When you walk into Manzella’s Italian Patio, you are instantly transported back in time to an era when giant, corporate-owned restaurants with gimmicky menus and singing servers didn’t exist. Manzella’s represents the old guard: it’s a family-run business with recipes and quality standards handed down from one generation to the next. The recipes and preparations of the outstanding, classic Italian fare are prized family possessions; each meal served at the charming, accommodating restaurant has been supervised and hand-crafted by a member of the Manzella family to ensure quality and authenticity. This ain’t no Olive Garden, that’s for sure.
I made plans to meet my soon-to-be college student daughter for dinner on a cold, rainy Friday night after we both got off of work. She was craving pasta, and I wanted something that would accommodate my often annoying, semi-vegan, pescatarian diet. She wanted to go to one of the chain restaurants in town, but I was hoping for a more traditional, locally owned establishment. That’s when I remembered a co-worker talking about Manzella’s. She said it was “that great place you always forget about,” the one her parents always used to take her to for a really good meal. So true: Manzella’s has fantastic food, it is centrally located, and has plenty of parking, but I somehow manage to regularly pass them up in favor of corporate chains. “Why is that?”, I thought to myself. I decided the best way to find an answer was to persuade my daughter to join me there for a good meal, like my co-worker’s parents used to do.
Although it was getting close to closing time, we were warmly greeted, asked our table preference, and shown to a comfortable booth. The atmosphere in the main dining room was quaint and cozy, filled with a handful of late diners. There was also a second, larger, more austere dining room, designed for big groups and private parties, which was closed for the evening. Our server quickly came to our table and, again, we were greeted with professional, yet familiar and friendly, customer service. This is the first thing I noticed at Manzella’s. The quality of the food is matched by the genuine, attentive, and personable serving staff. All too often, I end up at a restaurant where the kitchen is pumping out a high volume of food, while the servers and food runners frantically scamper around without enough time to look me in the eyes and engage me as a fellow human being. Manzella’s is the antithesis of that experience. I watched as regular customers arrived and were greeted with warm hugs from the hostess, then shown to their “regular table.” Our server spoke slowly and clearly; she talked with us, as opposed to at us, and she took the time to help us with our decisions. This type of personal engagement was evident throughout the restaurant, and it is obviously one reason why customers are so loyal to Manzella’s.
I ordered a glass of Riesling and my daughter had a Mountain Dew. We were each brought glasses of ice water. I was happy to see that the restaurant serves drinks in glassware, rather than plastic cups. We told the server we were still undecided but wanted to order some appetizers. She told us to take as much time as we needed, which was reassuring, because I knew we were creeping up on closing time, and I didn’t want to feel like I was being rude for taking my time. I have definitely been in that situation before, where the server appears to be looking at his watch, tapping his foot impatiently while I try to make a decision. Not the case at all at Manzella’s; quite the opposite, really. When she said, “take your time,” she truly meant it.
For our appetizers, we ordered some breaded mushrooms and homemade onion rings to share. I also ordered a cup of homemade minestrone soup, after checking with the server to make sure there wasn’t any cheese in it. She reassured me the soup was completely vegan. The appetizers arrived quickly, just as we had made our decision on our meals. The breaded mushrooms were very good. They tasted like they were freshly breaded in house, even though they were not. The mushrooms were plump and light in color, and they were delicate and juicy when bitten into. I have eaten a lot of pre-made breaded mushrooms, and most are watery, dark colored, tough, and chewy — but not these. They were fantastic, and the marinara sauce they were served with could be eaten by the spoonful.
As good as the mushrooms were, they were nothing compared to the homemade onion rings. All I can say is, “Wow!” The onion rings at Manzella’s were absolutely phenomenal. The thickly sliced onions were the perfect texture, not crunchy or mushy, and they melted in my mouth. Sometimes, when you bite into an onion ring, the onion is tough, and it pulls out of the breading, burns you on the chin, and leaves you holding a hollow piece of fried crumbs. Not these homemade delicacies. The breading was light and crispy, thin enough to hold the onions but not too thick to overpower them. These were truly some of the best onion rings I have ever tasted, definitely something I plan to order again soon. The minestrone was also fantastic, a perfectly seasoned tomato broth brimming with fresh vegetables. I saw on the menu that they offer a bowl soup and half sandwich for lunch, with the option of an Italian beef, sausage, meatball, or pizza sandwich for only $9.25. As delicious as the minestrone was, I made a mental note to return for lunch and try out this combo with a vegan pizza sandwich.
When we ordered our entrées, I again asked the server some questions about the ingredients. She was pleasant and helpful as she reassured me of what sauces were vegan. It was very refreshing to not be treated with rolling eyes and impatience when I asked about whether or not something was vegan. Since I do eat fish, and sometimes splurge on things like onion rings that have some eggs or milk in the batter, my questions are sometimes met with with a perplexed gaze, and I’m often treated as an annoyance. I was never made to feel like I was being difficult at Manzella’s, which I really appreciated.
