Rocco’s Wood-Fired Pizza – CLOSED

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Editor’s Note: Rocco’s Wood-Fired Pizza has closed as of June 2017.

There’s something about a wood-fired oven that just makes pizza better.

A crisp crust, bubbly cheese and that extra hint of flavor are what set it apart from the standard oven.

There aren’t many places in Berks County to get a good wood-fired pizza. Nonno Alby’s  introduced it to the Reading area in 2014.

This year, we were introduced Rocco’s Wood-Fired Pizza in South Heidelberg Township.

Flanked by my friend Josh, I recently made my first visit to Rocco’s.

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Rocco’s location probably isn’t the most desirable — tucked in the corner of the strip mall with Tractor Supply — but the restaurant makes the most of it with a wood-and-brick interior that harkens to the oven that flames at the back of the restaurant.

The menu is printed, two-sided, on a simple sheet of paper. One side lists the 14 pizza options. The other includes sandwiches, salads and apps.

All of Rocco’s pizzas are 13-inch pies. If it were Julie and I, one pie would be enough. For Josh and I, it was going to go to take two. And an order of fries.

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The fries arrived first, piled high on a wooden serving tray. Skins on with coarse-ground salt, they were like a better version of Wendy’s French fries.

As good as they were, I didn’t need them. When the pizzas arrived, we quickly realized that 13 inches is bigger than it sounds.

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First to arrive was Josh’s interestingly named “Cheesus!” pie, essentially a buffalo chicken pizza with all of the following: shredded mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, pepperoni, crispy bacon, peppers, breaded chicken and mild sauce.

There’s not much to say other than “loved it.” The crisp crust. The hint of heat from the sauce, the addition of the pepperoni. Everything just worked.

It’s a good thing for Josh that my pizza arrived shortly thereafter.

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Mine was the “Bee Sting,” topped with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, hot sopresatta, raw honey (the bee) and crushed red pepper oil (the sting).

The sweet and hot flavor was unlike any other pizza that you are likely to find. It packed a punch, but a flavorful one. The meat was delicious, similar to a hot salami. The red pepper oil was just there to make sure that I sweat during my lunch, but the honey came through with a soothing aftertaste.

It’s a good thing Rocco’s offers free refills on iced tea because I needed them.

With five-eighths of my pie finished, it was time to throw in the towel, get the to-go box and settle the check. Our total for the two of us was $40. In hindsight, we didn’t need two pizzas (and my Bee Sting was the most expensive on the menu at $15). At least I know I brought home a lunch or two.

I’m not going to attempt a comparison between Rocco’s and Nonno Alby’s. Though both are wood-fired, it’s not an apples-to-apples — or pizza-to-pizza — comparison.

All I can say is that I love wood-fired pizza. And I’m glad that I now have a second choice nearby.

Rocco’s Wood Fired Pizza
4732 W Penn Ave
Sinking Spring, PA 19608

Rocco's Wood Fired Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Closed Reviews

Pretzel Revolution and Creamery – CLOSED

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Editior’s Note: Pretzel Revolution & Creamery closed on December 31, 2016.

It was in March when Julie and I made our first visit to Pretzel Revolution and Creamery.

We were both fans of the stuffed soft pretzels from our visits to the original Pretzel Revolution in Kutztown, and were beyond excited to have a location closer to home.

The fact that the new Route 12 location served ice cream was just a bonus.

We enjoyed small cones of ice cream on that trip, but it was really all about the pretzels. On our return visit, we skipped dinner and went straight for dessert.

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Pretzel Revolution expanded their hours since our last visit, and since May have been open every night until 10 p.m. That makes it a lot easier for us to get there on a weeknight, especially when all we need is dessert.

There was a family of three sitting at one table and an older couple at another when we arrived around 9.

Pretzel Revolution has both Kreider Farms and Penn State Berkey Creamery ice cream. I didn’t even look at the Kreider Farms flavors. (No offense).

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On our last visit, I had the Berkey Creamery’s most famous flavor: peachy Paterno. This time, I went with another Hall of Fame flavor, keeney beaney.

Keeney beaney uses chocolate ice cream as its delicious base, but it’s made even better by the addition of chocolate chips and vanilla bean.

Berkey Creamery ice cream is not quite as creamy or heavy as Longacre’s Modern Dairy, but it is heavy enough. And I always love the combination of vanilla and chocolate. Everyone makes a vanilla ice cream with chocolate swirl so I really appreciated getting the reverse.

