We’re number one …?

The highs and lows of Italian cuisine at Giovanni’s

 By Tom Baker

As we pulled into the parking lot behind Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant in downtown Fairborn, I noticed a large banner hung on the side of the building near the entrance. On this banner they proudly stated that Giovanni’s had been voted the #1 Italian restaurant in the Miami Valley by a local website. Many of us reference the Yelps, the TripAdvisors, and the Urbanspoons (and maybe even the DCP), researching our dining choices carefully before venturing out. In this case we just showed up, so that banner was the only beacon in the darkness, leading us to dinner.

It had been years since my last visit to Giovanni’s, joining my then-active-duty Air Force parents for pizza and beer. With dining areas surrounding a brightly lit kitchen area and cashier, the walls are literally covered with Air Force photos and memorabilia, due to its location just blocks away from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Giovanni’s has been in Fairborn since 1953, moving to its current location in 1984. In 1994, the restaurant was purchased by current owner Tony Spaziani, a New York native and University of Dayton grad. Having been in the restaurant business since he started washing dishes at age 13, this potential sign of legitimacy – as well as the one on the building – both seemed to point to smooth sailing ahead.

The host stand is located in the center of the restaurant, just across from the cashier (when finished, your server brings the check and simply points you in the right direction). We were seated promptly, arriving towards the end of dinner service on a busy Saturday night. Our server was prompt, very friendly and helpful with questions on the menu. When asked if they had a specialty or signature dish, he pointed us in the direction of the pizzas, as well as to the pasta and sausage with mushroom and tomato cream sauce ($11.50). We went for both. In addition to the pasta, we tried a small vegetarian pizza topped with mushrooms, olives, onions, green peppers and banana peppers. We also ordered an inexpensive (around twenty bucks) bottle of Valpolicella from their small, but very reasonably priced, wine list.

Our pasta came with a salad, and as we do most times we asked simply for the house dressing.  Our server let us know that it was a “strong” garlic dressing, but as someone who normally doubles the garlic in a recipe, we assumed it would be a safe bet. Bread and butter arrived, followed closely by a salad of iceberg, cherry tomatoes and creamy dressing. “Strong” is not the word I’d use for the dressing – perhaps burning is more appropriate. What little flavor the lettuce and tomatoes did have was obliterated by the almost chemical sear of garlic on my tongue. So much for the wine …

After nursing our palates with water and bread, the pizza and pasta arrived.  Both looked very good, but immediately I noticed something – they had used canned mushrooms. Without turning this review into a treatise on the folly that is the canned mushroom (or mentioning at any length the Hormel – maker of Spam and other delicacies – shout out on their online menu), I can only say that if there is one thing in the culinary world that gets my hackles up, it would be this. The pasta, tossed with mushrooms, house-made sausage and tomato cream sauce, was average. This was the result of a noticeable lack of seasoning, in both the sausage and the dish overall. As a signature dish it was disappointing, but certainly not bad per se. The pizza, on the other hand, was very good and featured a really nice, thin crust.

I’ll get to dessert shortly, as our server, while certainly energetic, brought us the check before asking if we were interested. Remember that we had arrived as dinner service was winding down, yet our server moved as if there was a line at the door. After politely returning the check and asking for recommendations, we went with the house-made Cannoli alla Siciliana ($2.50).

The chocolate chip and sweet cheese-stuffed standard didn’t disappoint, and at that price would warrant getting two. About a week later, we ordered carry out after stimulating the economy a bit. On our first visit we had been eyeballing a neighbor’s sandwich, and so we decided to try Giovanni’s Original Blimp ($5.75). A sandwich with ham, salami, provolone, banana peppers, onions and sauce, it’s pretty much a straight-up Italian sub. I would have preferred red onions over the more pungent white they used here, but overall we found it satisfying after a long morning of shopping. We also went with a spinach calzone ($6.50), their homemade, yeasty thin pizza dough stuffed with three cheeses and chopped spinach. Served with marinara, it was probably my favorite item overall, based loosely on the fact that I nearly inhaled it and was looking for more.

While it’s clear that Giovanni’s is a Fairborn institution, offering an affordable and generally pleasant experience, what’s less clear is the truly subjective grey area in which what’s “best” is decided, especially in the cloud world of the Internet. I thought of this as, full and still feeling the slight garlicky burn of my salad, I made my way to the surly cashier who offered no response as I asked how she was doing. And as I walked back into the parking lot, past that nice banner, I wondered how many fresh mushrooms that sign would buy.

Giovanni’s Pizzeria & Ristorante Italiano is located at 215 W. Main St. in Fairborn. For more information, visit www.giovannisfairborn.com or call 937.878.1611.

Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com. 

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