Juliana's Ricotta Balls

5 Favorite Appetizers of 2018

Our annual end-of-year tradition continues as we take a look back on the best things we tried this year. Today: our five favorite appetizers of 2018.

Savory Grille Steak Grilled Flatbread

Flatbread – Savory Grille

Savory Grille’s menu is constantly evolving and that means new appetizers, entrees and desserts on every meal. During our first visit to northeastern Berks’ fine dining destination in January, the appetizers included an incredible flatbread topped with steak, fennel frond pesto, shaved manchego and fig compote. It was sweet, savory, salty, creamy, earthy and all around delicious. Read Full Review

Shredded Pork Rolls - Lang Restaurant

Shredded Pork Roll – Lang

The former Hong Thanh is back in its original downtown Reading location with a new name but the same amazing food. On our first visit to the Sixth Street location, we were extremely impressed with everything – my vermicelli bowl and Julie’s crispy lo mein included – but it’s the shredded pork rolls, served with the house Lang sauce, that make our best-of list for 2018. Read Full Review

Juliana's Ricotta Balls

Ricotta Balls – Juliana’s

Juliana’s ricotta balls looked like a pair of snowballs sitting on top of a bed of red sauce. The mounds of cheese were rolled and baked to a crisp, but with a melt-in-your-mouth creaminess that made for an excellent first impression. Read Full Review

Fork & Ale Uovo da Raviolo

Uova De Raviolo – Fork & Ale

Everything that we tasted on our return visit to Fork & Ale was creative and flavorful. The uova de raviolo – or egg yolk ravioli – was no exception. As soon as I pierced the pasta with my fork, the egg yolk began pouring out, mixing on the plate with the sage butter sauce to add more depth to the sauce. With creamy ricotta inside the pasta and salty, savory bacon and bitter chard on top, it was an incredible mix of texture and taste. Read Full Review

Coconut Chicken Soup – Masa

Masa – the hibachi and sushi bar that replaced Hong Thanh in the Target shopping center in Wyomissing – had some very impressive dishes, first among those for me was the coconut chicken soup. It featured a creamy, flavorful broth, but the addition of cherry tomatoes set it apart from other versions of the same dish. Read Full Review

Appetizers Best of Berks County Eats
Fork & Ale Moroccan Chicken

Fork & Ale – Return

Editor’s Note: Chef Seth Arnold left Fork & Ale in July 2019 for a position at Terrain Cafe in Devon.

One of the hardest things about doing weekly Berks County Eats blogs is not being able to return to the restaurants that we have enjoyed.

In March 2017, we made our first visit to Fork & Ale – the new gastropub that had opened in the former Tim’s Ugly Mug outside Douglassville just a few months before. We had enjoyed everything we had, especially their take on poutine, but we had no real motivation to return with so many restaurants left to visit.

Then a new chef arrived on the scene.

Chef Seth Arnold started at Fork & Ale at the end of May. By mid-summer, he was tagging @BerksCountyEats on every Instagram post. At the end of July, he sent me a direct message, introducing himself and inviting me out to the restaurant for a visit.

Fork & Ale Menu

Over the next weeks and months, Fork & Ale was always in the back of my mind and at the top of my Instagram feed. Finally, Julie and I made plans for a date night. We found a babysitter for Jakob and headed east for dinner on a Saturday evening in early December.

We arrived around 5 p.m., beating the dinner crowd and taking a table for two. Fork & Ale does not take reservations so we wanted to make sure we had a seat, not knowing how full it would get by night’s end. The dining room looks exactly as we remembered with painted brick walls, Edison bulbs hanging from the ceiling and reclaimed wood furniture.

Fork & Ale Uovo da Raviolo

One thing I learned through Instagram is that the chef loves introducing creative specials every night. On the specials menu during our visit was an appetizer we had to try – uova da raviolo – egg yolk ravioli.

The pasta pouches were filled with herbed ricotta and egg yolk, topped with smoked bacon, rainbow chard, purple cauliflower and a sage butter sauce.

