The recent coverage of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam could be part of a wily enticement for a two-part day trip that can get the "gang" – whether it be family or friends – to all pile into the family truckster for a day in the "country" and a fun meal at the end of it.
The first enticement is for Civil War history buffs, of course. And if you've never visited Antietam, a crisp autumn morning is the perfect time. As with Gettysburg, during the same season, the mists arising from the hallowed site of so much rancor, pain and death are truly stirring. The air over the once-bloody battlefield is almost palpable with the spirits of those who perished there.
One of the great lures for a visit to this monument run by the National Park Service is the approach the service takes with virtually all of its historical sites. That is, they're presented in such a way as to be educational, evocative and refreshingly low key.
But I digress. And so will you, if you stick to your plan. Part two of your day trip is a short drive to the town of Boonsboro, which harks back to before the Civil War – to 1792, to be precise. First of all, the "scenic drive," as can be provided by your GPS, is loaded with rural charm. Secondly, your destination — Main Street — is another kind of monument, this one to novelist Nora Roberts who lives in the area and whose most recent romantic trilogy is set in the 21st Century version of this 18th-century (well, mostly 19th-century) town.
If you've never read Nora Roberts, you should. She's a world-class, light-reading novelist with some 400 million copies of her books in print. She has a deft touch with plotting, and an even surer hand at creating believable characters who are quite at home in the modern world.
The men are bright, talented, gorgeous, manly, and tender. The women are bright, talented, gorgeous, womanly, and feisty. In addition to the humans and pets (and even a ghost left over from the Civil War), there are a number of town businesses that are characters in Roberts' current Boonsboro novels.
Turn the Page Bookstore is one of them. Indeed, the third and final book — titled "The Perfect Hope" — is due out next month and will be featured in a book signing by Roberts herself at this sweet little bi-level Main Street bookstore/coffee and beverage bar owned by Janeen Solberg.
Another entity that's an ongoing character is Inn Boonsboro, a B&B that was actually restored by Roberts herself. Rooms are named for romantic literary couples and can be bit on the pricey side. And while the Inn is open to overnight guests, you can't just pop in for a tour. But you can plan a return visit to the town on Dec. 8, when there'll be an open house.
Another such "character" is Vesta Pizzeria and Family Restaurant, which is deliciously described (and featured) in "The Next Always" and "The Last Boyfriend," the first two books. And Vesta is where you can take your fellow day-trippers for a late lunch or early supper. While it actually isn't owned by Avery, one of the trilogy's heroines, it is owned by Roberts' son, Dan Aufdem-Brink, who also brings you Dan's Restaurant and Tap House, located across Main Street, closer to Inn Boonsboro.
Vesta is a few-frills place with 43 seats in the front room and some 20 in the back room, which is used, often, for meetings, book clubs and other private parties.
There's a small eat-at beverage bar (and TV) on the right as you come in the front door. It dispenses soft drinks and beer. Elsewhere walls are a pale yellow; there are a few Italian-y prints adorning them. There are Chianti-colored banquettes along two of the walls. Interior chairs and all the tables are hard, sturdy oak, the tables topped by a pizza caddy, featuring grated cheese, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper and plenty of napkins.
This is a place where locals come to get lunch or supper -- whether it be pizza or burgers or whatever -- some of them most every day, according to Mike Anders, Vesta's General Manager. You very well might meet him when you stop in. He, like all the other employees here, is known to do some of the cooking (he's been making their pizzas for a decade or more) and even waits tables.
The menu is as simple as the restaurant itself. Appetizers, salads, deli subs and wraps, hot subs and burgers, paninis, gyros, strombolis and calzones. Plus an eight-item section titled Italian Dinners, where you'll find spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, stuffed manicotti and more classics.
Being a pizzeria, there are the pizzas, of course. New York style (meaning thin crust), with plenty of options both in circumference and in a wide range of traditional toppings. There are also specialty pizzas, such as the Hawaiian, the veggie supreme, the Maryland crab and The Warrior (more in a minute).
The four of us did our fair share of sampling on a recent visit. (Touring stimulates the appetite, don't you know.) We're pleased to report that while the menu here is unpretentious, what the kitchen does with virtually all of its ingredients is treat them respect. Food is nicely presented on a variety of dinnerware — colorful and not so. Service was a bit slow when we visited during a mid-afternoon lull, but the food was cooked to order and pretty much made up for the lag time.
Thus cheese fries ($5.95) were a massive serving of boardwalk-style tender and crisp potato sticks, oozing a combination of Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses and topped with lots of crisp bacon. And Vesta wings ($6.25) — we chose mild — were eight plump, crisp-coated, moist, tender and tangy morsels with ample (tangy too) blue cheese dunk and crunchy celery.
"The Palace ($7.25), a main dish salad, satisfied one of our quartet. And rightly so. This was a biggie, touted on the menu as "a rendition of a New York City favorite." Baby greens, red grapes and red delicious apples, candied walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese, lots of freshly grilled boneless chicken breast and featuring a charming house-made blueberry-pomegranate vinaigrette.
A pair of pizzas satisfied two of us (they shared some, too). A 14-inch New Yorker ($10), topped with plentiful pepperoni and fresh, crisp green bell peppers. Over a relatively good pizza sauce (not too thick, but perhaps a bit too restrained). And under a fair amount of cheese. (We probably should've gone for the "extra cheese" option, though.) The crust was nicely cooked, and creditably thin, needing a bit more chew to it, we thought.
And The Warrior ($11.25/10-inch), a meat eater's nirvana, boasted pepperoni, bacon, sausage, ham, meatballs — and extra cheese. Loaded is the word. And a bit salty (the bacon, the ham, the pepperoni, etc.), some of us opined. "Perfect," others said.
One of our number opted for the Eggplant Parmigiana ($9.95) from the Italian Dinners section. Even if nothing else we ate was good (and, of course that isn't so), this would have redeemed Vesta. Lovely sauce – sprightly, fresh, herby, tomato-y . Wonderful al dente linguine. Perfect eggplant rounds — freshly breaded and fried delicately crisp, leaving the vegetable with complete integrity. Topped with nutty Parmesan and melty mozzarella. And a crisp, fresh side salad, too.
On our next visit, we might stop across the street, nearer Inn Boonsboro, and try Dan's Restaurant and Tap House — another "character" in Nora Roberts' Boonsboro Trilogy. Anders says that's more of a "date" restaurant, with steaks and seafood and the like. On the other hand, that eggplant Parmesan beckons.
[Vesta Pizzeria and Family Restaurant] (301-432-6166), 2 S. Main Street, Boonsboro. A basic, down-home pizza and burger joint, featuring well-treated food (and customers) and featured in the current Nora Roberts Boonsboro Trilogy. Open seven days, 11 a.m.-9 or 10 p.m. Visit http://www.VestaPizza.com