A plate of tortellini topped with meat sauce, peas and mushrooms from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

Gino’s Cafe

A view of the front window of Gino's Cafe from the parking lot

In October 2017,  we made a visit to Gino’s Grille just outside Shillington. The restaurant had just opened two months prior, giving Gino’s a second restaurant. The original – Gino’s Cafe – continued to operate a few blocks away.

Despite what appeared to be creating its own competition, Gino’s Cafe is still going strong. A few weeks ago, we made our first visit to the flagship restaurant in Gino’s portfolio.

Unlike Gino’s Grille which sits right along Lancaster Pike, the Cafe is located off the main drag in a strip mall on Broad Street, across the street from Geoff Penske Buick GMC.

Tables along a wall decorated with generic images of Italy at Gino's Cafe in Shillington

Taking up just one storefront in the strip, Gino’s certainly doesn’t have the largest dining room in Berks County but the tables are packed in, and they needed everyone of them when we visited on a recent Saturday night. We arrived early – Julie, Jakob and I. It was around 4:30, and the Cafe was already busy. It only got busier. By the time we left, there wasn’t a seat left.

Our waitress arrived fairly quickly to take our orders and we had our salads within 10 minutes of sitting down.

A salad plate with lettuce, red onion, cucumber, two cherry tomatoes and a disposable cup of ranch dressing from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

The salads are simple with lettuce, some tomatoes, a slice of cucumber and red onion that was sliced paper thin. It wasn’t anything special, but it served its purpose.

We had a much longer wait after the salads. Twenty minutes went past and instead of food being delivered to our table, we received a basket of garlic bread that we assume was meant to be delivered with the salad, if not before. “I think this is for your table,” I heard our waitress say.

A basket of thin-sliced garlic bread from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

In the cramped confines of the Cafe, the waitresses had nowhere to hide their frustration – and sometimes, confusion. We were seated in the first row of tables, right in front of the counter and the soda fountain where drinks were refilled. I heard the waitresses trying to figure out who should take the next table that arrived. I heard confusion in the take-out area about order numbers.

It’s the type of confusion and controlled chaos that probably happens at a lot of places. But here, with no place to hide, I could see and hear it all unfolding in front of me.

The good news is that our meals were delivered right after the bread. I should also note that the garlic bread was very good. The bread was sliced thin and every piece was very buttery with just enough garlic to give it a nice flavor. I could have eaten them as a snack.

For my entree selection, I had a hard time deciding. For a small restaurant, the menu is disproportionately large. There are more than 25 options in the pasta section of the menu, and that doesn’t include another 25 or so dinners that are served with pasta on the side (not to mention the subs, burgers, pizza, salads and wraps).

A plate of tortellini topped with meat sauce, peas and mushrooms from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

Eventually I settled on the “Chef Tortellini” which had tortellini pasta with Bolognese sauce, peas and mushrooms. I always enjoy tortellini, and I’ve had it plenty of times before on the blog, but I’ve never had it with Bolognese.

I enjoyed the combination of the tortellini with the flavorful meat sauce. I thought it went very well together. The Bolognese had a nice, meaty flavor to it. But I didn’t think the mushrooms and peas added much to the overall dish. I certainly didn’t mind them being there, but neither flavor really stood out against the strong sauce.

It was also a heavy dish. I had to take half of it home with me when the meal was done.

A plate of baked ziti topped with mozzarella cheese from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

The same was true for Julie with her baked ziti. It was your typical baked ziti with a sweet marinara sauce topped with mozzarella. The addition of a little ricotta cheese gave the dish a bit of creaminess and a little different texture from other baked ziti dishes we’ve tried. It was very good, but like my own, half of it came home with us at the end of the meal.

Gino’s has a decent kids menu, mostly pasta with a few sandwiches thrown in (and pizza, of course). We ordered Jakob the kids’ ravioli. The pockets of pasta were smothered in a mound of mozzarella cheese. The full-size raviolis were good, but Jakob probably would have been happy just eating all that cheese.

A mound of mozzarella covers an order of kids lasagna at Gino's Cafe in Shillington

(At one point I gave him one of my tortellini and he kept asking for more of my food instead of eating his own).

Our final bill at the end of the night was right around $40. It’s a fair price, especially for the hearty portions. And other than the garlic bread arriving late to the party, our service was good. What I saw and heard just seemed like the staff wasn’t exactly working like a well-oiled machine, at least during our visit.

Still, we found Gino’s worth a visit. Maybe next time I’ll request a table by the window, at the far end of the dining room, away from the commotion.

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

Ginos’ Cafe
400 W. Broad St
Shillington, PA 19607

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Calabria Italian Restaurant

There’s always an anticipation around a new restaurant opening. Sometimes there’s a lot of hype; sometimes there’s only a little. But there’s always people who are anxious to try it and anxious to taste it.

When the restaurant is reopening, that anticipation is even greater. A loyal customer base is waiting to return. And the longer the wait, it seems, the larger that customer base becomes as word spreads.

