Review – Mario’s Pizza and Grill

We’ve added a new restaurant to our regular weekly list in the last couple of months – Mario’s. I can’t recall exactly why we tried Mario’s for the first time, but it was likely because it is near our church in Farragut and we were looking for something new. The pizza and spaghetti were good enough on our first visit that we happily tried it again, and we’ve been going every week since.

Basics Covered – Good Pizza

It may be hard to believe, but some pizza joints do really well at other types of food but not pizza. Mario’s isn’t that type of pizza joint. We made the mistake of ordering the Super Mario pizza the first time (like any self-respecting geek could avoid trying it) – and we barely made a dent in it’s gigantic 20 inches. But what we did manage to eat of this enormous pepperoni and sausage pizza was excellent. If we were better about heating up leftovers, we would have had a full second meal just from the pizza alone.

On most visits to Mario’s, we get the Large 14” pizza. We’ve tried many toppings including meatball, bacon, green pepper, and onion. I’m partial to the meatball, especially since it seems like they just slice up the meatballs used in the spaghetti and meatballs. This picture shows one of our regular combos – bacon and pepperoni.

Supporting Cast – Pasta

We’ve ordered several of the pasta dishes at Mario’s and liked almost all of them. That first night I ordered the spaghetti and meatballs and it was phenomenal, especially for the price. I’m not even a huge fan of spaghetti, but I’d be happy to eat this by itself as a meal.

The meat lasagna is quite good as well. As is the case with most of the pastas, I’d be happy to order this at another restaurant, but during most visits I’m in the mood for pizza, so pizza is what I order.

My wife loves chicken parmesan, so she tried that once. I didn’t try it because I don’t care for it, but she assured me it tastes much better than this picture might suggest. She and I are in agreement on what we prefer to order most of the time at Mario’s – pizza – but it isn’t because we don’t like the pasta.

The fettucini alfredo is the only pasta I’ve had at Mario’s that I wouldn’t eat again, but it isn’t because the pasta itself wasn’t good or that the sauce wasn’t a good representation of that kind of alfredo sauce. I’m just not a fan of thick, creamy alfredo, but instead prefer it much lighter – just butter and parmesan would do me fine.

Mario’s serves an appetizer of fried ravioli. I believe we ordered this one night when we weren’t sure about what else we might want, and while it is pretty good, if I were in the mood for an appetizer again, I’d probably go for the cheesy bread, which is outstanding, especially when used to dip Mario’s excellent marinara sauce.

A Sweet End

The desserts as Mario’s are outstanding. On that first visit we ordered the cinnamon pizza. It was very good, and we’d get it more often if not for another dessert that’s less work to eat.

So what’s less work than spreading icing on top of cinnamon pizza? Dipping beignets into chocolate sauce. These little fried balls of joy come out piping hot, covered in powdered sugar, and are delicious with or without the hot chocolate sauce. It’s a good thing these come in a baker’s dozen because that gives us plenty enough to avoid fights at the table.

Why We Keep Coming Back

So you may be asking – has Mario’s earned a regular spot in our dinner rotation simply because the pizza and the rest are very good? Not really. Don’t misunderstand – we wouldn’t keep coming back if the food weren’t also very good. Much like another Knoxville pizza joint, what brings us back to Mario’s is the service. One of the owners, a nice lady, is always happy to see us and pays special attention to our son, who is now three. I recall my mom telling me that when I was still a baby, my dad would tip servers based on how much they made over me. I don’t go that far, but I’ll be honest – making this dad feel like you’re happy my cute little boy is eating at your restaurant is an easy way to push me from just liking to eat at your place to loving it.

One of my friends and her family were visiting from out of town recently and she sent me a message asking me for a quick dinner recommendation for the Turkey Creek area. I pointed her to Mario’s and she let me know they loved it. If you’re in West Knoxville and you’re looking for good pizza and great service, give Mario’s a shot – you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Mario's Pizza & Grill on Urbanspoon

Posted in Eating Out, Knoxville, Review

Quick Takes I

Blackhorse Pub & Brewery

We had dinner at Blackhorse on a Friday night recently and one of the specials was a Mahi Mahi dish served over pasta. The cream sauce was good, the pasta was plain but well-cooked, and the fish itself was light and flaky. I’d order it again.


Burger Republic

I visited Franklin, TN on business and, after a truly terrible meal at a local barbecue place that I will review when I get some emotional distance from the experience, my coworker and I decided to find some good dessert. I flicked through some options on Urbanspoon and selected Burger Republic after reading some reviews of its milkshakes. I’m glad we stopped there because the Nutella shake was outstanding, even if it was just vanilla ice cream, nutella, and chocolate sauce. Looking forward to returning to Tator Tot Fondue.