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Julie went with even more chocolate for her cone, ordering the death by chocolate ice cream. The creamery’s version of death by chocolate features chocolate flakes, fudge pieces and chocolate swirl.

She really enjoyed it, especially on her pretzel cone. I just wish there was a pretzel bakery nearby that could do a homemade pretzel cone (hint, hint).

Pretzel Revolution and Creamery is the only place in Berks County where you can find Penn State’s fantastic ice cream flavors. And the price of $8 and change for our two specialty cones was equally fantastic.

On our trips to Pretzel Revolution and Creamery, we have enjoyed both the stuffed pretzels and the ice cream.

While there, I also saw a sign saying they were now serving pretzel pizzas.

Sounds like I’ll be going back again soon.

Pretzel Revolution and Creamery
2903 Pricetown Rd
Temple, PA 19560

Closed Reviews

Giannotti’s Italian Kitchen – CLOSED

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Note: Giannotti’s Italian Kitchen is now closed. The restaurant location is set to become a doctor’s office, opening in March 2017.

While crisscrossing the county looking for great food, it’s inevitable that I will end up at a place from my childhood every now and then.

Growing up in the Robesonia area, there were not a lot of options to choose from, unless you wanted Italian. Then you had two choices: Tony’s Family Restaurant on the west side of town or Giannotti’s Family Restaurant on the east side.

Recently, Julie and I paid my grandmother a visit and offered to take her out for dinner. We headed east to Giannotti’s.

It’s been more than a decade since Julie and I last visited Giannotti’s in Robesonia. We’ve changed a lot since then, and so has the restaurant, rebranding itself last year from Giannotti’s Family Restaurant to Giannotti’s Italian Kitchen.

The building also received a major facelift. The bar used to be hidden in the back of the building. Now it’s right inside the front door (and looks great). The dining room felt more intimate with softer lighting and a faux fireplace in the center of the room.

Our server brought down the mood right away. Introducing herself before adding, “I guess I’ll be serving you.”

Still, I was excited about our meal at the new Italian Kitchen. With a family restaurant, you expected pizza, sandwiches and some pasta. But with an Italian Kitchen, I expected some truly inspired dishes from the Old World.

Seeing the new menu was another let-down. It’s still mostly sandwiches and pizza, though now they are pizzabellas, with an upcharge to make them “family size.”

Instead of offering unique pasta selections, everything is now build-your-own — choose one of four pastas, four toppings and five sauces (over 100 combinations, the menu proclaims).

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There are also seven additional entrees, including chicken marsala, stuffed sirloin, and my choice, risotto with broccoli and lamb shank in Béarnaise sauce.

If I’ve learned one thing from watching Guy’s Grocery Games, it’s that you can’t make great risotto in less than 30 minutes. Mine arrived in 20.

The lamb looked great, and was very good. Béarnaise would not have been my first choice to go with lamb, but it worked. Because it was just drizzled on top of the shank, it never had time to marinate with the meat so only the first few bites had any sauce at all. Still, the meat was tender and cooked well so I enjoyed it.

As I had feared, the risotto was a little off. I don’t know if it was cooked too long or not long enough (my guess), but some of the rice was a little hard, making it chewy and less enjoyable the longer I ate.

Our waitress, who seemed a little off herself, had tried to talk me into an additional side, but I was glad that I passed because there was more than enough food on my plate (I finished it, but I could have stopped much sooner and still left full).

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Julie went with an entree as well, the chicken parm. Unlike my dish, which included three components, the chicken parm is served with no sides. It was an additional charge for a side of pasta, but she got it.

It was a good thing, too. The chicken parm was fine, but wasn’t anything special. The pasta (linguine was her choice) was good with a light red sauce and diced tomatoes.

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My grandmother’s lasagna was good, and just the right amount of food for her (again, our waitress had tried to talk her into adding a side, which, incidentally, are not listed anywhere on the menu).

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All of our meals did come with house salads. Though I have to say, I miss the salad bar that used to be in the dining room.

I will give them credit for their prices because even with my $21 entree —  the most expensive on the menu — our final total was only around $55 (that also included a mixed drink and an iced tea).

While the meal wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t what I was hoping for. Our server was less than enthusiastic about her job (though the hostess and other servers seemed great).  The food was good, but nothing wowed me like I was hoping.

