When one hears of the town Richmond, Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy, authentic Italian food does not come to mind. With the recent onslaught of northern transplants within the past 20 years, a few Yankees have brought a little slice of Italy to this southern town.
One of the best-known food joints around town is Mary Angela’s. Located in the heart of Carytown, a unique one-way street that spans blocks of the city’s museum district, Mary Angela’s is tucked into a corner amid restaurants and boutiques.
My friend was recently visiting from Philadelphia, so I took her to the one place I knew she could find food similar to home.
Upon entry, the restaurant does not wow. It is small, dimly lit, and loud. This is where I say; don’t judge a book by its cover. Time and again, Mary Angela’s has been voted ‘˜Best Pizza in Richmond,’ by locals. We picked a corner table in the back of the restaurant and were quickly greeted by our friendly waiter. We ordered water, since sodas get only one refill free. Never one to really deviate from the norms, I ordered a slice of cheese, as did my friend. We were enticed by the garlic cheese bread and marinara sauce, so we ordered that for an appetizer.
Our food arrived quickly and the pizza slices were fresh out of the oven. We enjoyed them while chatting with nearby tables and our waiter. Sicilian food does not trump Southern friendliness in this hole in the wall restaurant. An added plus, they offer free delivery to local neighborhoods.
My second stop took me across the river to the South Side of Richmond. Maldini’s is located in a strip mall just off of the James River. While the interior was more impressive than the previous restaurant, the impressions stopped there. I stopped in for a solo lunch one weekday, book in hand to catch up on some reading. “You are eating alone?” the hostess asked in an incredulous tone, as she seated me at a four top table. I nodded and opened the menu. The first thing I noticed was that the menu items were written in Italian, with descriptions underneath. As an Italian-American transplant from New England, I appreciate ethnic restaurants that take that step. The second thing I noticed was the prices. I was sure I had just driven to the south side of the city, not back to New York. Always a fan of gnocchi, I ordered the gnocchi al pesto, and thought it better be outstanding, for $15.00. The service was slow, which I had expected on a weekday, as this is not a popular spot for work lunches, so I was glad I had my book. I ordered a soda and 15 minutes later while I’m waiting for it, I flagged the waiter down and said that if a soda was too much trouble, I could just have water, thinking that the soda taps needed to be changed and no one got around to it. It turns out the taps were working fine, and minutes later, I got both my soda and a water. Now I had a drink and a book to keep me company, as I wondered if the kitchen staff was making the gnocchi from scratch.
Supposedly seasoned with pesto, garlic and pine nuts, the dish arrived cold and lumpy. The serving size did not justify the $15.00 price tag, so after a few bites I boxed it up thinking that I could fix it at home.
My last stop took me to one of my favorite places, Tony’s, in Richmond’s West End. Nestled in a strip mall not far from one of the area’s biggest business parks and surrounded by apartment complexes and residential neighborhoods, Tony picked the right spot to open shop. Upon entering, I was greeted by Tony himself. A fixture around the restaurant, he gets to know all of his patrons and gets feedback on his prized dishes.
I’m always torn between what to order when I go to Tony’s, but today I settled on the eggplant Parmesan, and was not disappointed. Between the side salad, the fresh baked bread and the oversized portions, I had plenty to eat, and plenty for lunch the next day. My bill topped out around $12, not including tip; a small price to pay for great food and even greater service.
While the heart of Southern towns is not immediately known for it’s Italian food joints, a few searches led me to ones I know I can get a good slice of pizza and feel like I’m back with la famiglia.