Chick-fil-A

On that same business trip we stopped at Chick-fil-A for breakfast on the way back home. I was finally able to try something several people had recommended – the Chick-n-Minis. These were nothing short of delightful – a chicken nugget inside a piping hot roll. I’ll admit to having two orders of 4.

Posted in Eating Out, Quick Takes

A Tale of Two Receipts

It was the best of dining experiences, it was the worst of dining experiences. Ok, it wasn’t the worst, but it was quite disappointing.  

Tomato Head

We recently had dinner at Tomato Head in Bearden. We like Tomato Head, but hadn’t eaten there in a while. I’ve always considered Tomato Head to be a nice, if slightly expensive, place where I can get a good meal made with good ingredients. After seeing the new menu and paying too much money for too little food, I have to remove the word “slightly” from my previous characterization. I regret not taking any pictures of our dishes during this visit, but I’ll try to describe what we were served in words.  First, here’s the receipt for our meal:


Our total was $38.24. That’s a bit more than we normally pay for a regular dinner, but it was especially surprising given the tiny portions of our adult meals. That’s the real problem I have with Tomato Head here – it seems like they’ve not only raised their prices, they decreased the quantity of food as well.

We had no issue with the meal we order for our son, the Simon Plate. At $5.50, it may be more expensive than kids meals elsewhere, especially given that it doesn’t include a drink, but he loves  it – especially when my wife combines the penne pasta and broccoli to make “pasta trees.”

My wife’s dish was $11.25, and that included a Small Sandwich Special and a Side Salad substituted for the normal side – chips and salsa. To get an idea of how small this sandwich was, picture a slice of Wonder Bread, and mentally trim a quarter inch from it all the way around. Now cut that slice in half diagonally. That single slice of bread is what was used to make my wife’s sandwich, with maybe half an inch worth of meat or whatever came on the salad in between. My wife said the sandwich was good, but if she’d known by “small” Tomato Head really meant a “half” sandwich, she would have ordered the “large” and presumably gotten a full sandwich.  Her side salad was similarly tiny – maybe a half cup worth.

I ordered the Chicken Burrito, and I’ll admit, it tasted great – as it should have for $13.25. But it was also tiny. I’m not a burrito connoisseur by any means, but I am sometimes cajoled into eating at a Moe’s or Chipotle for lunch. What I can tell you is that the burrito I was served for $13.25 at Tomato Head was roughly half the size of what I am served at Chipotle, for roughly twice the price. Was the Tomato Head burrito better than a Moe’s burrito? Absolutely. Was it better than a Chipotle burrito? Not really, especially considering I paid twice as much for less food.

A key takeaway from this experience was that my wife and I left hungry – to the point that we took our son for some ice cream elsewhere.

Blackhorse

I’m going to contrast our experience at Tomato Head with one the very next night at Blackhorse Pub & Brewery.  Blackhorse is one of our favorite places to eat, and it is our regular Friday night spot for dinner. Here’s our receipt for that meal:

The total alone might not suggest that big a difference – $36.03 versus the previous night’s $38.24. But let me explain what we got for our 36 dollars. First, though, understand we didn’t intend for this to be a comparison when we ordered – we just ate whatever sounded good.

Our son’s meal was a little cheaper, but it was also just a couple of sliders and a bowl of fruit. Not as healthy or varied as the Simon Plate, maybe, but he’s a toddler – we’re happy when he eats.

We ordered two appetizers that night. I arrived early, so I ordered a side of the Sweet Potato Fries. They’re awesome and for $2.95, probably the best appetizer you can get in Knoxville for the money. When my wife and son arrived, we agreed we’d like some of the Chips & Beer Cheese. A bit more expensive at $7.75, but Blackhorse’s beer cheese is amazing and the chips are warm and tasty.

I can’t pass up the soup of the day at Blackhorse on Friday, so I ordered a bowl of their Cheeseburger soup, which cost me $4.50. There are nights when I eat nothing but this soup and some sweet potato fries.

My wife and I decided to share a meal that night, so we ordered the Pub Club sandwich. It cost  $8.95 and came with a side item, so I ordered Mac & Cheese. We couldn’t even finish all the sandwich, although I made a sizeable dent in the mac & cheese. The Pub Club is a double-decker sandwich, and I’d say it was roughly four times the size of the tiny sandwich at Tomato Head, and that’s not counting the extra slice of bread.

A key takeaway from our Blackhorse experience is that we left more than satisfied and couldn’t have eaten ice cream after if we’d tried.

So What?