The next time I revisit my childhood, I think I’ll order a pizza.

Giannotti's Family Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Closed Reviews

Back Forty Bar & Grill – CLOSED

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The Back Forty Bar & Grill is now closed. The restaurant closed for ‘vacation’ in the summer of 2017, but never reopened.

The year 2014 was a tough one for diners in western Berks County. Both of Stouchsburg’s two restaurants, Risser’s Family Restaurant and the Black Dog Cafe, shut their doors for good.

It took more than a year, but both locations are once again thriving. Risser’s is now the Blue Star Family Restaurant. And in August, 2015, the Black Dog was transformed into the Back Forty Bar & Grill.

While the Blue Star sits right along busy Route 422, Back Forty is located in the heart of the village of Stouchsburg. An oversized sign points passersby to the restaurant from the highway. It’s easy to find, but it can be a little challenging crossing Main Street to get to the restaurant and its parking lot.

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The place is divided in two, one room is the dining room, the other is the bar (with a few extra seats for overflow). Pigs and chickens are stenciled on to the multi-colored chairs around every table. A license plate sculpture depicts a pig on one of the walls.

All of these depictions are a reminder of the restaurant’s promise: to use locally sourced proteins whenever possible. That means farm-to-fork meats in many of Back Forty’s signature dishes.

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One of those dishes is the Back Forty Farmhouse Chili. The chili includes two meats: smoked pork and cubed steak, and it’s topped off with cheddar and sour cream.

It was a hearty chili, but not too spicy (the vegetarian Dragged through the Garden Chili was advertised as the hotter option). It was still a very enjoyable start to the meal.

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Also enjoyable was the bread and house made garlic butter. Normally, I don’t talk about the bread and rolls at restaurants (and the bread, here was thicker and heavier than I would have cared for), but the garlic butter was just too good to ignore. It was packed with herbs, a little salt and plenty of garlic. And I loved it.

While I enjoyed my chili, Julie’s meal came with a house salad with “fresh spring greens, hand-picked garden vegetables and house made croutons.” The salad was good, but we both agreed that whatever ranch dressing they were using had a salty taste to it that we didn’t care for.

When it came time for the main courses, our waitress apologized to me. I had ordered the pappardelle pasta and asked to add chicken, but she had forgot to add the chicken to our order.

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The pappardelle can be served as a vegetarian dish, and that’s how mine started. The pasta was tossed in brown butter and sage with kale, green and yellow peppers, and yellow squash. It was very good, though the brown butter settled to the bottom of the bowl, not sticking very well to any of the ingredients.

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My chicken appeared a short time later (I had more than half of my pasta left). It was coated in herbs and grilled perfectly. It had lots of flavor, but I felt like it didn’t blend as well with my pasta. Maybe it was because it hadn’t been tossed together; or maybe because both the pasta and the chicken were flavorful on their own. Either way, I enjoyed them more as two separate dishes.

Being St. Patrick’s Day weekend, all of the restaurant’s specials were take-offs on Irish dishes, like the smoked pulled pork and brisket shepherd’s pie that excited Julie.

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This was one hearty meal. The bowl was overflowing with potatoes and gravy. It was packed with pork and brisket, with peas and carrots. But it was also very wet, soup-like at times thanks to a generous amount of gravy hiding beneath of the top layer of potatoes.

It was also hard to get used to the pulled pork and brisket. Eating them with gravy and mashed potatoes is very different than eating them with a sweet barbecue sauce, which is how we usually find both of those meats.

Neither of our meals left us with room for dessert, but we had a lot of family with us, and between the eight of us, we figured there were enough mouths to manage an order of the chocolate raspberry truffle tortes.

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The tortes consisted of layers of chocolate cake, mousse and ganache, topped with raspberry puree and served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

It was a heavenly dessert. All of the chocolate layers were incredible, especially the ganache. The raspberry was highly concentrated and gave a jolt of sweetness. It really did taste like you were biting into a rich chocolate truffle.

Everyone was in agreement that this was the best part of the meal.

The dessert was $9, but as the waitress said, “you get what you pay for.” The rest of our meal — two entrees and a cup of chili — was around $40.

While we ate, all of the tables in the dining room filled up around us. It’s clear that Back Forty has already become a very popular place in the seven months since it opened.

