Heading to Syracuse to do a little after-Christmas shopping next week? If youre like me, the food court at the mall is the last place youd get a bite to eat.
I discovered two locally owned and operated eateries, one right in the city that specializes in Philly cheesesteaks, the other just north of Syracuse that cooks up some mighty fine Italian food.
A Taste of Philadelphia
2533 James St.
A restaurant thats been in business for more than 35 years must be doing something right.
A Taste of Philadelphia has been around since 1976, serving classic Philly cheesesteaks along with sandwiches (ham, turkey, roast beef, salami), salads (garden, julienne, antipasto) and sides (onion rings, mozzarella sticks, french fries).
Its not a big place, maybe a half-dozen tables, coolers with soda and water, and a counter with a view of the kitchen right behind. Tons of Philadelphia memorabilia on the walls.
Theres no table service, so we started at the counter, asking the obvious question to the helpful counter guy: With several cheesesteak choices, which one is the original?
The answer: Steak, onions and cheese. The original Philly used provolone. Years later it was Cheez Whiz. Now, were told, its back to provolone in the City of Brotherly Love.
I got the Classic Original with Cheez Whiz, shaved, seasoned rib eye lots of it with sautéed diced onions on a soft roll (probably 10 inches long, resembling a sub roll).
It was really good. Cheese Whiz whoda thought? But thats what made it for me.
We also tried the Special Cheesesteak beef, provolone, onions, mushrooms and peppers. It comes with pizza sauce, but we opted out on that. There was lots of beef in relation to the other stuff. It was a little dry, but still tasty. Maybe we should have gotten the pizza sauce. It had less cheese than we expected; we assumed the provolone would have been melted over it at the end, but it was chopped up and mixed in with the other ingredients.
We could see an automatic slicer at work in the kitchen, cutting a large side of rib eye into a pile of paper-thin slices of delicious, tender beef.
For dessert, I spotted in the cooler an assortment of serve-yourself cheesecake slices made by a company in downtown Syracuse, Casey & Bills Cheesecake.
We had trouble deciding among caramel, peanut butter or cherry, but ended up getting the cherry.
This was an excellent product and a good-sized portion, more creamy than cheesy, with that stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth consistency.
Congenial owner Nancy Carni stepped out from the kitchen to greet customers. We learned that she has owned the business for 10 years and its doing quite well. She told us that she recently introduced chicken cheesesteaks to the menu.
Lunch for two, with two cheesesteaks, a bag of chips, two soft drinks and a slice of cheesecake, came to $23.17 with tax. There are eight cheesesteaks to choose from, priced from $5.95 to $7.25. Credit cards are not accepted.
A Taste of Philadelphia is less than a 10-minute drive from Carousel Center. Parking on James Street can be a bit of a challenge, but its worth the effort.
Theyre open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 7 p.m. Saturday.
Two Guys from Italy
Youd probably have no reason to go to West Monroe unless youre going to Two Guys From Italy pizzeria and buffet.
Get off Interstate 81 at the Central Square exit (exit 32) and head east about a mile and a half. Set back from the road in a field on the right is Two Guys From Italy.
I arrived midafternoon and was greeted by a perky young counter gal who you could tell really likes her job. My goal was to get something to go on my way home. I was given a quick rundown of the menu, a quick tour of the new rustic dining room (much bigger than it appeared from the road) and an invitation to relax in front of the big-screen TV in the restaurant or in the adjoining sports bar also owned by Two Guys.
They call their eatery a family restaurant, and you know why after looking at the menu. Pizza, thin crust or original. Specialty pizzas. Calzones. Wings, deep-fried or char-grilled. Toasted hot and cold subs. Burgers and fries. Deep-fried munchies. Salads. Italian entrees. Fresh fish fry. Family specials and desserts.
And on the weekend (Friday and Saturday starting at 4 p.m.) theres the Two Guys buffet all you can eat for $10.99 ($3.99 for kids). We understand its an outstanding buffet with fresh food constantly coming from the kitchen.
For my food-to-go, I decided on three Italian entrees, each priced at $9.99: baked ziti with sausage; chicken and broccoli Alfredo; and chicken Parmesan with ziti. I figured these would be quick and easy, probably prepared ahead of time. Just throw them in containers and Id be on my way.
Nope. Everything is made from scratch itll take about a half hour, my young friend informed me.
Thirty minutes later, three round 10-inch foil containers emerged from the kitchen along with a Styrofoam clamshell filled with salad and another loaded with garlic knots. Enough food for a week, I thought.
Once home, I dug in.
Garlic knots were fine, probably better if Id have eaten them on the drive north. The salad consisted of crisp iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and sliced black olives. Salad dressing was more oily than vinegary and had the appearance of Good Seasons.
The ziti was tossed with a rich red sauce along with two links of real Italian-tasting sausage, all blanketed with melted mozzarella and Parm.
Chicken and broccoli Alfredo was another enormous portion, lots of ziti mixed with chunks of moist chicken and fresh broccoli. The broccoli was a faded green, but tasted fine. The sauce, made with butter, cream and cheese, was quite strong, as though theyd used sharp Romano cheese rather than Parm.
Chicken Parm was almost identical to the baked ziti dish, except instead of sausage buried in the pasta, a nice breast of chicken with melted mozzarella was placed on top.
And there were leftovers for days. The baked ziti and the chicken Parm are now living in my freezer for a quick meal at a later date.
My only regret was not getting dessert. They offer cinnamon-sugar fried dough, which really should be consumed as soon as it comes out of the fryer.
Two Guys From Italy has been serving the little village of West Monroe and surrounding communities for more than 20 years. Next time Im driving down 81 Ill be sure to stop.
Dinners to go enough for a family of three or four came to $32.37.
Two Guys is open 2 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. They accept credit cards but do not accept checks. And Im sure theyll take cash.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: email@example.com.