Phantom fans (or at least readers) know the Phantom is not amused by or drawn to restaurants located in strip malls, shopping plazas or close to gas stations. I’m in the camp of those who believe location, décor and ambiance contribute to dining pleasure or disappointment. But I’m also in the camp of those who value good food above other considerations.
So I forgive Piazza Sorrento its Derry Twp. location near a gas station in a shopping area. You will, too, once you leave the fume-filled, little parking lot and enter Sorrento’s for its self-proclaimed “little taste of Italy.”
Inside, it’s like a tidy neighborhood spot. There’s a front-room bar, a side dining room with tables and booths, and another side room that appears to be for overflow or private functions. As is often the case in neighborhood spots, the lighting is low, the noise level high and the piped-in music a tad odd: Louis Armstrong, for example, and what sounded like the soundtrack from the 1954 film “Young at Heart.” (And, yes, I know Sinatra was in the movie and sang the song, and one can argue what better music for an Italian joint than Sinatra. But I contend just the music without lyrics and without Sinatra’s voice is a stretch.)
But I digress.
Sorrento’s dinner menu is large. The best thing on it is this: “We don’t serve any food that has been frozen.” Even better, the bread, sauce, meatballs and some of the pasta is made in-house. Cocktails are small, but wine pours are large. The service is excellent: friendly, attentive and very knowledgeable. The manager stopped by each table to check on diners — a nice touch. I quickly realized why I needed a reservation on a weeknight.
To the food.
Many “starters” come in small sizes for one or full sizes to share. They include homemade bruschetta, calamari, rolled eggplant, garlic shrimp and asparagus wrapped with prosciutto. There are steamed clams, bacon-wrapped scallops, an antipasto platter and more. Prices are $4 to $5 for small plates, $9 to $11 for full plates.
My dining partner and I shared a “starter” of homemade meatballs in marinara sauce with thick slices of warm garlic bread ($6). Three excellent meatballs were easily enough. The bread was great. The dish is a house specialty well worth trying. There’s a soup of the day (cup or bowl; I had a cup of pasta fagiole that was very good) and plenty of large salads, including a caprese with house-made mozzarella ($8), and a lovely arugula, pear and pecorino (Italian sheep’s milk cheese) salad with a honey cider dressing (also $8). These, too, are nice to share.
I should mention entrées come with a house salad or a cup of soup and wonderful house-made bread served with both olive oil and butter.
There are a variety of 10-inch dinner pizzas with lots of add-ons, including everything from ground beef to pineapple to broccoli. But I’ll note two house specialties: Old World with three cheeses, oregano and sauce ($9), and Buffalo Chicken pizza with grilled chicken, hot sauce, mozzarella and ranch dressing ($13). Sorrento’s started long ago as a pizzeria in Hershey and you can still get a 16-inch pizza to go. It’s been a restaurant at its present locale for three years.
As to the main entrées, did I mention the menu is large? There are 30-plus offerings: pasta, veal, chicken, seafood, steak — you name it, and many are available in half orders. Prices range from $10 for a half order of cheese ravioli to $22 for veal marsala over risotto. Given the quality of this food, these are extremely reasonable prices.
Pasta dishes include grilled gnocchi with sausage, onions, peas, spinach and cream; pappardelle with meat sauce; penne with sausage and peppers; and an Italian sampler of lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo and chicken Parmesan. There are also specials. And the pasta made for the specials is fresh, house-made pasta. And you can order the house-made pasta as part of any other entrée for a modest ($2 to $3) surcharge. So, for example, my potato and ricotta gnocchi with Bolognese sauce ($16) was up-priced to ($18) because gnocchi was one of the house-made pastas the night of my visit; same for my dining partner who had fresh fettuccine with Bolognese.
Two observations: the fresh pasta is lovely, light as a feather, worth the extra couple bucks; the Bolognese is good, just not as flavorful or complex as it could be. I like the food here, and I like the service. We ended our meal with espresso and a shared slice of homemade ricotta cheesecake with a little chocolate sauce on the side. When you go to Sorrento’s, trust me, you should try it.
16 Briarcrest Square, Derry Twp.; 717.835.1919; www.piazzasorrento.com.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday;11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday.
A gluten-free menu is available.
The Phantom Diner has been a longtime restaurant reviewer for Central PA Magazine.
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