Want really good Italian? Want fresh, simple, authentic Italian? Want to dine somewhere that when you're there, you're family? It's not where they say it is on TV, it's actually just across the road from all those chains. That's right, it's Pallotta's. Pallotta's (pronounced Pah-low-tahs) Italian Grill has been a mainstay in the Wood Ridge Shopping Center in Oak Ridge North for the past 14 years. We were recently invited to come by and sample their innovative new Lighter Fare – Weight Watcher's Friendly menu and find out how this mainstay can both stay cutting edge, and cater to the long-time followers.First, a little history lesson: Well-known restaurateur George Pallotta opened Pallotta's Italian Grill in 1994. Many of the dishes on the menu are lovingly named after his children, as well as some of those long-time weekly diners.
Riding the success of the Italian eatery, Mr. Pallotta branched out and opened the Black Walnut Café's; themselves successful in their own right. Looking to the next big adventure, he sold Black Walnut Café to Hubbell & Hudson and invested with a new partner to create Pallotta's Mexican Grill in Imperial Oaks in Spring. As for the place that started it all, the transition there was an easy one; about two years ago he sold Pallotta's Italian Grill to then-manager Phil Nicosia, who has been at the restaurant for eleven years now.
Phil, a gregarious Italian man who can routinely be seen throughout the restaurant, is happy to stop by and share a good story or a glass of wine with you, when he's not overseeing the kitchen or helping the servers or bussers. In a word? He's hands-on.
We arrived a little after six o'clock on Tuesday and the restaurant was already abuzz with diners. The hostess, who greeted us by opening the door before we even got to it, cheerfully led us through the softly-lit dining room to a table behind a curiously large stock pot. More on that pot later… Our server, Greg, was at our table within a minute of our arrival, took our drink orders and recommended the garlic bread. Hot, crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside complimentary sourdough rolls are always offered, but we opted for the garlic bread. A few minutes later, a generous portion of garlic bread arrived, served with a side of Top Tomato Sauce ribboned with Pavia Sauce. After giving us an appropriate amount of time to decide, we ordered Chicken Parmesan and Pasta fra Diavlo with Chicken; both from the Lighter Fare menu. Our salads were brought out only minutes later, and yes, a house salad is a house salad just about everywhere you go… unless you go to Pallotta's. This lighter house salad had the freshest, crispest greens, not a brown spec to be found, and just the right amount of fat free Italian dressing that had that little extra kick to it. It couldn't have seemed fresher had we gone to market and cut up the veggies ourselves. While we waited for our meals to arrive, we learned a little more about that giant stock pot.
It seems that when George first opened the restaurant, he caught his youngest daughter, Alexa (who's name is all over the menu) in a picture-perfect moment inside the pot, beautiful little grin and all. The image hung just inside the restaurant entrance until Phil took over. But in a loving tribute to tradition, Phil recreated the moment with his little one, and her image now hangs on the wall… proving that the really do put "a little Italian" into everything! One of the great things about Pallotta's Lighter Fare menu is the careful calculation of Weight Watchers™ points that have been helpfully added to the menu. The other great thing about it is of course, that this lighter fare doesn't come at any sacrifice to the flavor. The Chicken Parmesan has been baked instead of flash-fried, and the serving is one breast portion as opposed to two. Additionally, the dish is served on a bed of whole wheat pasta. There are many things about this that make it a great idea. First, the baked chicken is still hand-breaded in a unique blend of breadcrumbs and Italian seasoning, and by baking the chicken, there's (we felt) less loss of breading, leaving a better amount actually on the chicken. The dish is of course still served with the signature Top Tomato Sauce as well as melted mozzarella. The accompaniment is a modest portion of beautiful steamed vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and zucchini. As for the single breast vs. two? How are you supposed to leave room for dessert if you eat two?
The Skinny Pasta fra Diavlo was a generous portion of wheat spaghettini blended with a "devilishly" hot, but not overwhelming, Spicy Top Tomato Sauce that featured nice large chunks of fresh tomatoes and just the right amount of crushed red pepper. The chicken was grilled, as in actually grilled and there were lines to prove it, yet tender and juicy and without those annoying random gristly bits one seems to always get in other restaurants. Even with the smaller portion, there was still enough left over to take home. But only because we really did want to save room for dessert. Yes, of course, getting a dessert was going to destroy all good intentions that come with eating off the Lighter Fare menu. But there's something you should know about the desserts there at Pallotta's – they are, absolutely, to die for. In full disclosure, two of the cakes are not made in house, the Triple Layer Carrot Cake and the chocolate cake. Don't let that stop you from trying them. These two are carefully hand-crafted and delivered from a local bakery, Celebrations & Sweet Creations. And because they meet (or quite possibly exceed) Phil's exacting standards of excellence, they are quite worthy of their place on the menu. We tried the carrot cake and were blown away at how perfect it was; walnut-ty, just the right amount of cream cheese frosting, and perfectly moist. But if you want to stick with ONLY selections that are made in house, there are a multitude to choose from including Cheesecakes, Crème Brule and Phil's own creation, the Raspberry Tiramisu; a dessert created for the joyful occasion of Phil's proposal to his wife. And of course, no one will blame you if you pass on all of these and select Dominic's Mud. Dominic's Mud requires it's own paragraph (and possibly it's own write-up!). It is their Pride and Joy. Greg recommended it. Phil sang its praises. And people come from miles around just to skip dinner and go straight to it. This incredible, frozen creation takes a team of cooks three hours to put together the nine-plus ingredients that come from four different suppliers. There's Butterfinger™ bars, there's mocha-almond-fudge ice cream, there's peanut butter, there's hot fudge, and there is so much absolute chocolate bliss in this thing that you'd best be prepared to fight to the end as to who will get the last bite. Because you have to share it… don't you? Sure, it's big enough to share, but, well… let's just say we warned you.
Frankly, we can't wait to go back. We were assured that everything on the menu is as good as what we selected, and we don't doubt it. Be sure to ask about "off-menu" specialty dishes as well. Pallotta's has a fine selection of wines and a full-service bar. The dishes are moderately priced and generously portioned. Currently, a $5 gift certificate can be found on our Exclusive Offers page, and is valid seven days a week, so what are you waiting for? Pallotta's Italian Grill is located in the Wood Ridge Plaza, directly across from The Woodlands Mall on the north-bound feeder of I-45. Their hours are Monday – Saturday, 10:57 AM to 10:03 PM, and Sunday, 10:57 AM to 9:03 PM. For more information, call 281 364-9555 or visit the Pallotta's Italian Restaurant website.
Think we got it wrong? Or did we hit the nail on the head? Let us know in the comments below. And remember, you don't have to take our word for it - give them a try for yourself and decide! Maybe we will see you there as we plan to return for more.
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