A couple of weeks ago I was on campus and hungry for lunch. I drove down a very empty Green Street, considered the options, and when nothing tempted me, kept on driving. As I was racking my brain for places, I remembered that Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas was just down the street. I made my way to the corner of Oregon and Goodwin. I picked up a few empanadas and two slices of pizza, enough food for sharing with the spouse. I can’t remember which empanadas I ordered, but I can remember the sheer happiness and satisfaction of my husband after he ate them.
I also picked up a slice of the Spotted Goat (spinach, mushroom, mozzarella, gorgonzola, goat cheese, roasted garlic alfredo, and red sauce) and one of the sausage and potato (sausage, potato, mozzarella). I guess it’d been some time since I’ve had their pizza (at last summer’s festivals I sampled a healthy number of empanadas), so I was pleasantly reminded and surprised by how good the pizza was. The crust was thin and chewy, with the right amount of crunch in all the right places.
About a week later, my husband and I were hanging out with some friends when we decided to order some pizza. Papa Dels is usually the delivery go to, but as I’ve indicated in other articles, their thin crust pizza is not my favorite, and sometimes you just want to eat pizza without cutlery. I immediately suggested Manolo’s, with the added bonus that we could get some empanadas, too. Fearing that they wouldn’t deliver to where we were in Champaign, we gave a quick phone call. Not only would they deliver to us, but they also only charged a one dollar delivery fee. (Other places charge up to $2.50, in addition to the minimum amount per order.)
Pizza and empanadas seem like an unlikely combination. However, pizza, an Italian invention featuring fairly thin dough topped with sauce, cheese, and some herbs, has much in common with the Spanish/Latin American stuffed and sealed pocket of bread or pastry. (Although every cuisine has some food that features something wrapped in bread or dough.) Both feature dough as a vehicle for transporting flavorful toppings into your mouth, and both function as street or cheap food in this great American experiment. Both pizza and empanadas are handheld and can be eaten on the go, albeit somewhat messily. When it comes to foods that incorporate dough, pizza and empanadas are the leaders in potential for deliciousness (pot pies are good, too).
Manolo’s makes an east coast style, thin crust pizza. Thin crust pizza dough should be crunchy (not necessarily crispy) around the crust, and a little chewy on the bottom, under the toppings. It should neither taste like a cracker, nor crumble like one. Toppings should be appropriately distributed so that each slice has some of each. When my friends and I ordered our food, we opted for the classic pepperoni pizza. It’s easy to judge the quality of a pizza joint by the way they do the classics. In this particular case, I was looking for even distribution of the toppings, a low level of greasiness and, of course, flavorful sauce.
The pepperoni pizza was pretty. It met my standards for aesthetics; I was ready to dig in. The first test of a great slice of thin crust pizza is whether or not it can be folded in half. Unless you only have three teeth, cutting a slice of pizza into pieces is unacceptable. Fold, bite, chew, swallow. Manolo’s slice was indeed foldable. The ratio of cheese to pepperoni to crust was also on point. It had the flavor and texture of mozzarella cheese (which is incredibly mild and nearly flavorless anyway) with the bright, meaty, garlicky flavor of pepperoni. There wasn’t any grease running down my hand as I lifted and bit into the slice; this was appreciated (fewer napkins needed). The sauce—the membrane that brings all of the ingredients together—was on the sweet side, but maintained the flavor of tomato. Salty and chewy, this was a pizza I could continue to eat (and did). I should also take a moment to point out that perhaps because of it being a delivery order, the pizza was not hot enough that the cheese slid off the dough, or that I burned the shit out of the roof of my mouth upon eating. Even though there is something sadistically comforting about the post-pizza mouth burn and the rawness of the roof of my mouth in the day(s) that follow, I did like having the ability to continue to taste food. This, too, was much appreciated.
When I opened the box of empanadas, I was charmed and excited by the brilliant way Manolo’s chose to mark their empanadas: each empanada is ‘branded’ with a letter that corresponds to a list printed on the inside of the delivery box. Maybe I’m easily impressed or amused, but this pleased me so greatly, I can hardly express in words my true feelings. It was a fun little puzzle.
Of the 12 empanadas we ordered, I tried the inferno chicken, bean and cheese, pizza sausage, San Telmo pollo, and San Telmo carne. I’ve had the turkey dinner and brownie empanadas on previous occasions. The inferno chicken was probably my favorite; the chicken was moist, the dough was flaky, and the seasoning was spicy. Perhaps not inferno hot, but definitely spicy. It wasn’t particularly tangy or sweet. The bean and cheese empanada was by far the very worst thing I’ve eaten this month. The refried black beans were dry, gritty, and crumbly; the inside looked like the crumbly dry bits on the edge of a pot used to make refried beans. It was bland, and wholly inedible. It wasn’t even a situation where you’d pick the dough off the filling and eat it—anything that touched that nasty bean mess was tainted. It not only tasted disgusting, but looked so also. I have spared you, dear reader, of having to look at the inside of that empanada. You’re welcome.
After that disaster, I moved on to other empanadas. The pizza sausage was mostly sausage. There was little tomato, and it more or less tasted like salty sausage. The San Telmo empanadas were quite good. The chicken was moist. The carne in the carne empanada was ground beef, which wasn’t overly dry or crumbly. The seasoning on both was well done. I could taste cumin and chili, and they each contained some green peppers, which provided a nice, spicy, fresh aroma. (You may be wondering about San Telmo. Where is this place? Do they serve empanadas? San Telmo is a neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From what I can tell, it is not known for empanadas, so perhaps in this case eaters are meant to understand San Telmo as “vaguely Latin American flavored.”)
The dough used for the empanadas is flaky, but not overly greasy or too buttery. It has an agreeable chewy consistency. On a dough scale, it’s not bready like the pizza dough. It does not eat like a calzone. It’s more in line with pastry dough, in the family of puff pastry. It’s a versatile dough that works with sweet and savory, alike.
With the exception of the bean and cheese, the empanadas were good, although they did taste like they had been sitting out for most of the day. When the students return, there will be more turnover on the food, so they are less likely to taste re-reheated. Also, they aren’t so packed with filling that when you bite into them they gush piping hot food all over your face, so that’s nice. On the other hand, some of them seemed to be lacking in insides. Even though they were delivered, these were still hot. (As you can see, I cut them in half as to avoid burning my face.)
Ordering delivery pizza in this town is, at best, a gamble. The chains—Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s—are disgusting. It doesn’t have to be like that anymore, though. If you’re not ordering Manolo’s, it’s time to make the change. I think they may serve the best pizza in town, and I do think that they are the best delivery pizza in the area, and definitely the best delivery empanadas. You can order their food online, or, like a true pizzeria, stop by the shop to pick up a slice or two. Classes begin next Tuesday, so take this week to get your pizza fix.
Manolo’s is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. They’re located at 1115 West Oregon Street, Urbana. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. For more photos, follow Jess on Instagram @epicureanjess.