For our entrées, my daughter chose the rigatoni alla Siciliana ($14.95), and asked to substitute meatballs for the Italian sausage. “No problem,” our server replied. I ordered the pasta pomodoro ($14.75) and added sauteed mushrooms ($3). I asked if the mushrooms were sauteed in butter or olive oil, and our server told me she wasn’t sure, but she would make certain the chef knew to only use olive oil. We were each given the choice of a cup of soup or a house salad with our meal. My daughter, having seen how good my minestrone looked, opted for the soup, and I ordered the salad. Without being asked, the server told me the house Italian dressing was vegan, but the croutons were not, so I asked her to leave them off. She quickly returned with our soup and salad. My salad was extremely fresh and satisfying. The roma tomatoes were ripe, the red onions were fresh and sweet, and the array of mixed greens was crisp and delicious. The oil and vinegar based house dressing was also superb, filled with herbs and a hint of garlic.
Our server returned to check on us, and to reassure me my meal would be prepared completely vegan. She said she spoke with the chef, who was a little busy, but, after he slowed down a bit, he told her he would be happy to write a list of everything vegan that they offered. This added bit of personal service is another reason why Manzella’s has endured for over fifty years. They just get it. Customers are not nuisances, they are the lifeblood of the business, and the Manzella family and their staff treat each of their customers like guests in their home. Based solely on this level of genuine customer service, I planned to make more frequent visits to Manzella’s. When our entrées arrived, the decision to return became a no-brainer.
My daughter’s rigatoni was outstanding. The tender pasta tubes were, in her opinion, the most perfectly cooked pasta she had ever bitten into, and she felt similarly about the meatballs. After hearing this, I couldn’t resist trying a piece of rigatoni, and I had to agree. The chunky tomato sauce and pasta were absolutely amazing together. I had to take her word on the meatballs, but the pasta was pure bliss. The thick, rich sauce was just the right balance of sweet and savory. My mouth is watering now, just thinking about it.
My thin capellini pasta was also a lesson in perfect pasta preparation; it was chewy and tender, not a bit waterlogged or mushy, and the pomodoro sauce was divine. The plum tomatoes held their form until broken into with a fork, then they melted into the pasta and created a fresh, vibrant sauce. I really appreciated the subtlety of flavors in my entree. The garlic and fresh basil took a backseat to the juicy tomatoes, as they should in this dish, since pomodoro is Italian for tomato. This sauce is meant to highlight the complex, sweet flavor of ripe tomatoes, to be a light and fresh compliment to the pasta, not overwhelm it, and it succeeded on all accounts. It was an absolute mastery of simplicity, as good Italian food should be, where the quality of its ingredients took center stage, without a lot of extraneous distractions from unnecessary elements. The addition of the fresh, sauteed mushrooms was a perfect compliment to this simple, elegant (vegan) dish, and I enjoyed every bite.
Just as we decided we were getting full, our server returned to check on us. We told her we ate too many of the delicious appetizers to finish our meals, and she offered to bring us a couple boxes. When she returned she had a hand-written note which read, “Vegan at Manzella’s,” and listed marinara, pomodoro, and pizza sauce, as well as minestrone, pizza crust, and salad (no croutons). She handed it to me and apologized for taking so long to get me the list. I assured her no apologies were necessary, and let her know how much I appreciated her service.
We left Manzella’s feeling very content and perfectly full, not overstuffed and lethargic like I feel when I leave some other Italian restaurants. It was then that I realized something else that separated Manzella’s from some of the corporate run Italian restaurants in the area. Often, when our family goes to one of those other places, we fill up on complimentary baskets of bread and huge bowls of soup or salad before our entrees even arrive, then we struggle to enjoy our meal. Other places offer plenty of free bread, but the entrées are served a la carte, and soup or salad is a significant upcharge. Manzella’s has a great approach; they include a remarkably fresh salad or a delicious cup of homemade soup with their dinners, but they forgo the baskets of free bread. The bread is always hard to resist when I am hungry, so I scarf it down, eat way too much, and end up leaving the restaurant feeling like I need to be rolled out in a wheelbarrow. Manzella’s wants you to enjoy their wonderfully prepared dishes, not fill up on cheap bread. They strive for quality, not quantity. Perhaps this is why some families opt for the corporate chain experience; they feel they get more for their money. For me, I feel you always get what you pay for, and, at Manzella’s, what you pay for is fantastic family recipes served with impeccable service. I’ll take that any day over some free breadsticks and all you can eat salad and pasta. Next time you’re craving Italian food, take a break from corporate mediocrity, visit a true local institution, and let the Manzella family treat you to a really good meal. You will not be disappointed.
Manzella’s Italian Patio is located at 115 South First Street, Champaign, and open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Monday through Thursday, 5 to 8:30 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, 5 ot 9:30 p.m.
All photos by Jim Singer.