Stouchsburg has its two restaurants back, and it looks like that’s how it’s going to stay.

Closed Reviews

Pretzel Revolution and Creamery – CLOSED

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Editor’s Note: Pretzel Revolution & Creamery closed on December 31, 2016.

Last fall, when Berks County Eats visited Blind Hartman’s Tavern, a new sign was going up across the street, announcing the arrival of Pretzel Revolution and Creamery to Route 12 just north of Reading.

It was exciting news. Years ago, long before Berks County Eats came into existence, I made a couple visits to the original Pretzel Revolution in Kutztown and fell in love with the savory, greasy stuffed pretzels.

Though the new location serves the same recipe pretzels, it is serving a very different clientele. The Kutztown location is open until 3 a.m. three nights a week. On Route 12, it closes at 8 p.m. daily.

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On our visit, the main dining room, with three booths along the wall, was empty. But the private room behind the counter was packed with a Brownies troop and their moms.

Bringing in ice cream and making it a family-friendly experience was the right move for a location that doesn’t have 9,000 college students in its backyard.

If you’re looking for a meal, Pretzel Revolution has seven flavors of stuffed pretzels to fill you up: Buffalo chicken, chicken bacon ranch, ham and cheese, Italian, pizza, pretzel, and steak and cheese. There are also traditional pretzels (though even these come in six varieties, like garlic, sesame or banana Nutella cinnamon). French fries stand as the only hot food item that isn’t a pretzel.

Julie and I both opted for a stuffed pretzel and fries combo meal. I went with a pizza pretzel; she opted for a steak and cheese.

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The pizza pretzel is stuffed with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and pepperoni. The pretzels are wrapped so that they have one layer of dough on the bottom and two on the top.

If I had sliced the top off, you would have never known that it was a pretzel and not a pizza. It was a little too saucy, but the pretzel was so good that it made up for it.

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Mine was good, but I was envious of Julie’s steak and cheese pretzel. It was packed with steak meat and just a little cheese. It worked really well with the pretzel, especially the salt on top.

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The fries arrived a few minutes into our meal, piping hot after their bath in the fryer. The thick, fresh-cut beauties were delicious, though Julie and I probably would have been fine sharing a single order with as filling as the pretzels were.

It is called Pretzel Revolution and Creamery, so we couldn’t leave without dessert.

This is the only place in Berks County, that I know of, that is serving Penn State Berkey Creamery ice cream. And Pretzel Revolution has two freezers full of the famous frozen dessert.

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My choice was the orange vanilla sundae, orange sherbet swirled with vanilla ice cream. On an 80-degree day that felt more like summer than mid-March, it was a refreshing, summery treat.

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Julie, meanwhile, was enjoying a scoop of mallo cup, a chocolatey treat with marshmallow and coconut shavings. I’m not much for coconut, but I would have eaten all of her ice cream if she had let me.

Two pretzels, two orders of fries, two fountain sodas and two ice cream cones later, and we were as stuffed as the pretzels. And all of that food only cost us a little more than $25.

Pretzel Revolution and Creamery takes the brand in a new direction, and that’s not a bad thing. The franchise location stands on its own as a kid-approved, family-friendly place to grab lunch or dinner.

Pretzel Revolution and Creamery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Closed Reviews

Sofrito Mohnton – CLOSED

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Editor’s Note: Sofrito Mohnton is now closed. In late 2018, the owner decided to reconcentrate efforts on the original location in downtown Reading, closing the Mohnton location as a result.

Two years ago, I visited the ill-fated Maniaci’s Italian Bistro.

The restaurant had gained fame after appearing on Restaurant: Impossible in 2013. But one year later, just a few short weeks after my visit, Maniaci’s closed for good.

My review of Maniaci’s is the most-read review in the history of Berks County Eats, continuing to receive hits every day.

While Maniaci’s was buzzworthy for all the wrong reasons, a new restaurant has taken over the space and created a buzz all its own.

Sofrito Mohnton opened in the spot in February. The restaurant is the second location for the Chef Hector Ruiz, who runs Sofrito Gastro Pub on Douglass Street in Reading.

East Wyomissing Avenue is a long way from Douglass Street, but the new location tries its best to capture the vibe of the original.

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The walls have been painted in a bright reddish-pink, replacing the dull grays and greens. The shelves are more sparsely populated with just a handful of stylized martini glasses replacing the potted plants and herb jars that Chef Robert Irvine had decorated Maniaci’s with.