Calabria Italian Restaurant built up two-and-a-half years of anticipation for its reopening.

In December 2015, a fire broke out in the restaurant. It seemed like a small fire and that clean up and repairs wouldn’t take too long.

But days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and months turned to years. Instead of repairing the building, it had to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch. Driving between Wernersville and Robesonia on Route 422, we could watch the painfully slow progress that was being made.

In late April of this year, we drove past and for the first time in 29 months, the parking lot was filled with customers and not construction equipment. Calabria was back.

 

Fast forward to June, and we paid our first ever visit to Calabria. Despite growing up in Robesonia, I had never stepped foot in the old Calabria. I remember the building looking more like a dive, but the rebuilt restaurant is a thing of beauty. The outside is clean and modern with large curved windows and a hint of Old World in the brick facade.

Inside, the bar and dining area are much nicer than I would have imagined. The black tablecloths with white disposable covers make it feel like a premium dining experience. While the blue uplighting at the ceiling and around the bar make it feel cool.

Julie, Jakob and I were joined by our friends Matt and Tori. Matt is a lifetime resident of Wernersville, and like me, had never eaten at the old Calabria.

It was a Wednesday evening, and the parking lot was packed. We didn’t have reservations, but we only had to wait a minute or two for a table to be cleared before we were seated.

Our meals started with a basket of garlic bread, complimentary with the purchase of an entree. The bread was sliced small so the slices were easily snackable. Though not toasted to a total crisp, there was plenty of garlic and butter flavor throughout. We ate through them quickly and almost finished the entire second basket that came during our dinner.

Entrees were also served with a simple house salad or Caesar. The house salad came with mixed greens, two large slices of tomato and cucumber – the usual. It was topped with shredded mozzarella, a nice touch, and served with your choice of dressing. There were no complaints at all from the table about the salads.

Our entrees arrived relatively quickly. Each of us ordered a different Italian pasta dinner. For me, it was the tortellini in vodka sauce.

Vodka sauce (a creamy tomato sauce infused with vodka) is not something that I normally order when I dine out, but it caught my eye and I had to give it a try.

It was a good dish. The tortellini (I choose meat instead of cheese) was small so it looked like I ate more than I actually did. The sauce was good and very creamy. There wasn’t a lot of herbiness to it, but it was still a good dish, overall.

Julie ordered her favorite Italian meal: baked ziti. This was different than most versions of the dish that she has tried. Normally, it’s a lot of the traditional red sauce with cheese on top. This version was cheesier with a mix of red sauce and ricotta that gave it a different texture and a slightly different flavor.

It was a good change of pace, something that definitely stood out. She wouldn’t call it her favorite version, but it was good.

Matt’s manicotti was loaded with both ricotta and red sauce. The oversized stuffed pasta was a hit. I got to try a bite. I thought the red sauce was good, nothing outstanding, but the dish overall was good.

Tori also enjoyed her chicken Parmesan. There was more than enough chicken – plenty of it went home – and the rest of the plate was filled with pasta. As far as our party was concerned, we had four meals, and four winners.

For Julie and I, our total bill came to about $35, average for what a similar meal would cost at Italian restaurants across Berks County.

I have to say, Calabria made a great first impression on us. The food was very good. The service was great. And the building, itself, just seemed to enhance the experience.

And judging by the parking lot every time we drive past, it’s made a good impression on a lot of others, too.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Great
Ambiance: Great
Value: Reasonable

Calabria Italian Restaurant
6646 Penn Ave
Wernersville, PA 19565

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Tosco Pizza & Italian Restaurant

tosco-sign

When you see an Italian restaurant in a strip mall, it’s easy to dismiss it as just another pizza shop.

We have been conditioned to believe that sit down restaurants are found in stand-alone buildings while strip malls are nothing more than take-out counters, a place to grab dinner on the way home, not to pull up a chair and enjoy a nice meal.

But if you discount these restaurants all together, you are missing out.

When Tosco Pizza & Italian Restaurant opened up between Robesonia and Wernersville (it has a Wernersville address, but is barely outside the Robesonia borough limits), it looked to be just another pizza shop.

Prior to Tosco’s arrival in 2011, the space housed a Chinese restaurant, and before that, a sandwich shop. Both were standard, non-descript restaurants offering nothing but counter service.

tosco-interior

Tosco took a different approach. Renting out the adjacent space, the restaurant created a connected dining room.  Paintings of the Italian coast adorn the walls above the wooden booths. It’s a rustic feel throughout, except for out-of-place flat screen TV on the back wall.

In addition to pizza, the menu includes a wide range of pastas as well as wings, cheesesteaks, hot and cold sandwiches, burgers and an entire line-up of sandwiches served atop garlic bread.

tosco-garlic-knots

While garlic bread is reserved for sandwiches, each meal is served with a basket of fresh-baked garlic knots. These little beauties are exactly what they sound like: knots of dough that are slathered in butter and minced garlic. If only they were served with a side of marinara, I could make these delicious bites into a meal.