Good question. Am I saying Tomato Head is a terrible place? Heck no – I like their food. They make some amazing cupcakes that I really shouldn’t eat again and their Warm Bacon Salad is outstanding. But at some point in the not too distant past, they crossed into “just not worth it” territory. We eat out a lot, and with our son getting bigger and eating more, I can’t justify paying too much money for too little food. So Tomato Head is no longer on our list for eating out.

Posted in Knoxville, Quick Takes

Shaking up the format

Site Business

It’s been a cold and busy Winter so far, and I’ve let far too many posts pile up in my queue without giving GFC the attention it deserves. In an effort to remedy that, I’m giving myself permission to be more flexible with my posts here. Starting now, I’m going to separate my posts into at least 3 categories:

First Impressions

A quick post after an initial visit or two at a restaurant new to me.  These will be shorter than my usual reviews, although I’m not going to limit myself to a specific word count.

Review

Once I’ve visited a restaurant a few times, I feel comfortable writing a full review of it. These posts will take the place of what I’ve been calling Quick Reviews, because the truth is I almost never followed through on the “quick” aspect of a Quick Review anyway. These will be longer than First Impressions.

Quick Takes

Anything goes. I may mention a single dish I had at a favorite spot I’ve reviewed and even re-visited on the blog. I may discuss a new brand or flavor of cider I’ve tried. I will likely group more than one of these together and post them in a single entry. I’ll admit I’m going to queue up some of these and use them during weeks when I simply may not have a new restaurant about which to write.

A Final Note for Restaurant Owners/Managers

I’m being contacted more frequently by folks who would like me to visit and review their place. That’s cool, and I’ve worked with one that I’ve published so far and have another few in the works. My reviews aren’t for sale, but my family likes to eat out, so I’m not opposed to using a gift card to pay for a meal as long as I disclose it and the restaurant understands I’m going to be honest about my experience – good or bad.

Posted in Site Business

Quick Review: Forte’s on the Square

On the way back from enjoying Thanksgiving with my family in Nashville, my wife asked me if I wanted to stop for dinner in Crossville. We’d never eaten dinner in Crossville, and based on having lunch there during a couple of work visits, I wasn’t hopeful, and said so. Still, I pulled out my iPhone and checked TripAdvisor to see what the top-rated restaurants in Crossville were, and had my lack of hope confirmed when Cracker Barrel was listed as #1. Still, I saw what looked like a purely local place, Forte’s on the Square, listed as #2, so we decided to give it a shot. After a false start caused by our car’s clock being on Eastern Time but Crossville being on Central which left us sitting in our car for 15 minutes, we walked inside and were seated.

Our server made a great impression right off the bat. We sometimes let our son watch a movie on his iPad when we eat out – and I know, that makes us terrible parents. She glanced at the iPad as she walked up and declared in an excited voice, “Oh! Planes Fire & Rescue! I haven’t seen that but I really want to!” That made our son smile and us along with him.

I rarely mention the bread a restaurant serves in one of my reviews, and mostly that’s because the bread is usually just there as filler and not worthy of comment. The bread at Forte’s was anything but unworthy. It was light, flavorful, and so good that I almost asked for a second loaf. The butter was outstanding as well.

fortes_bread

fortes_kids_macFor our son we ordered one of his staples, Mac & Cheese. This was the best kids mac & cheese I’ve ever seen, and some of the best mac & cheese I’ve ever had. As we ordered his meal first and it came out a few minutes before our dishes, I’m not ashamed to admit that I sat there waiting for him to look away and transferred a few bites at a time over to my bread plate. In fact, the main reason I almost ordered more bread was because the cheese was so outstanding that it made a perfect dip for the bread. I’d love to see that as an appetizer next time we stop there – two loaves of bread and a small cup of the cheese for dipping.

My wife ordered one of her staples, Chicken Parmesan. She let me have a bite of it and I thought it was fairly good, but chicken parmesan isn’t one of my favorite dishes. She really liked it, and shared a few bites of it with our son, along with some of the broccoli.

fortes_chicken

fortes_chopsI was torn as to what to order, and again our server impressed us. I told her I couldn’t decide between the Chicken Alfredo or the Pork Chops. She said that both were excellent, but in her opinion, pork chops were not that common at restaurants, so she’d go with them. But she solved my dilemma by offering to substitute pasta for my baked potato, and said she would be happy to put the Alfredo sauce on it for me. I took her up on that, and in fact my wife asked to do the same substitution for her potato. The pork chops were quite good, and the honey balsamic glaze they were served with was exceptional – both simple and full of flavor.