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It’s a more polished look than the eclectic Douglass Street location, but while it falls a little short on ambiance, the menu includes all of the Sofrito’s favorites plus a few items you’ll only find in Mohnton.

One of the carry-overs is the Centre Park Urban Salad, a spring mix with tomatoes, purple onions, Spanish olives and roasted red peppers with a rosemary garlic and brown sugar vinaigrette.

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The Urban Salad is my favorite starter at Sofrito. I usually prefer creamy dressings, but I love the sweetness that comes through from the brown sugar in the vinaigrette. Onions were scant, and I would have liked to have seen a few more of those, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Among the additions to the menu is the picadillo stuffed poblano pepper.

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The pepper was stuffed with ground beef, potatoes, onions and cheese with ranchera sauce, cotija cheese and a dollop of sour cream on top.

Poblanos are mild peppers, but it had a little bit of a kick on the back end. The pepper wasn’t stuffed evenly so some bites had more ground beef, others more potato. Eventually, I just mixed everything on my plate including the rice and beans.

The yellow rice and black beans are another hallmark of Sofrito. The addition of vegetables like celery, carrots and onions add more depth and color and ensure the rice and beans are not just an afterthought.

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Another carry-over to the new restaurant is the plantain-encrusted crab cake sandwich. Though we have visited the original Sofrito multiple times, Julie had never tried the crab cake until our meal in Mohnton.

The fried plantains provided a nice change from a traditional crab cake, giving it a little sweeter crust. The cake was also meaty with very little filler, making it rich and filling. The ciabatta bread that it was served on held up well, but the crab cake fell apart easily so it was hard to eat as an actual sandwich.

Finally there are the fresh-cut fries. A must-have accompaniment for any meal at Sofrito, the fries are among the best in Berks. And Sofrito Mohnton has the same slightly crispy, golden brown treats as the original.

Like the original, the prices at Sofrito Mohnton are very reasonable. We spent just shy of $25 for the two of us (including one iced tea).

Sofrito Mohnton is a worthy second act for the celebrated Reading restaurant. Just as importantly, it’s a great addition to the dining scene south of the city.

And for a location that has an infamous history, it’s a restaurant poised to create a positive future.

Closed Reviews

Haag’s Hotel – CLOSED

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Editor’s Note: Haag’s Hotel closed in December 2017. An expired liquor license owned by the management company was cited as the reason. The restaurant business is currently for sale and the hotel owners are hopeful that a buyer will be found.

If you don’t live in northwestern Berks County, you may not think of Shartlesville as much of a destination.

But between the miniature village at Roadside America and the demolition derbies and rodeos at Mountain Springs Arena, thousands of people visit the village every year.

For many of those passing through, it means a meal at one of Berks County’s oldest restaurants: Haag’s Hotel.

The business, which has operated in its current building since 1915, is located in the middle of the village at the corner of Main (Old Route 22) and Third Streets. If you’re coming from the south along Wolf Creek Rd, you can’t miss the twin hex signs and “HAAG’S” scrawled across the roof.

Haag’s property is extensive, and includes seven hotel rooms, a large banquet hall, full dining room and a separate bar. It also includes a collection of at least 200 ducks.

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The ducks are everywhere. Stuffed. Wooden. Plastic. Rubber. From the moment you walk through the door, you can’t escape them. They’re on the wall. They’re on the window sills. There are even wicker napkin holders shaped like ducks on every table.

At one end of the room is the duck pond, a great mural of a mountain stream at twilight. In front of it is a waterfall, flanked by a flock of ducks (plus a mother goose with gosling and a rubber frog) perched on the rocks.

Oddly enough, there are no ducks on the menu.

Instead, Haag’s offers “classic dishes to satisfy the hardiest appetite,” according to its menu, which features Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired dishes and American comfort food.

That Pennsylvania Dutch influence is found in unexpected places. The pierogis are one example.

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While most pierogis are filled with mashed potatoes and cheese, I have never before found some that are filled with Dutch potato filling.

The two main ingredients in potato filling are mashed potatoes and onions, and with the addition of some cheddar cheese, the result was not that far off from a traditional pierogi. I double- and triple-dipped mine into the garlic sauce of garlic butter on the side.

The pierogis would have been better if they had just spent another 30 seconds in the fryer. The filling in the middle was still a little cold, especially the cheese. But the flavor was spot-on.

