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** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Baked dough treats set Markle pizzeria apart

The signs along Interstate 69 were what drew me to the place.

Just off the interstate in Markle, I had long wondered about Vinatelli’s Italian Café. And, after getting a few emails and calls raving about the place, I finally found out.

In a strip mall right next to Dairy Queen, this little place was charming with its burgundy walls, carpeting, usual Italian kitsch and a goofy-looking fiberglass statue of a waiter holding a basket of grapes near the entrance. It was pretty much an upscale pizzeria and the menu featured the usual suspects – pizzas (of course), subs, entrée salads, calzones and pasta dishes. Right away, a couple of appetizers caught my eye.

The Garlic Knots were so good I would have to have them every time I visited. These little two-bite baked dough treats were crusty on the outside, chewy inside, and a little sweet, and came with garlic butter for dipping. The breadsticks were also quite nice – plump, soft and nicely browned – but not as good as the knots.

The dough was what separated Vinatelli’s Pizza Pie from the norm. A top layer of crust is added to this style of pizza, which costs an extra $2. I had the Meat Lover – pepperoni, sausage, bacon, beef and ham – and it was beautifully golden brown on top with a dusting of Parmesan. The finely ground fennel seed-packed sausage was my favorite filling, but the other meats were plentiful and tasty, too. It came with a side of the restaurant’s rather standard red sauce for dipping even though there was plenty already on the pie.

The hand-tossed pizza was solid but not as enjoyable as the pie. It had plenty of cheese and toppings and a perfectly prepared crust that was surprisingly crisp on the bottom. The same could not be said for the plain cheese thin-crust pizza. The top glistened in a pool of oil that excreted from the cheese, and the crust was just plain soggy, which was a shame for a thin pie.

The ham and cheese sub was OK – on level with any fast food Italian place – and the pasta dishes were a mixed bag.

The Baked Chicken Alfredo, which my server suggested, had precooked chicken breast strips in a creamy, cheesy sauce with penne pasta. The top was covered in melted and nicely browned mozzarella cheese, and I ate every bite. The spaghetti with sausage, however, had that same rather standard and boring red sauce; the sausage, which I loved in the pizza pie, was just way too dry to work with pasta.

Vinatelli’s House Salad was enjoyable with plenty of fresh greens, chopped tomatoes, green peppers, onions, cheese and croutons. It was much better than what most take-out pizza places offer.

The bruschetta appetizer was actually worse than what most take-out pizza places could do. Vinatelli’s topped its garlic toast with just a few tomatoes and onions and melted cheese. The toppings were not only scant, they were bland and could have used some spices to improve their flavor.

The most egregious flaw at Vinatelli’s was the French onion soup. Although I appreciated that the place offered varying daily soups, I was shocked to receive a cup of beef broth that tasted like it came from a can with some raw onions and some croutons floating in it. In addition to not caramelizing the onions, there was not one speck of cheese on this soup. A pizza place that surely had bags of mozzarella cheese on hand, did not put any on its French onion soup.

When I sent the soup back, my server was quite frank and told me I wasn’t the first person who wondered where the cheese was. She said the cheese is not added because the restaurant does not have a broiler to properly melt it. I guess the pizza ovens were not hot enough to melt the cheese on the soup even though they seemed to melt the cheese on everything else just fine.

I could not fault the server and applaud her for being so candid and for taking the soup off of my bill. The service at Vinatelli’s was great, even on a busy Friday night when only one server had to handle the steadily busy dining room.

And the best tip my servers provided was to get cheesecake for dessert. It was not house made, but it was a fine cheesecake. The reason it was so good was the variety of toppings. Vinatelli’s, I was told, shares ownership, and kitchen space, with the Dairy Queen next door. So any topping Dairy Queen has for its ice cream can be had on the cheesecake.

A slice of cheesecake turtle-style with hot fudge, caramel and nuts really hit the spot at the end of my meal, and I was able to have a hot cup of cappuccino with it, too.

But that cheesecake was not even the best dessert, Vinatelli’s Cinnamon Sticks were. Pizza dough was rolled out flat, baked and topped with cinnamon, sugar and sweet sticky icing. A half order was plenty, but a full order will still leave you with no leftovers because they are too good to save. They were like freshly baked cinnamon rolls in stick form.

And if you have kids who order something from the rather extensive children’s menu, they are given the option of having these gooey treats instead of regular breadsticks. And if they do, there will be plenty for you to steal.

And in some way, that makes them even sweeter.

Restaurant: Vinatelli’s Italian Café

Address: 615 Annette Drive, Markle

Phone: 260-758-9011

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 3:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Pizza

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Garlic knots ($2.49 half; $4.39 whole), breadsticks ($2.49 for 3; $4.39 for 6), cinnamon sticks ($2.49 half; $3.99 whole), baked chicken alfredo ($6.99), spaghetti with sausage ($5.99), ham and cheese ($4.49), meat lover pizza ($3.99 personal; $8.99 medium; $10.99 large), cheesecake ($2.49)

Rating breakdown: Food: * (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).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.