Fork & Ale Uovo da Raviolo

Eating it was quite the experience. Pressing into the ravioli, the egg yolk began pouring out, mixing with the sage butter sauce on the plate. It added a completely different dimension to the dish that I enjoyed. And with the savory bacon and slightly bitter chard, it was full of flavor.

Fork & Ale Moroccan Chicken

The main menu has completely evolved in the 20 months since our last visit (no more poutine). The only common item between the two menus being the Fork & Ale Burger. One new dish that caught my attention was the Moroccan chicken.

The dish featured confit chicken served over house-made Fettuccini with golden raisins, bell pepper, arugula, crispy chickpeas, Marcona almonds and a Moroccan-spiced butter sauce.

Fork & Ale Moroccan Chicken

I absolutely loved it. It was one of the most flavorful dishes that I have had in a long time. The sauce was incredible (for the record, I still have no idea what spices constitute “Moroccan spice”), and there were little surprises throughout. The chickpeas added needed crunch to the plate while the raisins were little bursts of sweetness throughout. I can’t say enough good things about it, and neither could Julie when she had the leftovers a few days later.

For her meal, she went with the warm Brussels sprouts salad. The waitress recommended adding the grilled shrimp (grilled chicken was also an option) and Julie was glad for it.

Fork & Ale Warm Brussels Sprouts Salad

The composition was interesting – the sprouts were shaved like cabbage and drizzled with balsamic, always a good pairing. The fatty pork belly was a great addition and made it a truly savory dish. All in all, it was well done.

Being a date night, dessert was almost mandatory. There were two dessert options the night of our visit, a crème brulee that sounded delightful and our selection, the butterscotch lava cake.

Many places will do a chocolate lava cake – chocolate cake with a melted chocolate center. The butterscotch version was similar with a melted butterscotch center that was topped with housemade whipped cream.

Fork & Ale Butterscotch Lava Cake

Neither of us are big butterscotch fans but it sounded too good to pass up, and it more than lived up to our expectations. The cake was dense but flavorful and the filling was perfect. It was sweet but not too sweet, buttery but not overpowering. It was the perfect ending to a perfect meal, one of the best meals we have had in many months.

Our total bill for the evening (one unsweetened iced tea included) was around $60. It was a bit of a splurge for us, but with both an appetizer and dessert, it felt like a fair price for an exceptional dinner.

If you haven’t been to Fork & Ale in the two years since it’s been open, or if you haven’t been there since Chef Arnold arrived in May, do yourself a favor and make the trip.

I know we will be back sooner than later.

BCE Rating:
Food: Excellent
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: Reasonable

Fork & Ale
1281 E. Main St
Douglassville, PA 19518

Bars & Pubs Dessert Lunch & Dinner Reviews
Salute Pizza Montanara

Salute Ristorante Italiano / Dante’s 900

Salute Ristorante Italiano and Dante's 900

Last summer, Salute Ristorante Italiano in Sinking Spring began advertising Dante’s 900, a new artisan pizza shop that would open in the space next door. It was at the top of our list to visit during our annual National Pizza Month celebration in October.

Unfortunately, “soon” was a little further off in the future as Dante’s didn’t open until after the new year.

So it was back on our list – at the very top of the list – of new pizza places to check out.

Dante’s website and PDF menu both tout the hours as 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

What neither mentions is that the dining room is only open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. We didn’t find that out until we walked through the front door and saw the note where a “please wait to be seated” sign would be expected. Instead, the sign pointed us next door to Salute for the wood-fired pizza.

Salute Ristorante Italiano

Salute is a very nice restaurant, a date night place that’s more upscale than most restaurants where we take Jakob. (In fact, Julie and I visited for Valentine’s Day in 2015). But we had to roll with it and after our second time asking for a high chair, we were all set in a corner booth, separated as far as possible from the rest of the dining room.

Our service wasn’t great on this night. The specials were not explained well to us (the explanation we received was different than what the table behind us received). And after Julie and I both ordered Caesar salads, we were given house salads with balsamic vinaigrette.