I struggled to select a main course until my eyes found the Haag’s Dutch Burger. Less a sandwich and more of a monster, the Dutch burger consists of a meatloaf patty that is surrounded in potato filling, then breaded and deep-fried.

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You’d be hard-pressed to find anything more Dutchy than a deep-fried ball of meat and potatoes. Somehow I was able to pick up this creation and eat it as a burger, ladling more gravy on with every bite.

It was a lot heavier than I expected, “hardy” as Haag’s would describe it. I really enjoyed the filling, but the meatloaf was lost inside of it. I could have pulled it apart and ate it like a meal, but then I may as well have ordered it as a platter.

With my Dutch burger, I got two sides: French fries and dried corn. The fries were good, but like our pierogis, they could have used a little more time in the fryer. Another minute would have crisped them up nicely. Instead, they were still flavorful, but a little floppy.

The dried corn was not at all what I was expecting. Dried corn normally has a sweet flavor that is amazing when baked. This dried corn was bathed in vinegar. Maybe some old Dutchies like it sour, but I was not a fan.

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Julie’s entree was the ultimate in American comfort food: fried chicken. Haag’s version features a “secret blend of breading” that was heavy on the pepper, but quite enjoyable.

On the side, Julie also got the dried corn (and had the same reaction as me) and chicken pot pie. The pot pie was done in true Dutch style with chunks of potatoes and dough (plus a little celery and carrots) mixed in with the chicken. It can’t compare to a good pot pie dinner from your local fire company or church, but it was a nice side dish.

The two of us managed to finish off a lot of food for just a little more than $25. Haag’s initially gained fame for its family-style dining, which is still offered for $18 per person, if you and your party can agree on three entrees to share.

Haag’s has a long and storied history that dates back more than a century. The menu may have been updated since 1915 (and a few more ducks have been added to the dining room), but it still provides familiar meals to those living in and traveling through Shartlesville.

Haag's Hotel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Closed Reviews

Blue Star Family Restaurant – CLOSED

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Editor’s Note: Blue Star Family Restaurant is now closed. The restaurant changed ownership in 2018 and reopened under the name Rocky Family Restaurant. That restaurant closed in early 2019.

We never went out to eat a lot when I was a kid. But when we did, it was usually to Risser’s Family Restaurant in Stouchsburg.

It was always a favorite, a good diner with plenty of food at reasonable prices. And I absolutely loved their Pennsylvania Dutch specials.

When Risser’s closed in the wake of owner Ernie Risser’s death, it left much of western Berks and eastern Lebanon Counties looking for a place to go.

But the restaurant was reborn in late 2015, and the new Blue Star Family Restaurant is trying to create its own loyal following.

The restaurant’s name harkens back to the 1950s when the Blue Star Diner first opened in the spot, decades before Ernie Risser took it over. More than the name has changed, though, as the restaurant has undergone a significant overhaul under the new ownership.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the wall mural that canvasses one side of the dining room. The images of Pennsylvania Dutchmen and Dutchwomen, horses and buggies is as vibrant as ever, though a row of booths have been added where the dining room was once all tables.

The mural seems out-of-place now. The menu is no longer filled with Pennsylvania Dutch favorites (it’s unlikely that you’ll find stuffed pig stomach on the specials either). And the wall-mounted televisions are in stark contrast to the depictions of simple farm life.

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One of the highlights of the old Risser’s was the expansive soup and salad bar. The current version has been scaled back. Gone is the soft ice cream machine (yes, that was part of the soup and salad bar). Two soups are offered daily instead of six. And while the ever-popular hot bacon dressing is no longer on the salad bar, it is still available by request.

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I filled a bowl of beef vegetable soup and made a simple salad for the side. The soup was good, but a little too brothy with only a few small pieces of beef.

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Julie grabbed a wider variety for her salad: mixed greens, bacon bits, hard-boiled egg, cheese and ranch dressing with applesauce and red skin potato salad on the side. The potato salad was the one thing that Julie could point to and say she didn’t enjoy as much as Risser’s. It was creamier than what the old restaurant served and not done in the Pennsylvania Dutch style.

Though the PA Dutch dinners are gone, the menu remains expansive with sandwiches, burgers, paninis, seafood entrees, comfort food dinners , pasta and a section of sautéed dishes.