fortes_pastaHere’s a picture of the pasta each of us received. It is no shame to say that while we liked our pasta, we both loved our son’s mac & cheese more. I would rank this Alfredo sauce better than most in Knoxville, with only Savelli’s beating it out, and not by a wide margin. Since I’d eaten a decent portion of our son’s mac & cheese and because I’d seen homemade desserts listed on the menu, I left about half of my pasta and my wife left about three quarters of hers uneaten. That I asked for a to-go box, something I almost never do, is an indication of how good the pasta and sauce were.

fortes_oreo_cheesecakeWhen our server brought out the dessert tray, which included several kinds of cheesecake, as well as a “Death by Chocolate” cake and a Coconut Cake, my wife wasn’t sure what to get. She and my son really love chocolate, so the cake was a possibility, but there was also an Oreo cheesecake, with chocolate sauce drizzled over it. Our server again helped out, offering to be generous with the chocolate sauce. My wife said the cheesecake itself was quite good, and she was glad our server added the extra chocolate, because she felt there wasn’t enough Oreo topping. She also commented that she liked the crust itself, which is unusual for her.

My choice was simpler. I would prefer plain cheesecake every time, but that wasn’t an option and I’m not fond of chocolate desserts. So I took the each option seasonal option – Pumpkin cheesecake. I can’t say the cheesecake blew me away, but it was good, and I take every opportunity I can during this time of year to eat pumpkin-based desserts, so I was happy to have it.

fortes_pumpkin_cheesecake

All in all, we were very happy with our first stop in Crossville for dinner, and we’ll be making an effort to eat at Forte’s on the Square again the next time we’re heading back to Knoxville. On that note, do keep in mind that while Forte’s is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, its website lists it as being open for dinner only on Friday and Saturday.

This is post 30 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

 

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Quick Review: Gondola House Pizzeria

We spent Thanksgiving with my family in Hermitage this year, and on Black Friday we decided to take everybody out to dinner. We tried Gondola House Pizzeria, mainly because it is the number 2 rated restaurant on TripAdvisor for the area. The place got rave reviews on both TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon, and after eating there, I know why.

We started off with an appetizer – Deep Fried Ravioli. The ravioli was very good – filled with plenty of cheese and only lightly fried. Everyone liked it, especially our son, who ate three quarters of one of the large ravioli himself.

gondola_ravioli

I ordered the Spaghetti and Meatballs with Meat Sauce. It was one of the specific dishes called out in multiple reviews, and I’m glad I tried it. I haven’t had really good spaghetti in a long time, and this was extremely good. The meatballs were awesome – huge, dense but still moist. I ate every bite of this – something I’m pretty sure contributed to some heartburn I had later on, but that’s my fault for eating so much tomato-based sauce in addition to the pizza I shared with my wife.

gondola_sp+mb

My wife and I also ordered a pizza – the Old School Gondola Special with onions, green peppers, and sausage. This was very good pizza. Maybe not the best pizza I’ve had in a while, but I’d order it again and be satisfied. The crust was thin and light, with a generous amount of mozzarella. The sausage was really good as well, and our son ate quite a bit of it from each of his mom’s slices.

gondola_pizza

Speaking of our son, we ordered him a child’s pizza with ham on it, since that’s his favorite topping. He ate three slices of it, as well as most of one of the meatball’s from my mom’s spaghetti.

gondola_kids_pizza

We ordered desserts to go – three of them. The Tiramisu was mentioned in a couple reviews, and both Butterscotch Bread Pudding and Chocolate Bread Pudding were on the special list for the night. We divided them up at my parents’ house according to individual taste. My wife liked the tiramisu and I found it to be good as far as it goes, but it’s really not my thing. Bread pudding, however, is one of my favorite desserts, so I was really looking forward to trying each of them, even though butterscotch sounded like it might not be that good. As it turns out, the butterscotch was definitely the better of the two, with the chocolate being, according to my wife, “not chocolatey enough.”

gondola_desserts

I was really happy with our meal at Gondola House. The food was great. The service was outstanding, with our server being both quick with a joke and a refill of our drinks. The other staff were friendly, thanking us as we left. I sincerely wish that Gondola House were located in Knoxville, because I can’t think of another Italian restaurant in town in that price range nearly as good on so many fronts. We’ll definitely be returning the next time we’re in the Nashville area, and I’m certain my family will try it again as well.

