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Polito’s Rises from the Ashes

Observer Scene | Thursday, March 5, 2009

In the fall of 1997, Frank and Rebecca Polito opened a restaurant on Grape Road to moderate success, especially considering their national chain competition on the main drag of Mishawaka. On Aug. 8, the Politos woke up to find that their restaurant of almost 11 years had caught fire, along with the adjacent business.

Fortunately for the Politos, they had been planning on opening up a new branch of their restaurant on Hickory Road, just off McKinley Avenue, in the former home of Rathskeller Pizza. That morning, the family decided to sign the lease and begin immediately on building up their replacement restaurant. By Sept. 5, the new Polito’s was open for business.

It is difficult to see how exactly Polito’s has changed. Beyond the unpretentious front room, the standard back room seems like a place for more of a bar-restaurant feel, but it isn’t. There’s certainly an atmosphere of establishment; servers and chefs seem to have been doing their jobs for years, or at least have watched their parents do theirs. The décor is hackneyed, with posters of The Three Stooges, football teams, Miller, Coors and “Hoosiers.” Three TVs sit in the corners, playing programs from sports and news to “America’s Funniest Videos.” Despite the sports posters and beer pitcher specials (Miller Lite $6, Killian’s and Blue Moon $7), things like families with young children and a gameroom/arcade keep the restaurant from achieving sports bar status.

Getting past these incongruities, Polito’s affirms itself as famous for its “secret family vodka sauce,” and with good reason. Our waitress offered this creamy, peppery mix as a sample with rigatoni, and our small taste did not disappoint. Thick as alfredo, enough of the sauce leaves a peppery after-kick in the back of the throat. However, loaded onto the penne graciella with chicken, the sauce becomes the main element of the dish. Although the chicken was a bit dry, it was a fitting addition to the pasta, sun-dried tomatoes, broccoli and mushrooms.

A friend was quick to tell me that Polito’s serves the best chicken parmesan sandwich he’s ever had, so my selection was preordained. And to his credit, the sub was the most satisfying part of the meal. Served on a breadstick-like roll, the massive amounts of chicken and mozzarella cheese are rounded out by a smaller amount of flavorful sauce. Perhaps the best part of the sub is the bread – firm but chewy. I only ate half of this huge sandwich that night, and to my surprise, I enjoyed the second half just as much days later.

The pizza is popular (especially the weighty stuffed pizza), but the thin and thick pizzas were disappointing. The pepperoni was too greasy and the ground sausage was seemingly without effort. To qualify, because the half-sandwich was so filling, I tried the pizza a short time after we left, but I suspect that the dull flavor and poor texture were results of more than a short wait.

A strange aspect of our meal was that the service was quickest for our entrées. Otherwise, our server seemed bogged down by a busy section. It was understandable to wait a few minutes on orders, but processing the check caused one of the longest delays.

All things considered, I don’t recommend against Polito’s. Sure, skip the pizza and head to Bruno’s. Maybe get a pitcher of beer and try some pasta or one of the run-of-the-mill specials. Bear in mind the penne graciella, as long as you don’t mind shoveling away some of the delicious vodka sauce. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a chicken parmesan sandwich, do consider Polito’s. And make sure the TVs are tuned to something fitting, like “America’s Funniest Videos.”

Polito’s Italian Family Pizzeria Restaurant (2.5/4)

401 N. Hickory Rd.; 574-243-5385

Hours: 11-10 M-Th, 11-10:30 F-S, 10-8:30 Su

Prices: Apps $3-8, Entrées $9-15

10 words or less: Incredible chicken parmesan sandwiches, family atmosphere with sports bar aspirations

Contact J.J. Rees at jrees@nd.edu.