On Main street in St. Joe stands an unassuming building with an unassuming restaurant. I must admit that it didn’t register in my mind in the dozens of times I’d driven by, and until now I had never heard about it. This is exactly why I enjoy writing articles for Smile Politely. I appreciate the opportunity to explore and sample local establishments, I like the positive promotion of local vendors, and most importantly I like spreading the word to other underinformed people like myself.
My first trip to Padano’s was on a Friday night after a workout session with my friend and our personal trainer. (I figured the trainer should see the uphill battle he had ahead of him.) It was cold and damp outside, the temp was somewhere in the mid thirtys. As we approached the restaurant all I could see were fogged up windows. Opening the door, I immediately knew I was in a pizzeria, as the air was warm and thick with the smell of fresh dough cooking.
Standing inside and glancing around, it’s easy to see the authentic character that is only won through years of existence… the kind of character a lot of establishments try and fake by littering the walls with cheap trinkets. The current owner has been turning out pies for 20 years. More importantly, the menu boasts exactly what you would expect: In addition to pizza they have calzones, salads, oven baked sandwiches, and pastas. This is the menu some national chains attempt to replicate but always fall far short. First off, real pizza is cooked in an oven with a flat bottom; no matter how it's heated the dough must be in contact with a hot surface to get the right crisp on the bottom. This simply can’t be done with the conveyor belt style, mass production delivery joints.
Rest assured, Padano’s has the right equipment, and the only thing left to do was make a choice. Pies come in four sizes: small ($11.99), medium ($13.99), large ($15.99), and extra-large ($17.99). My friend got the small Taste of Sicily (pepperoni, sausage, tomato, black olives). I wanted to try it all but settled on a small half and half, CBR or chicken bacon ranch and bacon cheeseburger. While these share a couple common ingredients, the flavor profiles and sauces aren’t exactly compatible. The solution at Padano’s is a thin strip of dough to create a sauce dam — ingenious. Not to be outdone, in what can only be described as a display of youthfulness and serious metabolic shaming, our trainer ordered and consumed an entire large meat lover’s pizza. I remember those days…
I need to take a minute and describe the crust. It was crispy and thin on the bottom, it had a rolled edge like hand-tossed, and the edge was thin and crispy on the outer layer with a warm and chewy center. It was unlike anything I could remember of late, but I couldn’t quite put a word to it. The owner, sensing my confoundment, offered up a grin. I made my best attempt to describe it with mixed results, and he replied… ‘biscuity.’ At this point I was in no position to disagree, and despite numerous attempts the recipe remains a guarded secret.
A week, and several trips to the gym later, I returned to sample the pasta offerings. I made the trip from Champaign expecting a quick in and out with a bowl of pre-made pasta covered in a sauce that had simmered a few hours too long. However, I was elated to find out it would be about a forty-minute wait, as they make all dishes to order! I settled on chicken parm ($10.99) served with a side salad and two large pieces of garlic bread. After a quick trip to the gas station and a call with a friend in Texas, I walked back in to find my meal being pulled out of the oven. After waiting this long I couldn’t justify another twenty minutes in the car before digging in. It took a few minutes for the temp to be in the safe-to-consume range, passing the time was easy chatting with the owner and another employee.
In our discussion I learned a few key points, and some old lessons you should never forget: Always ask what the owner’s favorite is before ordering. I learned they make lasagna to order in single serve dishes…no pre-made pans here. Also, the chicken fettuccine alfredo is an employee favorite; neither of those dishes can be found on the menu. And, unexpectedly, they have gyros. As I began tasting my chicken parm, still nearly too hot to eat, I was already beginning to plan my next excursion to St. Joe.
I noticed something peculiar in my parm, or rather a lack of something — no breading, just grilled chicken. I inquired about the missing breading and apparently it used to come that way but patrons over time recommended its removal. I don’t know where I stand on that decision, but it was very good, nonetheless.
Padano’s offers much more than I could sample in a couple visits, but I plan to see it through over time. They have several salads ($4-$7), more pizza combinations, calzones ($8 + $1/topping) and a variety of oven baked sandwiches ($7 six inch, $9.50 twelve inch). If you are in the neighborhood on a weekday, they have pizza by-the-slice and other combos for students. The sign leads you to believe this is for the Spartans (local high school) but I would surely try my SFL (student-for-life) card. All-in-all a great value, a great product, and great staff. Stop in and give them a try. The hours may or may not be correct — the menu says daily, but last Sunday, they weren’t open. They offer free delivery and if the order is large enough, they will deliver all the way to west Champaign.
209 N Main St
11 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily, but maybe not on Sunday
Photos by Rob Schaffer