After nearly a decade of serving classic Italian dishes such as veal piccata and spaghetti alla carbonara at their La Scala Ristorante Italiano, Little Italy restaurateurs Nino Germano and Nick Angelini were ready to try a second venture.
"We sat down one day and said, 'What does Little Italy need that it doesn't have?'" Angelini said.
And what they discovered was shocking. Criminal, even. For all its sit-down restaurants, La Scala included, Little Italy did not have a simple deli and market - a place to buy Italian meats and cheeses, or maybe pick up a sandwich or pizza for a quick meal.
The two rectified the situation three years ago when they opened Il Scalino, an old-fashioned market selling mozzarella, prosciutto, olive oils, chocolates and other mouth-watering treats imported from Italy.
Il Scalino, which means "little step," also offers warm pizzas, sandwiches and calzones, as well as cold sandwiches and salads. "It seems to be working for us," Angelini said.
The first thing customers see - and smell - when they walk in are the rows of warm, tantalizing strombolis, the fillings oozing out of the fat, soft pockets of dough. One step in, and slices of Sicilian-style pizza, with their fat, crunchy crusts, provide yet more temptation. And beyond that is the sandwich counter, where mozzarella balls and salami sticks wait, ready to become part of the next made-to-order sandwich.
Crowded and small, Il Scalino has only four small tables in the back, for customers who can't wait to return to their home or office to dig into their order. But there isn't really enough room to stretch out and enjoy a meal, which is why most people order their food to go, perhaps picking up some olive oil, a jar of marinated mushrooms, some salami and a few bottles of Italian wine while they are there.
Angelini said all the doughs and sauces are made fresh and that many of the products, including the cheeses and oils, are the same as the ones used in the higher-end La Scala.
The meatball sub ($6.95) is just about perfect, the tender, gently herbed meatballs serving as a counterpoint to the slightly piquant tomato sauce. Cold sandwiches feature fresh cheeses and meats, the flavors amplified by extras such as grilled eggplant and roasted slivers of red pepper. However, I'm going to be a spoilsport and say I didn't love the bread. Fat and airy, these submarine-shaped rolls took up too much space in the mouth without providing much flavor. My solution was to eat the sandwiches with only half the bread.
The simple Sofia ($7.95), made with prosciutto, mozzarella, tomato, basil and a drizzle of olive oil, tasted great, but those big slices of prosciutto were hard to chew. My favorite was the Bafia ($6.95), which combined salty provolone cheese with oily marinated artichoke hearts, roasted eggplant, red pepper and olives. These artichokes looked nothing like the jarred ones found in most grocery stores. They were much smaller and still attached to delicate stems.
We were warned that the stromboli ($5.95), filled with a mix of meats and cheeses, would be spicy, and it was. But the warm, melted cheese, salty meat and oil-tinged dough needed that jolt of flavor to keep the diner from requiring a contented nap while digesting.
Il Scalino also serves cappuccinos and espressos, as well as Italian sodas. Some desserts, such as little plastic-wrapped tiramisus, are available in the dessert case, but a better option is to buy a package of Italian chocolate or cookies and nibble those over the course of several days.
That way, you can make the Il Scalino experience last a little longer.
Where: 313 S. High St. Little Italy
Open: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Salads $4.95-$7.95, entrees $5.95-$9.95
Food: *** (3 STARS)
Service: **1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)