Salute House Salad

Not wanting to waste food, we ate them without complaining. I’m not big on balsamic, but the dressing was actually very good, much thicker than most vinaigrettes that I have tried.

But it wasn’t a Caesar salad.

Sitting down in the main dining room and looking at the full Salute menu, I couldn’t help but change my plans. The weekly specials were inspired by Tuscany (our waitress was able to explain that the chef is doing a taste of Italy, crafting menu items themed by region), and one of those specials was the tortelli alla Mugellana ­- potato filled ravioli with duck ragu.

Salute Tortelli alla Mugellana

I felt guilty for not ordering pizza, but I didn’t feel guilty after eating this. It was delicious. The filling was like a well-seasoned side of mashed potatoes. It was a perfect pairing with the duck ragu.

The dark duck meat was rich and done very well. The ragu itself was a little sweet. Together, it was beautifully cohesive dish, one that I would happily order again.

Julie stuck with the original plan and ordered one of the personal sized, wood-fired pizzas. Her choice: the pizza Montanara.

Salute Pizza Montanara

It featured mozzarella, mushrooms, sausage and white truffle Béchamel sauce.

After all the anticipation, we both had to admit that it fell a little flat. Or floppy, to be more accurate. The dough was not thick enough at the center to hold the heavy toppings. And, of course, all of the toppings slid to the center.

But the flavors were there. The Béchamel sauce was excellent, and gave it a creamier taste. It paired really well with the savory sausage. The mushrooms were just kind of there. If you absolutely love mushrooms, I suppose they were a good addition.

The pizza, and our visit, was certainly not what we expected. There were bright spots, for sure. But overall, the experience was not on the same level as our Valentine’s Day trip three years ago.

And I wouldn’t put it near the top of the list for celebrating #NationalPizzaMonth again.

BCE Rating
Food: Good to Very Good
Service: Poor
Ambiance: Very Good
Value: Reasonable

Salute Ristorante Italiano / Dante’s 900
4716 Penn Ave
Sinking Spring, PA 19608

Finer Dining Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Road Trip: Revere Tavern

Revere Tavern, a historic restaurant attached to the Best Western in Paradise, Pa.

Berks County Eats takes a road trip to Lancaster County this week for a meal at the historic Revere Tavern in Paradise.

Lancaster County is teeming with great restaurants. The problem is getting to those restaurants – especially during the height of summer tourist season.

A drive on Route 30 is more like a crawl with out-of-state license plates parading along the highway on their way to catch a glimpse of the Amish at work in the field.

So finding a place for dinner on a Saturday night in Lancaster is tricky, unless you venture a little farther outside the city limits.

The entrance to the historic Revere Tavern

That’s where we found the Revere Tavern.

The address is Paradise, an ambitious name for a settlement that never really grew beyond a village.

We had driven past the tavern and the adjacent Best Western hotel many times, mostly to visit Rainbow’s Comedy Playhouse, a dinner theater set a few hundred yards behind the historic building.

But in need of a quiet place away from the rush of the city, we found exactly that at the Revere.

Historic Revere Tavern in Paradise was once owned by President James Buchanan.

The tavern is steeped in history, serving as a roadside inn since before the 1800s. At one time, it was owned by President James Buchanan. How it got the name the Revere Tavern, I’m still not sure.

It’s exactly the restaurant you expect when you hear the name. A stone hearth still protrudes from the wall of the King George dining room. Along the tops of the walls is a display of century-old China, decorative plates adorned with floral patterns, portraits and country scenes.

There are two other spaces as well – a smaller dining room and a bar, both located across the hallway from the table of four where Julie and I sat with her parents.

A table for six in front of the fireplace at Revere Tavern

We had come from a matinee at Sight & Sound Theatre and were ready for a hearty meal.

The menu features a selection of about 10 entrees – classic meals like scallops, prime rib, chicken breast and lamb chops that are expected fare at a restaurant like the Revere.

