Follow the crowd to TJ's in Old Saybrook

It's possible I'm the last person on the shoreline to sample the goods at TJ's Restaurant and Pizza in Old Saybrook.

At my mother and stepfather's recommendation, I headed to TJ's - situated in Old Saybrook's ex-KFC - for a take-home dinner feast. It was 6 p.m. and TJ's had been closed for Christmas and Boxing Day, and it seems the world was very glad to have the crew back to work, because the parking was full, and the takeout line was three people deep inside.

Still, even the takeout service was efficient and warm - to the point where the hostess packaged my soup in a small coffee cup so it could nest in my cup-holder to avoid spillage.

Which would have been a massive bummer, because the potato cheddar soup of the day was delightful. It tasted like - wait for it - potatoes! Not like the sodium-loaded, bright orange, Elmer's-school-glue-like versions of potato cheddar you'll find at far too many eateries. Chunks of red potatoes - allowed to be their earthy selves - float in a light but still creamy base that bore no resemblance to Velveeta. I might've sampled the soup in the car through the coffee cup's sippie hole because it smelled so very good.

Back at the ranch, it was pizza and salad time - specifically the Bruschetta pizza, one of TJ's specialty white pies, and a Greek salad. Now, a salad priced at $8.95 might seem a little steep until you get a load of the size of it. It's huge, loaded with perfectly salty feta, kalamata olives and cucumbers, and the house vinaigrette was very nice; it had a fennel-y tang that went well with the feta. Bonus: TJ's Greek salad comes with green peppers, one of my favorite raw veggies.

As for the bruschetta pizza ($11.95 for the small, a 10-incher), it truly marries the best aspects of pizza and basic bruschetta: a modest dose of gooey cheese meets ample tomato chunks that act as the perfect "sauce" for the pizza, and the tomatoes must have been selected with care, because they tasted like - wait for it - tomatoes! (Read: not red water balloons filled with seeds.) Basil, garlic, romano and mozzarella cheese add discernibly flavorful layers to this pizza that I hereby recommend. Caveat: the crust is more of a Greek-style preparation, but before you Pepe's Faithful, brush it off, know that it is very flavorful indeed and not a bore of a starch bomb that some thicker crusts can be. Try it.

Of course, my true test for Italian eateries is the eggplant parmesan. As a finicky eater from way back, I want my eggplant sliced thin, thin, thin and properly dressed in cheese and sauce - no black eggplant rinds, please. Let it be known that TJ's complies with my demands, and the eggplant grinder I sampled was very good. I could've used a bit more sauce with more garlic on the whole thing, but all was forgiven when I tasted the papery, flavorful layers of breaded eggplant all curled up in a soft roll. A "small" grinder is $5.25 and seems somehow bigger than its actual eight inches.

We sat down for our second dose of Cuisine de TJ's, and we were rewarded with very pleasant service from our hostess and waitress, which made my entrée of Chicken Francaise all the more delicious. Each forkful delivered a refreshing lemon-white-wine burst to very tender chicken and perfectly cooked penne pasta (other pasta options are spaghetti or linguini). Priced at $14.95 (includes soup or salad), this dish of three pieces of chicken and a mountain of pasta becomes a bargain quickly. I barely finished half, and, at press time, I'm assured my leftovers will taste even better tomorrow thanks to that well-balanced lemon-butter sauce.

My husband opted for the gyro ($7.25), a heavenly soft grilled pita filled with tender, heavily seasoned grilled beef, tomatoes, onions and tzaziki sauce. This ample wrap would fill up just about anyone, but when it comes with a pile of crispy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside French fries, prepare for maximum belly density. These are some good fries, and they're even better done up "Texas" style. Available on the appetizer menu, Texas Fries come loaded with bacon, hot cherry peppers and cheddar cheese - which pretty much adds up to the best potato skin ever, as it dispenses with the titular "skin" and brings the heat thanks to those peppers.

Now listen, yes, there are finer Italian restaurants in the region, and while TJ's does not pretend to be Consiglio's of Wooster Street, it also raises the bar significantly on your typical family pizza joint. The pizzas seem crafted with care, and the other dishes hardly play second fiddle to the pizza. The quickest way to sum up is this: I will gladly return to TJ's in the near future.

TJ's Restaurant & Pizza

735 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook
(860) 388-2400

Cuisine: Italian-American; gourmet pizza. Burgers, seafood and sandwiches available, too.

Service: Exceptionally pleasant.

Prices: Very fair for the portions received. Entrees start at $11.95; pizzas average $12.

Hours: Monday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Handicapped access: Interior is very roomy; ramped entryway leads to wide double doors.


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