The classic pizza joint thrives at Toni's Grill

EATS

Dining For $25 Or Less

May 04, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Here's to the classic neighborhood pizza joint, long may it live.

Unfortunately, this garlicky and grand quick-and-dirty eating destination has become something of a dinosaur in these days of Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza and other big chains.

But a fine example exists in Catonsville, tucked into a corner of the Forty West shopping center on Rolling Road. By all rights, this place should be called Tony's Pizza, and, indeed, that's what the voice on the other end of the phone says when you call for a take-out order.

But its real name is Toni's Grill. Toni is short for Antonio, and grill, well, it turns out there already was a Toni's Pizza, so owner Antonio Scottodifrega just stuck the word grill on the end, he said.

Scottodifrega knows a thing or two about Italian food. Not only is he from Naples, Italy, the birthplace of the modern pizza, but he also owned for eight years a full-service, well-regarded Italian restaurant in Glyndon called Mezzanotte.

Scottodifrega said he thought a pizzeria would be more relaxing than Mezzanotte, but he finds he's there all the time, making sauces, shaping gnocchi and twirling discs of pizza dough high in the air.

The pizzas are excellent. The crusts, made with "water, salt and lots of love," according to Scottodifrega, are chewy, firm and light as air, with faint browning along the edges. They're topped with a rich, garlicky sauce, and on top of that, a lot of cheese.

Toni's sells 20 different pizzas by the slice, topped with everything from pepperoni to barbecued chicken. The restaurant sells fat, crunchy Sicilian pizza too. We ordered the 16-inch plain cheese pizza ($8.96), which seemed like it would be way too much food when it took up most of our table. But once we started eating it, we couldn't stop and we nearly demolished it.

Though pizza is the most popular item at Toni's, the restaurant also serves classic Italian pasta dishes like fettuccine Alfredo ($7.95), lasagna ($8.95) and stuffed shells ($7.45).

The linguini frutti di mare ($10.99) featured blessedly non-mushy pasta swimming in a heady garlic and white wine sauce. But the actual fruits of the sea were limited to a handful of small clams and mussels, pretty in their shells, scattered along the edges of the plate. For such a low price, I couldn't complain about the skimpiness of the seafood, especially taking into account that the deal included a salad and still-warm rolls made of pizza dough.

A cheese steak ($5.75), served with a bag of potato chips and a pickle spear, delivered even more bang for the buck -- a nine-inch sub generously stuffed with tender chopped meat that actually tasted like beef, not salt.

A salad called the Pavarotti ($6.99) seemed like a good idea. It added artichoke hearts, red peppers and feta cheese to a basic house salad. But the combination of a very tart balsamic salad dressing and the saltiness of the feta resulted in salad that was little more than a plateful of pucker.

Obviously, salads and seafood-laden pasta dishes are not why people go to Toni's, a place that's as simply decorated as a pizza parlor should be. There are some booths, a soda case that for some reason is almost empty (though fountain drinks are available), a counter where you order and pay and a television that, on a recent visit, was tuned to soccer games narrated in Italian. (Alas, no close-ups of David Beckham.) No murals of Italian scenes on the walls here and no faux ropes of garlic hanging from the ceiling.

Scottodifrega said another pizzeria had been at the location before, so he didn't have to do much to the interior. He's focusing on the pizzas, and the results are pretty terrific.

Toni's Grill

Where:

710 N. Rolling Road, Forty West Shopping Center, Catonsville

Call:

410-744-9222

Open:

10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday

Credit cards:

MC, V

Prices:

Appetizers $2.25-$7.99, entrees $4.99-$12.99

Food:

*** (3 stars)

Service:

** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere:

** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*

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