Longtime Phantom readers know that part of this column's ongoing search for quality eats includes the constant hope that a great Italian restaurant with reasonable prices, atmosphere and reliable excellence will open somewhere between South Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
That search recently took me to downtown York for a visit to longtime local staple, Sam & Tony's on West Market Street, not too far from the town square.
I can tell you a few things right off the bat.
For being located not too far from the York town square (and by that I do not mean the York Daily Record's blog the "Town Square," I mean the intersection of George and Market streets), Sam & Tony's can seem a tad isolated on a week night. On the other hand, there's plenty of street parking, including right in front of the place.
Once inside, there's a comfy feel that includes nice tables and bentwood chairs, carpeting, a glass storefront with tables by the windows and a large wall fresco or mural of a lovely Italian countryside scene.
This is not a stuffy or dressy place but it's also not checkered tablecloths and candled wine bottles with melted wax dripping down the sides. (Think working class Italian more than romantic, stereotypical Italian.) There's a full bar, though nothing in sight suggests that, and I was surprised frankly by the size and quality of an ordered cocktail and, more importantly, the size of the pours of very reasonable $6 glasses of wine with dinner. Sam & Tony evidently know how to party.
The menu, in places, is an amalgam of I'm not quite sure what.
There are classic Italian appetizers such as bruschetta, mussels and fried calamari (somebody please offer a grilled version!). But then there are items such as "tuna taco" or escargot, neither exactly favorites in Umbria.
Having said that, I had an order of six minicrab cakes served with a chipotle pepper mayo ($9) that was delicious and large enough to share.
Appetizers run from $3 for garlic bread to $12 for mussels steamed in Lancaster Stout with chicken broth, cream and mustard. No wedding soup, I guess.
The full menu actually made me nervous. Tons of items for a not-very-large place and, judging from my weeknight visit, not a place over-run with everyday crowds.
But when the bread arrived with roasted garlic and a black olive tapenade, my nerves were at once settled. The bread, the garlic and the paste were excellent. And maybe when places have been around a while — Sam & Tony's says it's been at it for 21 years, menus pick up items that stick.
So there's a menu section called "Members of the Family" with dishes clearly named for relatives of Sam and/or Tony: "Chicken Rosario" is a breast with sweet Italian sausage and roasted red peppers served over pasta ($17); "Veal Samantha" is a sautéed cutlet with crab and provolone cheese served over pasta ($24).
You get the idea.
Seafood entrees include cioppino (shrimp, mussels, scallops, chopped clams in broth) with pasta ($28); shrimp or scallop scampi over pasta ($20); and a seared tuna steak prepared with pesto sauce ($20).
There's eggplant, veal, chicken or shrimp parmesan ($14 to $20), lots of veal and chicken dishes, a New York strip steak and baked entrees such as lasagna and ravioli. There are maybe eight sauces to put on different types of pasta and add-ons such as sausage, homemade meatballs, shrimp and veggies. The menu also says the kitchen will do special orders.
Two things were disappointing: the salad (usually an Italian point of pride) was skimpy and not great; the homemade meatballs ordered by my dining partner to go with some fettuccine were, sadly, close to tasteless.
Two things impressed me. My dining partner couldn't decide on marinara or diablo sauce. Our server brought both. I ordered a featured dish, meat tortellini with marinara, baked with mozzarella, and it was very good. Very good.
Servings (in large white pasta bowls) are generous, service is extremely accommodating and prices are reasonable: $14 for the featured pasta entree and just $12 for the fettuccine with meatballs.
Be careful, though, of unseen desserts. I ordered something that sounded yummy, cannolli bites with caramel, for just $5. Turns out they were very deep fried and way too sweet. And the espresso was suspect. It came too fast and with no crema.
Now I suspect I didn't experience Sam & Tony's on its best night or even one of its better nights. Nobody stays in the restaurant business for two decades without doing an awful lot of things right most of the time.
But — and with no disrespect to Sam or Tony or "members of the family" — this Phantom's search for a great Italian restaurant with reasonable prices, atmosphere and reliable excellence located somewhere between South Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, unfortunately, goes on.
SAM & TONY'S
243 W. Market St., York; 717.852.0059;www.samandtonys.com
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m Monday-Friday; Dinner, 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Street parking; Full bar; Large menu; Reservations accepted.
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