I’ve written before about my quest for pizza just like they make back home. Papa Del’s thin crust is a really good contender — probably the best in town — but this review is about something else entirely: Papa Del’s non-pizza menu items.

My family and I decided to try an item from each of their “other” categories, carry-out style, on a Saturday night. There were some tough choices to be made: Italian salad or Caesar? Arancini or calamari? (Or wings? Sure wish I’d read this before I chose!) Hot or cold sandwich? And so on.

I went with what I thought would be the most crowd pleasing option in each category. For the appetizer, we chose arancini. One serving is $7 and comes with three dipping sauces: olive oil, balsamic glaze, and an out-of-this-world garlicky romesco. I dabbed a little of each on mine before taking a bite, and it knocked my socks off. I wonder if I would have enjoyed it half as much without that last sauce, which could possibly make the second-hand couch I’m sitting on delicious. I think, however, it was the combination of the mildly creamy rice mixture, the crispy panko coating, and the flavor-forward sauces that made for such a well-rounded and satisfying bite.

I like the option of ordering an appetizer as a meal, and I wouldn’t say the arancini could be one all by itself. Each rice ball is about the diameter of a quarter and there are six to a serving. Paired with a salad and/or a cup of soup, though, they would definitely fit the bill for me.

On the subject of their salads, we tried both the large-size Italian ($10) and individual American (free with the lasagna). The large salad provided enough to serve three to four people a good portion. I liked the presentation, with onions, cheese, and green peppers all sliced into similar-sized strips and laid plentifully across the top of mixed greens. I’m not shy about tucking into pepperoni and wouldn’t have minded a few more slices, and would probably ask for extra if ordering it again. Whole, pitted black and green olives and pepperoncini around the perimeter rounded out the salad.

The older I get, the more I have to admit to myself that my taste in salad runs more towards lighter lettuces and a simple ranch dressing. I also believe it’s actually harder to get a salad like that right, and I was pleased that the components of their American salad were all fresh and well prepped. It was also a generous size for a single serving.

Choosing between hot and cold sandwiches was tough, but we were dining with my folks, and my dad has a soft spot for a good Italian beef ($9), so I went with that. Cheese is extra (the person taking my order said Swiss is his preference, and I’d like to try that at some point), as are peppers. I opted for both, picking provolone as the cheese.

I have to admit at this point that I probably missed out on the opportunity to make a good sandwich great; it comes with au jus, but I didn’t realize that the jus was in a separate container and we ate it dry. The paper-thin slices of meat were tender and they used a heavy hand in stuffing the roll, which had the perfect texture for Italian beef: Capable of soaking up sauce without being too dry and with a nice, glossy crust. The meat wasn’t very seasoned, but that certainly would have changed if we used the jus as intended. We ended dipping the bread that came with the lasagna in it. It was richer than I expected, with a thin layer of fat on top and tons of oregano.

On to the pasta: We picked meat lasagna, which was my dad’s favorite dish of the night, and I can understand why. It takes 35 minutes to prepare, which I took as a clue that it would be like the pasta version of their famous deep dish. The alternating layers of pasta and cheese mixture were densely packed. Most of the meat and sauce appeared to be on top, and the whole shebang was covered in melted mozzarella. Normally, lasagna’s separate components — the sauce, the pasta, and the cheese — end up more or less the same color as they bake together in an oven for an hour or more. In this dish, the separate layers and ingredients kept their integrity, and it was fun to slice off a fork full of the pasta/cheese block and use it to scoop up the satisfyingly rich, red gravy.

The exception to the one-from-each-category rule was dessert. We chose a slice of tiramisu, a cannoli, and two homemade chocolate chip cookies.

The cannoli ($3.25) was my favorite bite of the night. In fact, it was the first time in my life I understood what the big deal is about that particular dessert. The filling was perfectly balanced — tart, lightly sweet, and creamy — and its crunchy pastry shell provided the perfect contrast.

For $1 each, I would definitely get the cookies again. They are generously sized, fairly dense, and loaded with mini chips. The tiramisu ($5) was heavy on the espresso; I would prefer it to have more of the mascarpone mixture.

As dinner wore on my family discussed Italian restaurants around town and why it’s hard for us to shell out what is often charged for a plate of pasta (it more or less boils down to the fact that we make a lot of it ourselves and really enjoy the results). That made me realize that I might have appreciated our Papa Del’s dinner even more if we were dining out; $10 for carryout lasagna seems a bit much when we are fairly adept at making a pan of it at home for much less per serving. However, for a sit-down meal, $10 for a salad and an excellent lasagna with a side of bread is a pretty great deal. Same for the $10.50 fully loaded Italian beef and fries.

Plus, Papa Del’s certainly has an eye for quality ingredients. I’m inspired to try some more of their non-pizza foods (calamari fritti, I’ve got my eye on you). This is probably the last time I’ll order Papa Del’s without getting pizza, though. That was harder than I thought it would be.

Papa Del's
1201 S Neil St
Champaign
Su-Th 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
F + Sa 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. 

Photos by Rachael McMillan