This is post 28 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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Quick Review: Blaze Pizza

Blaze-Press_StuffI heard about a new pizza place opening in Knoxville in an unusual way recently. I was contacted by someone at a PR firm saying she liked my blog and was contacting bloggers and other types of media to announce the grand opening of Blaze Pizza. She invited me to a “sneak peak” lunch event for members of the media a couple days before the grand opening, and said they would like it if I wrote a review of the restaurant. Since the location on North Peters Road is just a few minutes from my house, I would have eaten there soon enough and reviewed it anyway, so I let her know I’d be happy to do so. As it turned out, I was out of town on business the day of the sneak peak, so I wasn’t able to attend. We tried to swing by on opening day, but since that was “free pizza day” there was a line wrapped around the side of the building, and while I’m always up for a new dining experience, standing in a huge line with a toddler waiting for dinner isn’t my idea of fun, so we decided to come back the next night.

Blaze-StorefrontWhen I saw the location of Blaze, on the corner of North Peters and Kingston Pike, I felt a tiny twinge of worry for them. If you’re familiar with the area, you’ll know several restaurants have tried and failed in that location, including OCI West, some crappy Chinese buffet, and a place called Tradewinds. Given how that particular area has been built up recently, with the giant new Kroger Marketplace, as well as several other businesses between North Peters and Cedar Bluff on Kingston Pike, I’m thinking Blaze may have better luck than the previous occupants of this location. Given the ample parking and high visibility from Kingston Pike, it should be a good spot.

Blaze’s model is “Build Your Own Pizza” taken to an extreme. It’s like Subway or Moe’s does Pizza. Each pizza is of the 11 inch personal variety, and whether you select one of the signature pizzas or build your own, a few different Blaze employees along the pizza assembly line ask you if you’d like to customize it at each station. Once we supervised the construction of our pizzas, we were asked if each looked good, and when we gave our approval, it was whisked away to be quick fired in just 180 seconds in an oven that was over 500 degrees.

Blaze-Ham_SausageFor our son we ordered a basic pizza with ham and sausage. He ate plenty of it and I had a slice as well, and it was quite good. The crust was thin and crisp, and light enough to not be too filling.

Blaze-Meat_EaterMy wife ordered the Meat Eater. It has pepperoni, meatballs, red onions mozzarella, and red sauce. This was the undisputed favorite of the three we ordered, and I’d be happy to eat it again for lunch or dinner.

Blaze-BBQ_CHKNI ordered the BBQ CHKN (that’s the actual spelling on the menu), and it’s normally made up of grilled chicken, mozzarella, red onion, banana peppers, gorgonzola, with a bbq sauce dribble.  I actually like gorgonzola, but for some reason, when the Blaze employee confirmed that I wanted it, since it was a “blue cheese” – I hesitated, and asked him to substitute goat cheese. Even so, the pizza was good. It isn’t the type of pizza I normally order, but I knew I was going to get to sample the meat eater and the ham & sausage pizza, so I went outside more comfort zone. I’m glad I did, and I could see myself ordering this again if I’m in the mood for a less meat-heavy pizza.

Aside from the “artisanal” pizza as Blaze calls it, the rest of the dining experience is pretty close to what you’d expect at a quick service but still sit down restaurant like a Panera Bread. Self-service fountain drinks, and a shelf with shakers of parmesan cheese, crushed pepper flakes, and oregano. This location has plenty of tables, and a mixture of half-booths, tables and chairs, and high-topped tables with tall stools. We were asked by three different Blaze employees, with one of them clearly being the manager on duty or perhaps the franchise owner, how we liked the pizza. It was a nice level of customer service and solicitation for comments, and I hope it continues.

Blaze makes a good pizza for a good price. Each of our pizzas was $7.65, and our total, with soft drinks, milk,  and tax, came to just over $30. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good quick meal in West Knoxville.

I’d like to close this review with a disclosure and a teeny tiny contest which, unfortunately, since I’m doing this on the spur of the moment and I’m not experienced in such things, will be limited to folks who live in Knoxville and who are willing to either email me at mike [at] geekfoodcritic.com or leave a comment on the link to this review on Facebook. Blaze sent me two free pizza passes so I could try their pizza at no cost, but they didn’t arrive until after we’d stopped by for dinner. I’m sure nobody believes I’d sell a positive review on my blog for $7.65 x 2, but just in case I’m going to give these passes away to someone else in Knoxville who reads my blog and would like to give Blaze a try. So all you have to do to enter is email me or leave a comment on Facebook saying you’d like a chance to win the passes. You can earn an extra chance by suggesting  a restaurant that I haven’t tried and reviewed yet. I’ll review the comments and emails at noon on Friday, December 5, and assign a number each, then generate a random number within the range of the entries received to select the winner. I’ll contact the winner to get a mailing address and drop the free pizza passes in the mail the next day. Good luck!

Blaze-Free_Passes

This is post 27 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

Blaze Pizza on Urbanspoon

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