Revere Tavern Rolls and Butter

Before the meal, a basket of warm rolls were delivered to the table along with tiny cups of whipped cinnamon butter. It was a nice little start to the meal. Warm bread is always a nice touch and the little extra effort with the butter was appreciated.

Revere Tavern Salad

Our salads were next – each entree coming with a choice of Caesar or field green salad. We all opted for the field greens – romaine lettuce, red onion, carrots, cucumber and cherry tomato.

It was your basic starter salad, nothing more and nothing less. It served its purpose of holding us over until the main course arrived.

My entree choice was the wild mushroom ravioli with grilled chicken breast.

Revere Tavern Wild Mushroom Ravioli

The ravioli was served in a madeira wine sauce with caramelized onions, spinach, chopped walnut and more mushrooms.

It was a heavy sauce, creamy and thick, that made the ravioli feel a lot more dense. The grilled chicken breast on top was a perfect addition (it’s optional for those who prefer a meat-free meal). I found it cooked perfectly, lightly seasoned to add flavor that worked well with the sauce.

The spinach and walnut were both nice touches, especially the walnut which added much-needed texture to the dish while also giving a pop of flavor every few bites.

What I could have done without was the additional mushrooms. I would not have minded a few on the side, but I felt overwhelmed by the tiny white fungi that were swimming on my plate.

I left a lot of them sitting, but I happily finished off the remainder of the dish.

Revere Tavern Crab Cakes

Julie’s entree was a crab cake (she opted for one instead of two). She definitely didn’t get cheated on her one as the six-ounce cake looked to be about the size of a baseball on her plate.

The crab cakes were meaty and satisfying – not the best that Julie has ever had, but certainly not the worst. The lemon aioli was a great complement, elevating the dish.

It was served with a vegetable medley of corn, potatoes and tomato with a bed of arugula, all sitting in the lemon aioli. The potatoes were diced like breakfast hash. None of the three items truly stood out, but they were enjoyable together for a nice side.

Amazingly, neither of us had anything left that was worth bringing home. It wasn’t that the portions weren’t generous – they were – but we were both looking forward to finishing everything on our plates.

When the final bill was tallied, it was about $45 for the two of us (that included my glass of unsweetened iced tea). We’ve certainly paid more than that for history so I don’t think we were cheated at all.

The Revere Tavern may not be the most recognized name in the Lancaster food scene, nor the most sought-out, but the quiet little restaurant delivered a nice meal during our visit.

And that’s all we were really hoping for.

Revere Tavern
3063 Lincoln Highway
Paradise, PA 17562

Revere Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Finer Dining Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Vincenzo’s

vincenzo-s-sign

It’s been a while since the Google Street View team rolled through the village of Amityville, just north of Douglassville.

The images are dated 2008. In today’s world, that’s an eternity. The low-resolution photos were outdated five years ago.

Just navigate along Route 662 north of the intersection with Old Airport Road. On the right-hand side you’ll see Focht Mower Service, a business that closed half a decade ago.

Drive along the road today and there is no sign of Focht’s storefront nor the wooden barn that stood behind it. In its place is a large stone-faced building with red clay roof tiles reminiscent of an Italian grotto.

Vincenzo’s opened in this spot in 2011. The brand-new building was meant to evoke images of Italy. It succeeds, but the whole thing seems out of place in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch farmland. What feels like the middle of nowhere is actually just five minutes from Route 422.

The interior still looks brand new. The restaurant is split into two dining rooms with frosted glass windows separating the two.

vincenzo-s-dinner-rolls

While the decorations lean toward elegant, the booths that line the rooms make it feel like the neighborhood diner. And like a diner, the first thing to arrive at our table was the basket of dinner rolls.

The two rolls looked more like small loafs, warm puffs about five inches around. Not only were they big, they were light and tasty.

vincenzo-s-salad

Our salads were next to arrive. There was nothing especially noteworthy about the salad, but the mixed greens provided the perfect bridge to dinner. As soon as I laid my fork down from the salad, our entrees were at our table.

