Lower Burrell's Villa Ballanca takes customers on a trip to Italy
"It's like Italy."
That's how Beni Ballanca describes Villa Ballanca, the Italian restaurant he and his brother, Vali Ballanca, opened in January 2008 in Lower Burrell.
If there is one thing the Ballancas know, it's Italian restaurants. The family ran one in Naples before coming to America and opening eateries in Butler, Gibsonia and Hampton.
They opened the Leechburg Road location when the building previously occupied by Arthur's Restaurant became available.
The restaurant's origins readily are apparent, from the Italian that can be heard spoken in the kitchen when customers walk in the door to the extensive menu featuring Italian classics such as lasagna, eggplant parmesan and chicken marsala.
Considering many family members work at Villa Ballanca, it's no surprise the establishment has the feel of an Italian household -- a bit eccentric, a bit traditional, but full of family, fun and food.
Even the crowded rear parking lot has the haphazard feel you'd get from a big family Sunday dinner. The entrance beside the Burrell Inn is easy to miss if you aren't paying attention.
From the rear entrance, you'll be taken straight to the main dining room in the front of the building, or to a smaller room through saloon-style doors.
The high ceilings, window-lined walls, ivy-draped fountain and wooden lattice room dividers give the main dining room the feel of a sheltered terrace.
But we were pleased with the quiet, cozy atmosphere of the wood-paneled smaller dining room. We didn't notice any noise from the nearby bar and, even though a long table beside us was set for a large party, we had the space to ourselves on a busy Friday night.
Service was prompt, friendly and professional. Each course was timed to come out just as we were finishing the earlier food.
Come hungry for pasta at Villa Ballanca: it is incorporated into almost all of the 50 entrees. Either the pasta is stuffed -- manicotti, lasagna, ravioli -- or the chicken, veal, seafood or vegetables are served with linguine, fettuccini, penne or spaghetti.
The huge menu also includes pizzas, dinner salads and more than two dozen sandwiches.
We started with the Combination Sampler ($7.25), which offered the classic fried and breaded appetizers -- a few provolone sticks, a half-dozen crunchy onion rings and generous helpings of mushrooms and zucchini sticks. The only disappointment was the zucchini, which was barely distinguishable inside the substantial breading.
We also munched heartily on a basket of homemade breadsticks that came gratis when we were seated. The garlicky sticks appeared to have a warm and chewy pizza dough base. Our dinners were served with softball-sized rolls, also homemade.
The Stuffed Shells ($9.25) were the epitome of rich, delicious comfort food -- three shells filled with a creamy mixture of ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan, baked in marinara sauce. Your Italian grandma would have a hard time topping this dish.
Dinners come with a choice of soup or salad; we chose the soup of the day, Clam Chowder ($3.25 for a bowl).
The half of a Meatball Parmigiana Hoagie ($5.50 for half; $7.50 for whole)• was generously proportioned. A full 6-inch bun was topped with four tender meatballs smothered in marinara and cheese. Sandwiches don't come with sides, but we didn't need any with this sizable hoagie.
One of the few dinners that doesn't automatically come with pasta is the Broiled Pork Chops ($13.25), although pasta was a side option. We chose a baked potato instead, which was well-buttered and delicious.
When we were concerned that one of the two thick pork chops was a smidgen too pink in the middle, our amiable server had a new one prepared and brought it out to our table in minutes. It was worth the wait.
We had so much else to eat that we didn't notice when the side salad that was supposed to accompany the pork-chop dinner never arrived.
But that just left more room for dessert. How could we visit an Italian restaurant and not try the cannoli and tiramisu?
The Cannoli's ($4.95 for two) flaky pastry, which might have had a hint of cinnamon, was wrapped around a rich filling of sweetened ricotta and chocolate chips.
The Tiramisu ($3.95) had a nontraditional presentation, cut in a triangle like a slice of pie. But the creamy mascarpone cheese and expresso-soaked lady fingers were just what we expected. Crunchy bits of chocolate, plus a chocolate drizzle, topped it off.
We left with full bellies -- and our wallet still was pretty full, too. About half of the entrees and the salads and sandwiches at Villa Ballanca are available for less than $10.
Villa Ballanca Restorante & Pizza
Cuisine: Italian, pizza
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays.
Entree price range: $8.50-$16
Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Reservations accepted. Children's menu available. Parties can reserve a private room.
Address: 2740 Leechburg Road, Lower Burrell
Details: 724-339-6111 or www.villaballanca.com
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