Catching my eye on the way in was the daily special, written on a chalkboard at the entrance to the dining room.

tosco-tri-color-tortellini

The tri-color cheese tortellini was tossed with chicken and rapini in a creamy tomato sauce. I tried to get a little bit of everything, but there wasn’t room on the fork for much more than the little pasta pockets. Still, the tortellini were small enough that the cheese filling did not overpower the pasta. As I dug in to the seemingly endless bowl, each bite was better than the last as the tortellini soaked up the rich flavors of the sauce.

Along with the garlic knots, each meal also comes with a starter salad. With as large as the bowl of pasta was, I almost wish they would skip the salad because the last thing I needed was something to fill up on before my tortellini arrived.

But if you are craving salad for dinner, Tosco’s specialty salads are perfectly sized for a hearty meal.

In the mood for something  “healthy,” Julie opted for a cheesesteak salad, one of nearly 20 salad options on the menu.

tosco-cheesesteak-salad

The base salad was similar to mine, a bed of lettuce topped with shredded carrots and ribbons of onions. The difference is the pile of shredded beef and melted American cheese on top, which turned this from an oversized appetizer into a legitimate main course.

With large menus comes a wide range of prices. Our meal came in around $25, but you can easily spend less if you are willing to split a large sandwich, or a little more if you are looking only at entrees.

If you were driving past Tosco, you probably wouldn’t even guess that entrees were an option. From the outside, it looks like a typical pizza and sandwich shop.

But looks can be deceiving. A strip mall is an unlikely place for a real Italian restaurant, but sometimes you find great things in unexpected places.

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

Tosco Pizza & Italian Restaurant
6889 Penn Ave
Wernersville, PA 19565

Tosco Pizza on Urbanspoon

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

3rd and Spruce Cafe

3rd-And-Spruce-West-Reading

The 3rd and Spruce Cafe doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s easy to miss the small sign hanging along 3rd Avenue. Only the sidewalk seating hints at what lies inside the utilitarian-looking building on the corner.

But hungry patrons have been finding the Cafe for seven decades since it opened on a corner in the middle of a West Reading residential neighborhood.

Though the restaurant may be old, its owners keep it feeling fresh. The deep red walls are complemented by the red cushions on the stainless steel chairs. Flat screen TVs fill the spaces that aren’t lit by the large picture windows.

Third and Spruce packs a lot of seating into a small area. A large number of high-top tables surround the bar and a second floor loft waits for overflow traffic when it’s not booked for private events.

The menu is mostly suited toward lunch and light fare, with sandwiches and salads dominating the menu. Dinner entrees, which are available only after 4 p.m., may be limited, but they are all quality. Three different cuts of steak and a variety of seafood and chicken dishes make up the single page of entrees.

Vegetable-Pot-Stickers-3rd-And-Spruce

We started our meal with an order of vegetable pot-stickers, the day’s appetizer special. These bite-sized dumplings packed quite a punch, especially when dipped in the sweet chili dipping sauce. As good as the crispy, golden dumplings were, the sauce made them that much better, first acting as a sweet glaze, then coming back with some heat afterward.

Pasta-Primavera-3rd-And-Spruce

For my dinner, I decided to go with the Pasta Primavera, garden vegetables and linguini tossed in pesto sauce. The bright green snap peas and broccoli were cooked to a perfect al dente.

Pesto is one of my favorite sauces, and this did not disappoint. Thick and creamy, the pesto clung to the vegetables and pasta, ensuring a flavorful bite every time.

Southwest-Chicken-and-Tortellini-3rd-And-Spruce

As good as my dinner was, I was envious of the plate across from me. My wife’s southwest chicken and tortellini looked amazing, and it was.

The cheese tortellini were tossed with black beans, corn and chunks of white meat chicken in a cheddar cream sauce. The sauce, like the pesto, was thick and creamy, and though you could taste the cheddar, it was not overly cheesy, and instead held a nice balance of flavors.

Pecan-Pie-3rd-And-Spruce

I felt so good about my healthy entree choices that I decided to ruin it by getting dessert, a slice of chocolate bourbon pecan pie. As if a slice of pecan pie was not delicious enough, 3rd and Spruce’s version featured a brownie baked on top. It was then served with cinnamon ice cream, two dollops of whipped cream, sprinkled with brown sugar and drizzled with chocolate syrup. It was every bit as good as it looks and sounds.

Our delicious three-course meal cost about $35. Entrees range from $10-20, with burgers and sandwiches running a little less. The menu also includes fresh dough pizza and a five-item kids menu.

Though the exterior may be drab, what’s happening inside the 3rd and Spruce Cafe is anything but. It’s a chic neighborhood bar serving some fine original foods.

And thanks to the name, it’s really easy to find.

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

3rd and Spruce Cafe
238 S. Third Ave
West Reading, PA 19611

Dessert Finer Dining Lunch & Dinner Reviews