Pizza John's is bright, noisy, busy. The pace is quick, the service limited. Soft drinks come in paper cups, beer in throwaway plastic. The food is plain and plentiful.
Not exactly a Saturday night kind of place, perhaps -- unless your dining companions include two hungry youngsters.
Then, Pizza John's Self-Service Restaurant and Carryout in Essex might be just what you're looking for: an immaculate, casual place that serves a decent cheese pizza and doesn't stand on ceremony.
Pizza John's has been around for 25 years. I figured it must be doing a lot of things right. And it does.
My husband and I and our two daughters went there early on a recent Saturday evening. Although we weren't very familiar with the neighborhood, we knew we had arrived when we saw a huge chef with light bulbs for eyes and buttons and an extra large pizza leaning out of his hands. The Golden Arches don't have anything on this guy.
Inside, Pizza John's is somewhat like a fast-food restaurant. It has two dining rooms with about 30 tables in all. You place your order and you seat yourself.
There are a couple of waitresses to serve beer and wine, to help with spills and to clear your table mid-meal when it gets too crowded. You do the rest yourself, including picking up your order when your number is announced.
The menu offers Pizza with the usual toppings; Spaghetti, Rigatoni and Ravioli with a variety of sauces; several other Italian entrees, including Stuffed Shells and Chicken Parmigiana; a few salads; a lot of subs; and platters featuring crab cakes, fried chicken and seafood.
Most of Pizza John's customers seemed to know what they wanted, as they stepped right up to the counter and ordered. We hung back a few minutes, looking at the overhead menu, before deciding.
We ended up with the requisite Cheese Pizza, two salads, Ravioli With Mushrooms and Tomato Sauce, Spaghetti With Tomato Sauce and Garlic Bread. We found a table by the front windows, overlooking the Mr. Tire across Back River Neck Road, and settled in.
We started with the salads ($2.25), which were large and fresh with a colorful variety of vegetables, olives and hot peppers. The dressings were packaged, but good.
The Pizza ($5.85 for a 12-inch) passed the kid test without much comment. The crust was thin and the cheese thick and flavorful with a pleasant edge.
The Spaghetti With Tomato Sauce ($4.65) was good but not outstanding. The sauce, obviously homemade, was a bit chunky -- which I liked -- and a bit sweet -- which I didn't. A sprinkling of garlic and oregano from the table shakers helped to cut the sweetness, however.
My husband and our daughters enjoyed the Ravioli With Mushrooms and Tomato Sauce ($8.55). Half the ravioli was filled with cheese, half with meat. I thought the ravioli was slightly tough and suffered from not being piping hot.
The servings of both the spaghetti and the ravioli were large.
The Garlic Bread ($1.85) was crunchy, well-seasoned and real greasy. Italian bread came with our entrees, but we already had more than we could eat.
We did, however, find room for Pizza John's Homemade Cannoli ($2.05). The very thick ricotta filling was rich and just dotted with chocolate chips. The shells were thin and crispy. Our youngsters had no trouble devouring them.
I used to think there was only one Homemade Cannoli in town, but I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that a number of small restaurants, such as Pizza John's, make their own with great success. I consider this a real find!
With the help of the roving waitress, we packed our substantial leftovers, took one last look at the glowing Pizza John out front and headed home. Dining at Pizza John's isn't exactly relaxing, but it isn't stressful either.
Environmentalists will probably frown on the abundance of paper and plastic used to wrap and serve the food. The hot entrees were served on real plates with real silverware. Otherwise, everything that came to our table was disposable.
Our bill, with two sodas and a pitcher of beer, was $39.70. We didn't find Pizza John's particularly inexpensive, but you do get a lot of fresh, tasty food for your money.
113 Back River Neck Road, Essex
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.
Reservations: None accepted.
Credit cards: None accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas designated.