7300

Cuisine: "Gourmet food to go"; prepared entrees, also soups, salads, side dishes, frozen ravioli, some sandwiches; many Italian-inspired.

Atmosphere: Cheery shop dotted with cute displays of sweets and limited grocery items offers ample space for puzzling over freezer cases; employs drive-through window from former resident KFC for catering orders.

Service: Very friendly.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Credit cards: All majors.

Handicap access: Inside of shop very navigable. Slightly narrow sidewalk going into the shop. Spacious parking lot.


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