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Villa Cafe: An Italian-American Diner

From stromboli to pasta fagioli, this chain is too many steps removed from its Neapolitan roots.

Its name may not have the familiar ring to it that most chains have, but the across the street from the on Speedwell Avenue is part of a worldwide, 200-store conglomerate. With roots that date back to 1964 in Manhattan and recipes from Naples, the Villa company also operates and, as of January of this year, .

Decorated in warm oranges and browns designed to stimulate the appetite, Morristown's Villa Cafe is an Italian American diner, with sit-down service, as well as takeout and delivery. The ceiling is open to ductwork above, the ceiling fans each have stained-glass fixtures and several windows look out onto Speedwell Avenue. A few of the many booths are large enough to accommodate groups, and its location across the street from  and the Hyatt is a convenient one.

Like a diner, its menu covers a wide range of selections, from pizza and stromboli to veal parmigiana sandwiches and pasta. One can order at the counter—where several pizzas sit under glass--or sit down and be waited on. I opted for the latter.

From Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" to Usher's "More," current pop hits played at a low volume from the speaker, just loud enough to overshadow CNN's Situation Room. I'm not a fan of televisions in dining rooms, but in this informal setting, the flat-screen TVs seemed to fit.

I started my evening with a side salad. The size was impressive, but the ingredients were not: iceberg lettuce, sliced olives from a can and sliced red onion, carrots and tomato, with a bold vinaigrette on the side. When it comes to food, I'll take quality over quantity any day.  At least give us some Romaine.

For my entree, several of the pastas caught my eye. I hestitated as I ordered the lasagna, then asked my server which entree was her favorite. She smiled and said the lasagna was her favorite.

Wrapped in noodles, the lasagna started with a tiny layer of meat, then noodles, then a good, healthy layer of meat, followed by a dense ricotta and then the final layer of noodles. Atop the noodles were a few slices of fresh mozzarella, room temperature (the inside of the lasagna was piping hot). The lasagna was served in an ample amount of red sauce, and the plate was dusted with chopped parsely.

Italian food from a chain restaurant often runs the risk of being overloaded with dried seasonings, and this lasagna, whicle rich, did not fall into that trap. I've had better lasgana, but I've also had worse.

When my waitress checked on how I was enjoying my meal, it was more than a formality. She looked as if she genuinely cared. And that is important in a day where too many employees appear to not have a vested interest in their work.

Villa also does not skimp on its dishes and flatware. From my soda glass to my salad fork, everything was solid and sturdy. No plastic, no cheap feel as I would have expected in a place like this.

While not as good as homemade, Villa Pizza is a step or two above mediocre or adequate. But there's no getting beyond the fact that it is a chain, a franchise. From to , from to , part of a good dining experience, even an informal one, is seeing the creativity of the chef or owner on display. The recipes at Villa may go back to Naples, but in the Morristown store, we're several steps removed from it.

For a genuine culinary experience, go elsewhere. But if you're looking for a quick, informal bite before or after a movie, this will do.

Warren Bobrow June 10, 2011 at 04:37 PM
Villa Cafe is a cautionary tale of Italian recipes gone horribly wrong.


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