Given it is just a block away from The Journal Gazette, many folks here were a little saddened when Downtown Pizza and Ice Cream closed Christmas Eve 2010.
And though the pizza was good, it was those on-a-whim walks over to West Berry Street for a scoop or two of ice cream that was truly missed.
But thanks to a local couple willing to take a chance, the place reopened as Bortolo’s Downtown Pizza & Ice Cream in May. Jernice Watson and her husband, Larry, had never operated a restaurant before, but they are doing a bang-up job now.
The menu at this new version is similar with a few tweaks, but what is markedly different is the service. It was always a cozy place that was fun to eat at with its funky yellow and red paint scheme, classic movie posters and big windows, which allow for prime traffic-watching.
But now, if you are eating in, Jernice really takes care of you. Even though I sat right next to the self-service soda fountain during one visit, she insisted on filling and refilling our drinks when necessary. She also kept us updated on the status of our food and there was little to worry about because it arrived quickly.
Bortolo’s, like its predecessor, offers three styles of breadsticks – flat, plump or cheese-stuffed – and still serves pizza sticks, which are smaller pies that are plenty for one and probably enough for two if you are having ice cream.
There is a variety of hand-dipped flavors ranging from plain vanilla to the wacky, multicolored Superman to my favorite, Peanut Butter Revel – creamy vanilla with ripples of peanut butter. The flavors can vary, but Jernice said there are three she always has on hand – Almond Joy, Java Chunk and Lemon Custard. The ice cream comes in cups or in waffle cones and the portion sizes are generous with two dips for a small, four for a medium and six for a large.
Now, if I could just persuade them to get a milkshake mixer
Ordering bread to start your meal is a must, but deciding which kind is tough. The cheese-stuffed breadsticks are the most popular. They have a lot of the restaurant’s three-cheese blend sandwiched between stretched pizza dough and a little garlic butter on top. The flat sticks are pretty ordinary with the same dough brushed with butter and sprinkled with parmesan, as are the plump, which are bigger and softer after being allowed to rise longer.
The best option, however, was the garlic-cheese bread. Made with the same soft, chewy ciabatta bread Bortolo’s makes its sandwiches with, it is topped with the three cheeses along with clumps of creamy feta and, of course, garlic butter.
The most interesting pizza I sampled was Borty’s Favorite Spinach Ranch. With ranch dressing in place of pizza sauce, it was topped with thin slices of tomato, garlic and spinach, all of which was covered in cheese. The ranch was not too strong, the spinach was fresh and it was just a great pie.
The sausage roll was pretty traditional with chunks of sausage, sections of white mushroom, just a little pizza sauce and a healthy dose of cheese folded into pizza crust, which was crunchy in some spots and soft and chewy in others. The only flaw was that it came with a side of marinara instead of the traditional barbecue sauce, but I was quickly obliged when I asked for some.
The barbecue sauce worked well on the BBQ Chicken Pizza, but was not as enjoyable on Bortolo’s chicken wings. The pizza had tender cubes of chicken breast, bacon bits and white onion along with the tangy-sweet sauce. A little red pepper flake added life to an already-good pizza, but I think it would have stood better on its own with a little more onion or perhaps red onion to add more zip.
The wings were big and arrived dripping in sauce, but they could have spent a little more time in the pizza oven because the skin was a little rubbery.
The ham and cheese sandwich also didn’t make much of an impression. It was served open-faced on that wonderful ciabatta and had provolone and mozzarella, but could have had more of it and maybe a little more ham to raise it above average.
Bortolo’s Downtown Pizza & Ice Cream does rise above average, however. With the stellar service being provided by Jernice, Larry and their team of employees, and some pretty tasty offerings, it won’t be long before I walk across Main Street and head down the block again.
Even if it is only for a couple scoops of ice cream.
Restaurant: Bortolo’s Downtown Pizza & Ice Cream
Address: 534 W. Berry St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; and 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: No
Menu: Flat or plump bread sticks ($3.49), cheese-stuffed sticks or garlic-cheese bread ($4.99), wings ($5.95), ham and cheese ($5.99), sausage roll ($8.99), BBQ Chicken Pizza ($10.99 small; $13.49 medium; $15.49 large; $17.49 extra-large), spinach-ranch pizza ($12.49, $15.49, $16.49, 17.99), ice cream ($1.99 small dish; $2.49 small cone; medium $3.99, $4.99; large $5.99, $6.49)
Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).