Vincenzo’s menu is a large one, with 13 pasta selections, a half-dozen homemade ravioli dishes and more than 20 dishes of seafood, chicken and veal.

When in doubt, I tend to choose the dish named after the restaurant, which is how I decided upon the chicken Vincenzo.

vincenzo-s-chicken-vincenzo

The chicken Vincenzo is two chicken breasts topped with asparagus, mozzarella, red peppers and mushrooms in a white wine sauce.

The chicken breasts themselves were fairly basic: no breading nor seasoning. And while I loved all of the flavors they were cooked with — the sweet wine sauce, the rich mozzarella, the pronounced flavors of the asparagus — it never really soaked into the chicken, making it feel separated from the rest of the dish that I enjoyed so much.

vincenzo-s-fettucine

A side of pasta, prepared the same as your meal, is included with every entree. For my side, I opted for linguine. The pasta did a much better job of soaking up the sauce and complimenting the mushrooms and peppers. Mixing a forkful of pasta with the chicken and cheese made all the difference, creating a tasty meal.

Though I enjoyed my plate, I found myself feeling jealous toward Julie and her crab ravioli. Vincenzo’s raviolis were listed as homemade on the menu. From the small sampling of Julie’s meal that I got, I believe it.

vincenzo-s-crab-ravioli

The pasta had a unique texture — a little chewier, but not unpleasant — and fuller flavor than my linguine. What really made this dish was the sauce, a white wine cream sauce that was much thicker and heavier than my own. The crab meat brought its distinct richness to the dish, but it blended well with the sauce to create a very enjoyable meal.

When I eventually return, I will be certainly be ordering ravioli. In addition to the flavor, it was also a much more manageable dish. A full chicken breast and half of my pasta ended up going home with us to enjoy for lunch the next day.

Of course with such large portions, there was no room left for dessert. This is a common occurrence at Vincenzo’s, at least according to our waiter who dropped off our bill (about $45) shortly after we had finished our meals.

He had been diligent and attentive all night, not an easy task with the seemingly endless stream of customers that were coming through the restaurant on this Saturday evening. (The parking lot was not an easy place to navigate before or after dinner, with several cars parked on the grass behind the Vincenzo’s sign on Route 662).

Vincenzo’s may not be fine dining, but they clearly have a loyal following. My meal was good; Julie’s was great. It’s not surprising that it has become a popular place in just a few years.

I have no doubt that the next time the Google Street View team does visit Douglassville, Vincenzo’s will still be going strong.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: Reasonable

Vincenzo’s
1333 Old Swede Rd
Douglassville, PA 19518

Vincenzo's Ristorante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Salute Ristorante Italiano

salute

There’s something about a nice Italian restaurant on Valentine’s Day. The two just seem to go together, the perfect match for a romantic night out.

Last year for our romantic splurge, we visited Mom Chaffe’s Cellarette, one of the oldest restaurants in Berks County. This year, we visited Salute Ristorante Italiano, one of the county’s newest.

Salute opened in November, taking over the former Frank’s NY Pizza in Sinking Spring, and bringing fine dining to the former take-out counter.

The aesthetic improvement is evident immediately as the entrance to the strip mall spot has been given a stonework facade. Inside, the restaurant is much-improved as well. Tables and booths line two seating areas, one raised a step above the other. When we arrived, a heart was tied to the back of each chair with lacey ribbon; the napkins beautifully folded into fans.

For Valentine’s Day, Salute offered a pared down version of its dinner menu in prix-fixe form: for $50, each person received an appetizer, entree and dessert. A small welcome cocktail was also included in every dinner.

salute-love-potion

The Love Potion was comprised of chocolate vodka, crème de cacao, fresh strawberry puree, and half and half, all topped with a chocolate covered strawberry.

salute-caprese-salad

We put in our appetizer order while we pondered the entree choices. As our starters, we opted for the Carpese salad and bruschetta. The Carpese salad was good, with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, but it paled in comparison to the bruschetta which was some of the best I have had.

salute-bruschetta

The perfectly toasted bread was topped with mounds of diced tomatoes and shaved Parmesan cheese. It had just a hint of balsamic mixed with a very flavorful olive oil, and mixed with the tomatoes, it made for a sweet, tasty appetizer.

