It never ceases to amaze me how many people who have lived in Phoenix for years have never seen the Grand Canyon. I have even met some natives who are in their 30s and 40s who have only been as close as Flagstaff. This boggles my mind.
Now, I will admit that it is probably because of my great love for Arizona and how trips to Monument Valley, Montezuma's Castle, the Red Rocks of Sedona and the Grand Canyon really refresh my spirit. So, I venture up to the Canyon every couple of years (with my first trip to the North Rim being this fall).
Since the Canyon is about 4 hours from Phoenix, I try to break up my trip and stay one night in Flagstaff. I like Flagstaff a lot. It is just a funky college town with a great downtown area and lots of interesting shops and coffeehouses. It also has a ton of hotels and motels to choose from along the famed Route 66.
I convinced my roommate Dave and my friend Neil to join me and we drove up this past Saturday. Leaving after lunch, we arrived in the late afternoon, checked into our hotel and walked around the city for a while until we decided to head to dinner. After some discussion, we opted to go for some good, hearty food that would ward off the chilly air and the fierce wind that was keeping our teeth chattering.
Strombolli's seemed like it would fit the bill. It was located on the west side of Flagstaff, along Milton Road, across the street from Northern Arizona University (Go Jacks!). In what used to be a Pizza Hut, Strombolli's had carved out a small, but busy restaurant. We walked in and put our name on the list. It was going to be about 15 minutes.
Dave and Neil waited in the foyer while I walked around outside enjoying the cold air because I knew by the end of March I would be complaining about how hot it was in Phoenix. About 10 minutes passed and we were called to our table which was right near the kitchen and the entry. The table was comfortable and the surroundings were nice. You could still see the Pizza Hut-esque design, but the addition of some wall art, a nice artistic fountain in the center and the open kitchen made this place its own.
We got our menus and ordered drinks. Dave got a Diet Pepsi ($1.65) while Neil and I went for the Iced Tea ($1.65 each). We reviewed the menus and I was impressed how extensive it was. Additionally, a full-page of daily specials was included in the menu as well. It would have been hard for anyone not to find something they would have liked.
First, we decided on the appetizer. Since it was three healthy, growing boys eating dinner, we decided to have the Sampler Platter ($7.95). For our entrees, I selected the "Tour of Italy" platter ($13.95). Neil went for the Chicken Parmesan ($11.45), which was his second choice since he, too, wanted to try the "Tour of Italy" but went with the Chicken Parmesan so we could have a good mix to review. (Neil is a sweet guy, but one more bad pun from him and I will not be held accountable for my actions!) Dave immediately latched onto one of the Calzones and decided to have the one with BBQ Chicken ($8.95). Each of our entrees came with a choice of salad and we all decided to have the house salad with the house dressing in the house bowl.
Neil and I also opted for a glass of wine to keep the winter chill at bay. I ordered the Chianti ($5.00) while Neil had the Coppola Rosso ($5.00)
In a matter of seconds, we had our drinks, our wine and a basket of bread on the table. The basket of bread reminded me of the pull-apart bread my grandmother used to make on occasion. I was hoping this would bring back memories. Alas, it was not to be. The bread wasn't bad, but it was lacking something. It was rather heavy and didn't have a butter taste nor a yeasty like flavor or even some spice to it. It could have been much better.
Our server brought our Sampler Platter to the table and we were all drooling within seconds. The large platter had plenty of choices including toasted ravioli, deep fried mozzarella sticks, pesto bread and fried zucchini. It was all centered around a small bowl of marinara sauce. I headed for the mozzarella sticks. They were very large, hot and smelled wonderful. I dipped one in the sauce and tried it. I liked it immediately. It was quite nice with a crispy breading and loads of flavor. The cheese was hot throughout, but not melting so much that it dribbled out of the breading.
Next up for me was the fried zucchini. It was okay, but nothing special. Dave and Neil zeroed in on the toasted ravioli and said they were very good. I gave my portion of that to Dave since standing between him and toasted ravioli is taking your life into your own hands. The pesto bread was excellent. A slice of Italian bread had been lightly toasted, covered with pesto sauce and a slice of mozzarella and topped with a tomato slice. It was flavorful, but the pesto was not overwhelming. Dave and Neil had the same reaction to all the items and we thought for $7.95, the platter was a great value and a success.
