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Italio for beginners

Overall impression: Italio borrowed a page from Subway and Chipotle Mexican Grill when it came up with its create-your-own, cafeteria-line-style system of ordering pasta bowls, salad bowls and wraps. But instead of submarine sandwiches or burritos, Italio's focus is Italian — America's favorite ethnic food. With the price of a meal well under $10, it's a fast way to feed yourself or your family.

Ambience: The dining room is charming, with walls of white brick and an assortment of regular and high-top tables. The real focus, however, is the assembly-line production area. Behind the glass divider is a gleaming, stainless-steel counter of the ingredients customers use to build their meals. Much thought has gone into everything from graphic design to packaging.

Entree excellence: The menu is presented in four steps. Choose a pasta bowl, piadina wrap or salad. You then have seven entrees to choice from: sauteed zucchini and portabello mushrooms ($6.68); grilled lemon-herb chicken ($6.98); balsamic-herb grilled sirloin ($6.98); pan-seared Italian sausage ($6.98); beef and pork meatballs in basil pomodoro ($6.98); crispy, Italian-seasoned, all-white chicken ($6.98); and shrimp grilled in fresh parsley and lemon gremolata ($8.98).

There are three hot sauces, three kids of cold pesto and four cold dressings. The final step has you choosing fresh vegetables, cheeses and such Italio favorites as chickpeas, hot-cherry-pepper relish and roasted garlic. Italio's ingredients are sophisticated enough that you don't feel as if you're at a typical smorgasbord. The so-called artisan alfredo sauce is made with aged Parmesan, fresh cream and garlic. The spicy prima rosa sauce is fresh and has a nice kick from the hot-cherry-pepper relish.

My biggest quibbles? White or whole-wheat spaghetti were the only offerings. How difficult would it be to offer linguine or penne, as well? I also found the wrap part of the piadina inedible. It tasted like cardboard. I only ate the fillings I had chosen: Italian sausage, spicy prima rosa, basil, black olives, sauteed peppers and onions, and Parmesan.

Side issues: Italio has kept the menu simple, but a handful of side dishes are available. A very good calamari misto ($4.98) features fried squid rings with hot cherry peppers dusted with cheese and served with lemon-herb vinaigrette in a paper cone. Italio sticks ($1.98) are made with cheese, pepperoni or spinach and artichoke. They're doughy and warm and perfect for kids.

Sweet! Cannoli chips ($2.98), served with a side of the cream normally used to fill cannoli shells, were the only dessert option. They weren't bad.

Liquid assets: Along with San Pellegrino sodas ($2.70) and bottled water ($2.70), check out the beer and wine selection.

Service: Friendly and efficient. The staff goes out of its way to help you create your meal. If you're not creative in the kitchen, let them suggest some standard recipes.

jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats

Italio

1658 N. Federal Hwy, Boca Raton

561-392-7778, ItalioKitchen.com

Cuisine: Italian

Cost: Inexpensive

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Reservations: Not accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Beer and wine

Sound level: Moderate

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Boosters, menu

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Free lot

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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