It was almost like visiting a new restaurant.
And given all that Sandra D's Italian Garden in Auburn has gone through this year, the restaurant is sort of in its grand-opening period once again.
On Jan. 8, in the midst of one of the harsh winter, a water pipe burst in the restaurant on South Main Street. It forced owners Bentley and Sandra Dillinger to close the doors for four months. Many small-business owners would have never survived it, but the Dillingers pressed on.
If there is a silver lining to the horror story, it is that their charming, folksy, small-town eatery now has a sleek, modern edge. A new ceiling, multicolored tile floors, shiny new tables with bar stool-style chairs and a red paint scheme in parts of the small dining room have really lifted what was already an attractive place. There are still some of those folksy touches – trellises with faux vines and Sandra's signature white picket fence anchored along the main wall – and, honestly, I kind of wish the whole place had been converted to be more modern. But given all they have been through, I understand why having those reminders of the restaurant it was before the storm are important to hold onto.
One thing that hasn't changed is the food. Sandra D's and Bentley, who mans the kitchen with Sandra's son, Nate Crosby, still produces a fantastic mix of Italian specialties that – like the new look of the restaurant – are rustic and homey while still being modern.
Nothing represents it better than Bentley's handmade beef and Italian sausage raviolis. Two huge raviolis were served in a porcelain boat covered with marinara and a dusting of Parmesan. The filling was rich and meaty with the perfect amount of sausage to add just a little spice without overpowering. But it was the al dente pasta that was the star – tender and delicate like fresh pasta should be.
Bentley tries to make everything by hand, from his big, toasty, butter-soaked garlic breadsticks to his scrumptious and unique raindrop desserts. His rosemary flatbread finds its way in many dishes on the menu and serves as his pizza crust.
The two pies I tried, which were the perfect sharing size for an appetizer, were fantastic with the bread crisping up nicely while not becoming crumbly. The menu-staple apple pizza had a pesto sauce, sliced honeycrisps, gorgonzola, bleu and mozzarella cheese, and was garnished with a smattering of spring greens and a drizzle of balsamic. The honeycrisp apples were the perfect choice as they stood up to the heat of the oven and stayed crisp, and the mix of cheese was wonderful.
Even better was the weekly featured BLT pizza. It had a loose creamy mayonnaise as its sauce, perfectly rendered crispy bacon, plump juicy tomatoes and fresh greens on top. Simple perfection is what it was.
The rosemary flatbread was also the vessel for the Pollo Cesar Panini from the lunch menu. A pressed, seared and still-juicy chicken breast was smothered with melted Parmesan and provolone cheese, along with fresh tomatoes and greens. It was dressed with just enough pesto mayonnaise to still let the natural flavor of the chicken shine, and the hint of rosemary from the bread was a nice touch.
The best option wasn't Italian at all. Bentley's Smother Burger was one for my list of best burgers. The half-pound fresh Angus beef patty from Tim Didier Meats in Fort Wayne had the perfect grind and texture, was so juicy it literally dripped onto my plate, and it was perfectly seasoned. Its robust beef flavor was dominant even with the huge pile of sauteed crimini mushrooms and onions, and the hefty layer of oozing smoked gouda cheese I chose for it. And, of course, it came on a soft roll Bentley baked that morning.
I also might suggest getting a side of Sandra D's bleu cheese dressing for that burger, or for the breadsticks, or for about anything, especially one of the restaurant's excellent side salads.
Unlike the burger, the grind for Bentley's handmade meatballs maybe could have been a little looser as they were a bit dense, but that was a minuscule flaw. They had the perfect garlic-and-parsley flavor, so you can't go wrong even if you just order a simple plate of spaghetti with a few of them.
Actually, it would be hard to go wrong with anything at Sandra D's Italian Garden. After 13 years in Auburn, the Dillingers are still making delicious food and making that food the right way.
And it is going to take more than a broken pipe to stop them.
Restaurant: Sandra D's Italian Garden
Address: 1330 S Main St., Auburn
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Smoking status: Non-smoking
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Apple pizza ($7.99), breadsticks ($4.99), ravioli ($9.99), smother burger ($7.99), panini ($6.99), spaghetti ($8.99; meatballs 2 for 99 cents)
Rating breakdown: Food: * * * (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.