We were surprised to find that in addition to the appetizers, every entree also included a cup of soup or starter salad. We both opted for soup: I went with fava bean while Julie chose Italian wedding.

salute-fava-bean-soup

My fava bean soup was delicious. The consistency reminded me of a split pea where there is little broth to speak of and the flavor comes almost entirely from the vegetables. But the real highlight here was the homemade crouton: two pieces of fried bread. It was dark and crispy like melba toast, but absorbed a lot of flavor from the frying, giving it a unique flavor that was perfect for dipping.

salute-wedding-soup

Julie’s wedding soup was also interesting (and excellent) as it was more of a cream base than a broth base, which made it extra hearty.

salute-norcina-ravioli

My main course arrived with a special Valentine’s Day touch. I ordered the norcina ravioli¸ a potato and ricotta ravioli with sausage and mushrooms in a cream sauce, all topped with a heart-shaped piece of dough. For added style, the plate was brushed with blue and yellow coloring. I knew what the norcina ravioli would include, but I didn’t expect it to be constructed quite as it was. There were four small ravioli buried beneath a mound of mushrooms and ground sausage that provided most of the flavor. It was a much heartier dish than I was expecting.

salute-lobster-over-linguine

Across the table, Julie decided to spoil herself with lobster. The lobster half was served atop a bed of linguine in a light sauce with tomato slices, freshly chopped basil and minced garlic. Again, the chef +went the extra mile on presentation by painting the plate red and black. The linguini had a little extra texture which allowed the sauce to better stick to the pasta, making for a delectable dish.

salute-puff-pastry-with-custard-and-wild-berry-reduction

Of course you can’t take your sweetheart out to Valentine’s Day dinner without enjoying some sweets, and Salute did not disappoint. Our waitress brought out a plate with both of the night’s featured desserts: almond parfait and a puff pastry with custard and wild berry reduction.

salute-almond-parfait

The puff pastry was good though I would have liked just a little more custard to cut through the concentrated sweetness of the reduction. The almond parfait was on an entirely other level. Made from almond ice cream topped with chocolate and crushed almonds. The semi-bitter dark chocolate hardened atop the ice cream, creating a contrast in texture and flavor.

On a normal night, we would have never ordered so much food, and our bill would have probably been significantly less. But for our one-night-a-year splurge, it was well worth the $100 price tag.

It was a near-perfect night out: incredible food in a great atmosphere making for a memorable Valentine’s Day.

Here’s a salute to Salute, a great addition to the Berks County restaurant scene.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: A Little Pricey

Salute Ristorante Italiano
4718 Penn Ave
Sinking Spring, PA 19608

Salute Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

Dessert Finer Dining Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

G.N.A. Ristorante

G.N.A.

Location makes a big difference when it comes to the success of a restaurant. Finding a place that is in the right neighborhood, is the correct size or has the right ambiance can be difficult.

Sometimes you get it right the first time, but sometimes a restaurant has to adapt, and that can necessitate a change in location.

For G.N.A. Ristorante, West Reading was the right place, but it took a move of three blocks down the street before they found the perfect location in 2006.

I can remember the old restaurant – a pizza parlor that happened to sell great pastas. The room was simple, with a handful of Formica booths and some small tables. It was simple, but always packed with people, especially those standing in line for take-out.

G.N.A.’s current location is much more elegant. The walls, with their partially exposed bricks and simple painted vines, make the building look and feel much homier.

The take-out area has been partitioned off from the dining area, which is, itself, divided into four separate seating areas. To the left is the pizzeria, with high-cushioned booths to fit six and smaller tables in the center.

In the middle is the bar, with its high-top bistro tables and flat screen TV’s. To the right a more refined dining room. Floral centerpieces sit atop table linens in the light of the large picture windows. The seating continues outside where metal bistro tables are adorned with green, white and blue umbrellas.