We had just finished the platter when our server brought us a bowl of salad. Since we all had the same thing, it came in a large bowl with tongs to serve yourself. The lettuce had been tossed with a house dressing and then croutons, red onion slices, sliced black olives, sliced roma tomatoes and pepperocinis were placed on top. This presentation was colorful and plentiful, but the amount of tomatoes and olives was overly large and we ended up pulling a lot of them off so they wouldn't overwhelm the salad.
The plates were donned with the salad and we dug into them. The lettuce was crisp and fresh and the various items on top were also very good. The dressing was a tangy and slightly sweet vinegrette with a hint of red pepper. It was good and perfect for a house salad in an Italian restaurant. The best part was that the salad bowl was "bottomless" so we could have ordered more if we wished, but, in retrospect, we were glad we didn't.
The salad plates were empty when our entrees arrived. Dave's BBQ Chicken Calzone was set down first. My first thought was how homemade this looked. The dough wasn't perfectly formed, but it was a huge calzone, sliced down the center and I could tell by the big smile on Dave's face he was quite happy. He took a bite and made his yummy sound of approval. He said the dough was fresh and perfect. The BBQ sauce did not overwhelm the calzone and the chicken was tender and moist. He also liked the cilanto that was included in the calzone. I tried a taste and it was excellent. The dough was the standout for me and I knew I would have to return someday for my own calzone.
Neil had his plate of Chicken Parmesan set before him and he was anxious to try it. I was immediately put off by the fact that the linguini on the side had not been thoroughly drained and the water pulled some of the sauce with it and puddled onto Neil's plate. Sadly, all to often, in a hurry to plate pasta, a little oversight like this can make a meal less than desirable. The Chicken Parmesan was served in a small ceramic boat. The breast was buried in the sauce and topped with mozzarella cheese.
Neil took a bite and said it was "decent." That didn't sound very satisfying and I asked Neil for a bite. Well, okay, it was decent, but the problem was that the breaded chicken had been covered and sitting in sauce, so the breading was degrading into a mushy bread-like substance with each passing minute. While I am no chef, I would think a better presentation would have been to put a ladle of sauce in the center of the plate, put the chicken in the middle of the sauce, lightly coat the chicken with some more sauce and put a slice of cheese over the whole thing and then bake. But with the chicken soaking in sauce, it was doomed to be only decent at best. Neil said the linguini was fine, but I was still put off by the water.
My Tour of Italy was a feast beyond compare. When it was put in front of me, I was taken aback by the amount of food on the plate. This wasn't a Tour of Italy. This was a tour of every Italian district the world over. This could have easily fed two people. On the plate was a serving of Fettuchini Alfredo, some Chicken Marsala over linguini, and a big piece of Lasagna. On top of the Lasagna rested two pieces of Garlic Cheese Toast. The scent was intoxicating.
I tried the Alfredo first. Creamy, hot, buttery and smooth, this was exceptional. The sauce was not overly thick and really had a wonderful taste that wasn't overpowering. Next up was the Chicken Marsala. In a word, amazing. The sauce was perfect, with a nice bit of marsala and a hint of nutmeg. The chicken was moist and tender and the button mushrooms were firm and added a nice texture. I then tried the lasagna and really liked it, although it was my least favorite part of the tour. It was a bit too dense for my taste and I felt it just didn't fit in well with the other selections. On the other hand, the Garlic Cheese Toast was to die for. It was absolutely delicious. I gave Neil and Dave a slice to share and we debated ordering an order of it to accompany our meal. We opted not to since we were already feeling full and had barely dented our meals.
After we stuffed ourselves silly, we thought about dessert and then thought about not having dessert since we want to be able to walk to the car. All in all, the meal was a success. The big winners were the Garlic Cheese Toast and the Calzone. The less than stellar was the Chicken Parmesan. Still, we all did have a great time and like the restaurant and would return.
The total bill was $63.05 including tax. Service was efficient and friendly. We had no complaints about the service or the value of the bill.
We got back into the car and drove back to the hotel in the cold air looking forward to our trip the next morning to the Grand Canyon. Thankfully, the big Italian feast we had kept our bellies warm and our spirit high.
Now, if only I can convince Neil that puns are humorous... one time.
1435 South Milton
Flagtaff, AZ 86001
Notes: They will deliver if you are staying on the west side of town.