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That’s where I found the chicken Milano: chicken breast with roasted peppers, artichoke hearts and spinach in lemon garlic wine sauce over pasta.

I’ve had similar dishes at other restaurants and this was as good as any of them. The sauce wasn’t thick, but it soaked into everything, especially the chicken, giving the whole dish a hint of citrus and the familiar taste of garlic.

Along with the salad bar, my dinner came with one side. My choices were a baked potato, mashed potatoes, French fries, sweet potato fries, potato pancakes, corn nuggets or mac and cheese. None of them really go with pasta (and quite frankly, the soup and salad bar was enough because I took more than one-quarter of my meal home). I just went with the baked potato because it was first on the list.

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Baked potatoes are not normally a go-to for me when dining out, and I was reminded why. The potatoes rely too much on add-ins for their flavor. I would have loved some chives and bacon. All I got was two little cups of butter and one cup of sour cream to spread on my foil-wrapped potato that was slightly undercooked. Next time I’ll try the fries.

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On the other side of the table, Julie was enjoying a tower of roast beef on her open-faced sandwich. Partnered with mashed potatoes and loaded with gravy, it looked like Risser’s (the fact that it was served on a plate from the old restaurant, with its distinctive brown trim, probably helped).

It was true diner food done really well. The thin slices of beef were good, the gravy was flavorful and filling. The only thing I could say negatively about it was that the “real mashed potatoes” seemed a little too much like everyone else’s. It lacked that special something you expect from homemade versions.

On this occasion, we were dining with Julie’s family, her mom, dad, aunt and uncle. The dish that got the most attention around the table was macaroni and cheese, ordered by both her mother and aunt.

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The mac and cheese was a special for the day and was definitely homemade. The noodles were tossed in creamy white American then doused in a pile of bright yellow cheddar. Everyone who tasted it raved about it and said they would get it if it was available next time.

One thing I can say for certain is that we all got our money’s worth. Julie and I spent less than $25 for our two meals (plus an iced tea for me).

The Blue Star Family Restaurant is not Risser’s. It’s a new restaurant doing things its own way.

That’s not a bad thing. And judging by the full parking lot when we arrived and when we left, I’d say a lot of people agree.

Closed Reviews

Potts’ U Hot Dogs – CLOSED

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Potts’ U closed in late 2016. A new specialty hot dog restaurant, Mad Dogs, opened in the space in early 2017. 

Philadelphia has cheesesteaks. The Lehigh Valley has hot dogs.

And when it comes to the battle for supremacy, there are two names at the top of the list: Yocco’s and Potts’.

Yocco’s has been around longer, but the Potts family are no rookies. They opened their first location in 1971 and have expanded to include locations in Allentown, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Emmaus and Northampton.

In 2014, they arrived in Berks County, opening Potts’ U in the shadow of Kutztown University.

Potts’ U’s surroundings are very familiar. Until the summer of 2014, the building had been home to CC’s Wooden Grill, a place that I loved and blogged about two years ago.

Stepping back in, it was a bit surreal. Other than a fresh coat of yellow paint, the dining room hadn’t changed much.

I missed the smell of the wood chips from the smoker, but I appreciated the addition of the menu screen above the open kitchen.

One thing that you’ll find with Potts’ is that each location has its own unique menu, despite the fact that they are all still owned by the same family.

At Potts’ U in Kutztown, they decided to branch out. While hot dogs are still the star attraction, you’ll also find pulled pork barbecue, French fries, soup and the craziest addition of them all: empanadas.

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I was so happy to see that Potts’ U offered a “sampler” special: one hot dog, one empanada, one side and a drink for less than $7.

If you order your hot dog with “The Works,” you get mustard, onions and chili sauce (ketchup, relish, sauerkraut and pickles are also available for free, with extra charges for cheese and bacon). I skipped on the mustard and just went with the onions and chili.

In 40 years of Potts’ restaurants, they have figured out how to make the perfect hot dog. It had that crispy outside that’s a sign of a well-done dog. The chili was delicious: meaty, a little salty and just a little sweet. And they put on just the right amount of raw onions to get that flavor I was looking for without overpowering the hot dog.

The real surprise was the empanada. They had two choices on the board for the day: taco and buffalo chicken. I went with the taco and really enjoyed it. It wasn’t overly stuffed with the ground beef, but it was  filled nicely with a little zest and a great flavor overall.