The full menu is offered in all of the dining areas so we opted for comfort and took our seats in the pizzeria.

Much of the menu is standard Italian restaurant fare: hot and cold sandwiches, pizza and Stromboli, and all the familiar pasta dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and baked ziti.

But they do offer many unique items like veal-stuffed tortelloni, salmon in a champagne, tomato and basil sauce, and homemade fettuccine and tagliatelle pasta.

G-N-A-Lamb-Shank

Looking for something a little different, myself, I went with the Gamboncello D’ Agnello, lamb shank sautéed in olive oil and Chianti wine served with beef braised ravioli.

The lamb shank cast a large shadow as it more than filled the plate, the thick bone protruding off the side. Lamb shank can be a tough cut of me, especially if not cooked properly. But this was braised perfectly, creating a very tender, very moist dish. With the addition of the subtle sauce, which featured small bits of carrots and onion, the meat took on a flavor similar to a pot roast, but with richer flavor.

On the side were four of the beef braised raviolis, which had a complex flavor from a mix of herbs and a heavier presence from the Chianti. I wish this variation of raviolis was a menu item of its own so I could get a full order of them on my next visit.

G-N-A-Tuna-Melt

The beauty of the G.N.A menu is that while I was enjoying a true culinary experience, my wife was sitting next to me with a tuna melt.

Dating back to the days at the old restaurant, G.N.A.’s tuna melt has been one of my wife’s favorite sandwiches. She has never been able to pinpoint an exact reason, but she has yet to find a tuna sandwich that can match it, with its warm, toasted roll, melted cheese and flavorful tuna mix.

With such a wide variety on the menu, G.N.A. also offers dinners in a wide range of prices. While my lamb shank was one of the higher priced items at just over $20.00, the small tuna melt came in under $5.00.

When a restaurant finds the right mix of great food with the perfect location, you get a place like G.N.A., a place that offers whatever dining experience you are looking for with an excellent food selection to suit every taste.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: Reasonable

G.N.A. Ristorante
421 Penn Ave
West Reading, PA 19611

GNA Ristorante e Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews
Toscana 52 Pappa al Pomodoro

Road Trip: Toscana 52

Berks County Eats crosses the county line to bring you some of the best dining both near and far. This edition takes us 70 miles east of Reading to Bensalem, PA.

There is no such thing as Italian cuisine.

Let me rephrase that. There is no one Italian cuisine.

The flavors of Italy are as varied as any other country. Rome, Venice, Naples and Milan all have their own foods, unique to their regions.

Most restaurants have adopted bits and pieces of each to create their menus—a little from the north, a hint of the south and a bit of the coasts thrown in—and call it Italian.

But at Toscana 52 in Bensalem, they’re taking a different approach, highlighting the cuisine of a different city each week with its 52 menu.

Bensalem, Pennsylvania is not exactly a foodie paradise. The redundantly named Street Road, the township’s main thoroughfare, is lined with chain restaurants and fast food joints.

But just a short drive north of the Turnpike is a unique eatery that doesn’t fit in with the rest.

The interior is rustic Italian, like so many other restaurants. A large family table sits in the middle of the rustic dining room, a wooden pergola offering a hint of privacy to those who put themselves on display.

But the food is what makes Toscana different. The main menu offers five unique Crudo, or raw, dishes, Italian-style sushi plates with tuna, shrimp, oysters, clams or crab meat. Favorites like spaghetti, rigatoni and gnocchi are joined with non-Italian toppings like chilled mango salsa and wasabi cream.

IMG_3384

Then there is the 52 menu, a weekly journey across the European continent. The menu features not only entrees, but appetizers and regional wines from the featured city. Featured cities include Chianti, Napoli (Naples) and Florence.

I don’t know how often menus repeat, but on both of my trips to Toscana (10 months apart), the weekly menu featured the food of Florence, Italy.

IMG_3380

My trip to Florence began with a cup of Papa al Pomodoro, a tomato soup thickened by chucks of Italian bread that are mixed in. The beautifully presented bowl, topped with diced onions and chopped basil, harkens back to old world tradition. Before the advent of packaged croutons, chunks of bread were often added to soups to add thickness and substance.

The soup itself is naturally sweet, and thin enough that the bread is not an unwelcome addition. The addition of the fresh herbs and onions adds more flavor to an already delicious dish.

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Then came the gnudi.

Gnudi is “nude ravioli,” essentially all the filling for ravioli lumped together into dumplings without the pasta casing. Ricotta, spinach and Parmigiano cheese were rolled together and topped with a butter-sage cream sauce.

The meal is very rich. Without the pasta to tone it down, all of the ingredients have a chance to come through. The sauce is thick and creamy, but the gnudi soaks it up and absorbs all that rich flavor.

It’s a truly special dish that I have yet to find on any other menu.

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And of course, no meal is complete without dessert. A simple strawberries and cream was the perfect ending to the meal. Ripe strawberries smothered in a semi-tart cream balanced perfectly for an (almost) guilt-free dessert.

You could spend thousands of dollars to take a tour of the Old World, but I got to experience a three-course tour of Italy for about $30.

In some ways, Toscana is not much different than any other Italian restaurant: serving favorites from across Italy in a rustic dining room here in America.

But Toscana is different. And if you find yourself driving east through Bucks County, just know that  a tour of Italy is closer than you think.

Toscana 52 on Urbanspoon

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar

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Over 80 years ago,  Jimmie Kramer began offering free peanuts to the patrons at his cafe along Penn Street on the west side of Reading. Today, Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar is a local institution. Empty peanut shells litter the floor, and it takes a conscious effort not to look every time you hear a crunch beneath your feet. Every little nook has a piece of local breweriana including an Old Reading Beer barrel and a miniature Yuengling delivery wagon. And, like most central Pennsylvania bars, Yuengling’s are always flowing from the tap.

As you enter through a pair of heavy wooden doors, you notice the darkness. Strings of white Christmas lights are woven through twigs suspended from the ceiling, casting a dim glow on the red and white checkered tablecloths. Antique-looking lamps jut from the walls surrounding you, illuminating framed posters that adorn the walls of all three rooms.

Seating stretches out across what was once two storefronts, the bar having outgrown its narrow urban building decades ago. Once seated, a waitress appears with a wooden bowl full of shelled peanuts, and two large laminated menus. The Peanut Bar offers all the bar food staples you expect like wings (AYCE on Monday nights), burgers, and fresh cut seasoned fries.

But the menu is full of fine dining surprise. Panko-breaded salmon and free range organic chicken grace the same menu as southern style po’ boys and Philly cheesesteak. There are not many places you can go to enjoy a gourmet meal while tossing empty peanut shells onto a solid wood floor.

My wife and I went on a Monday night and were surprised to see such a big crowd. We were put in the back, the third of three rooms. Our waitress appeared quickly our peanuts, but never gave us her name.

I got one of about ten daily specials, chicken and peppers with cheese ravioli. In all, it was a solid pasta dish, but if the sauce were improved, it would have been great. The chicken, the peppers, and the ravioli were all flavorful on their own, but the tomato sauce was on the bland side and hurt the overall dish a little bit. If the sauce was a little sweeter or a little spicier, the dish would have been near perfect.

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My wife opted for the crab cakes, which came served to her a fish-shaped wooden platter. The dish came with fresh cut fries and homemade slaw. Personally, I’m not a crab cake eater, so I’m going to take her word for it. She said they were good, and was glad that they didn’t have much filler. If there was a negative, it was that she likes hers broiled, and a little wetter, and these were on the dry side, but worked well with the tartar sauce she got with them.

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Our total bill (drinking only water) was around $25, definitely a good price for the large amount of food we got. If you’re looking for a cool, comfortable place for a night out, you can’t go wrong with the Peanut Bar.

Kramer's Peanut Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Classics Lunch & Dinner Reviews