And the thin-cut, fast-food style fries were a perfect way to finish off the tray.

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Julie had the same idea as me, but she opted for just ketchup on her hot dog. She also switched it up on the empanada, going with the buffalo chicken, instead.

The buffalo sauce was strong, but not overly hot (her tolerance for heat is lower than mine, but she handled hers well). The chicken was chopped up very fine in the sauce, mostly serving as substance for the sauce to stick to.

We had arrived in the middle of a mini-rush for lunch so our food took a few minutes to come out (only one person was working, taking orders and building the hot dogs), but for a delicious meal at a price tag of just $15, it was easily worth the wait.

Potts’ U does the Potts family proud, and it has been a great addition to Kutztown’s restaurants scene. It’s great food with better prices and a location that’s ideal for students and residents alike.

Hopefully it’s a recipe for a long-lasting restaurant.

Potts' U Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Closed Reviews

Lavigna & Sons – CLOSED

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Editor’s Note: Lavigna & Son’s closed in July 2018. The building and neighboring greenhouse were sold and are being torn down to make room for a new hardware store.

There is no shortage of lunch spots in Berks County. From the city to the smallest towns, you don’t have to look far to find the local sandwich shop.

But there are some places that are a cut above the rest, places that offer the perfect combination of great food, fast service and convenient location like Lavigna & Sons.

Lavigna & Sons is one of two restaurants that were added to the Spayd’s at Green Valley Nursery complex outside Sinking Spring. Along with Crave Cafe, they have helped revitalize the shops by turning them into the go-to lunch spot.

The two restaurants compliment each other well. Crave opens every day for breakfast and has the vibe of a trendy coffee shop. Lavigna & Sons doesn’t open until 10 a.m. and feels like what it is: a South Philly-style hoagie shop.

There are maybe 10 tables in the place, all of them basking in the sunlight from the large picture windows (though none offer much of a view. Most face the parking lot; two overlook Route 422).

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Brightening the room isn’t the only benefit of so much sunlight. Pots along the window sills are lined with herbs, including a row of six basil plants.

There are exactly 30 items on the menu at Lavigna & Sons — 24 hoagies, three salads and three hot sandwiches.

When you think of Philadelphia style sandwiches, you probably think of hoagies or Philly cheesesteaks. There are no cheesesteaks on the menu, but there is the other classic Philadelphia sandwich: roast pork.

Very few places in Berks County do a Philly-style roast pork sandwich. The best I have found is at the San Marco Italian Food Festival. At least that was the best until I found Lavigna & Sons.

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I ordered a whole hoagie (approximately a foot-long roll) with broccoli rabe, sautéed spinach, Italian long hot peppers and slices of provolone. It was an incredible sandwich.

The pork was chopped so fine it practically looked like crumbs compared to the pile of broccoli rabe that concealed it. The meat was so flavorful and juicy, I would have eaten it on its own. But that slight bitterness of the broccoli rabe and the spicy sweet from the peppers made it perfect.

But those Italian long hots are evil. I thought I could handle spicy. It turns out that I can’t. I had one bite that was just peppers, cheese and bread, and that was enough to have my chugging on my orange cream Kutztown soda.

The roll — a delicious hard roll with sesame seeds (optional) — did nothing to temper the heat. Neither did the bag of Deep River potato chips. Every bite just made it worse until I had to start skimming the pork and rapini off the top (the long hots were lining the bottom of the roll).

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Julie had no such problems with her sandwich, the South Philly Italian. Number 1 on the menu, the South Philly Italian featured capacolla, genoa salami and prosciutto with provolone cheese.

All hoagies are served with lettuce, tomato, onions, spices (what spices, I’m not sure) and olive oil. Like mine, the ingredients were falling out of the roll onto the plate with the first bite.

What really made the sandwich was the prosciutto. The flavorful cut made this stand out among other Italian sandwiches.

The great thing about hoagies is that they are quick to make. It only took about five minutes from the time we ordered until they were delivered to our table. The other great thing about them is that they are relatively inexpensive. We paid $20 for our two hoagies (one half, one whole), two Kutztown sodas and a bag of chips.

Lavigna & Sons promises Philadelphia hoagies, and they are delivering on that promise with some of the best sandwiches in the county.

It’s a can’t-miss for your lunch break.

Lavigna & Sons Philadelphia Hoagies Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Closed Reviews