I used to be a restaurant reviewer for a local newspaper. From 1991 to 2006, I must have tallied more than 400 stories about food. I probably conned my way into the job through a series of interviews. “Sure, I know all about restaurants.” (That’s code for, “I’ve been a waitress and bartender. I’ve washed dishes. I can make cereal for a party of 12.”) I got the job and had a blast learning about different kinds of cooking and settings and presentations of everything from simple sandwiches to hoity-toity dishes that aspire to the heavens. It was great while it lasted, but I quit after 15 years, when I just couldn’t come up with another word to write about deep-fried frozen cheese sticks.
Sitting here at the Great Lakes Mall in Mentor, Ohio, at our Sirius Alpacas’ mall kiosk, for days on end, sometimes with hours between customers, I get hungry. Maybe I’m just bored, watching everyone walk past me with milkshakes and burgers. But, I start thinking about all the food I don’t eat. In my 20s, for dinner I could eat half a pizza, a salad, a grapefruit, a dish of ice cream, and somehow manage to go out with my sister for foofy drinks later on. I was one of those people I now despise.
I give you this background only to establish my credentials. I’m legit. I do know a thing or two about food. And, I used to eat a lot. I’m slowing down in my old age (see post about my 44th birthday), but I still know the difference between fast-food crap and a meal that’s made with fresh ingredients and at least a little inspiration.
As a value-added service to my loyal readers (all three of you and maybe my mom), I am about to test drive all the Great Lakes Mall’s food court dining choices this year, so that when you come to shop at Sirius Alpacas, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about where you get your sustenance.
I’m a little dismayed to report that the selections are skimpy. There are several vacant areas with walls that say something to the effect, “More Dining Choices Coming Soon…” Heck, a jeweler, Ashcroft & Oak, sits in the place where the killer cookie cakes used to be. In my high-school days, I’d buy chocolate-chip cookies the size of a large pizza and take them home to my parents. Thanks to the miracle of preservatives, one cookie lasted about two weeks. Did we care we were loading our bodies with questionable ingredients we couldn’t pronounce? No way. I miss the place.
Gone is the old Orange Julius decorated like the Den of Satan complete with the pitchfork chairs. (It was the ‘70s. Donna, thanks for reminding me!) Today, in total, there are seven food sellers in the Great Lakes Mall’s food court plus a pretzel kiosk and coffee island. There’s actually a phone seller in one of the places where fast food used to be. I remember the days when every space was filled. I figure I’ll have no problem eating at seven places over the course of the December shopping season. I’m not expecting to be wowed. I am expecting to need Tums and a January gym membership.
Meal One: Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen
I arrived hungry. I had been busy at my day job, and skipped lunch, only eating a yogurt, banana and fiber bar as snacks all day. I didn’t want anything too light, but I didn’t want to experience a terrible carb crash coma either. I did need to stay awake to talk with customers.
Villa isn’t bad. I ordered a vegetable Stromboli ($4.99) made with spinach, tomatoes, feta and mozzarella. Wrapped in a soft dough crust, it had a nice chewy bite. The spinach tasted surprisingly fresh, which isn’t what I expected from my mall grub. However, my complaint is that there was too much spinach and not enough tomatoes. I was worried about getting little spinach pieces stuck between my teeth, and then smiling at someone who wanted to try on a Sirius Alpacas’ chullo hat. Awkward.
I had a what-the-heck moment when I opened the cardboard box to find no marinara sauce. I was perturbed, and would have been deep-dish angry except for the fact that I needed to work, and not worry about spattering tomato-sauce stars all over my shirt and alpaca scarf. But, if you visit Villa, be sure to request a side of hot marinara for dipping. I can’t believe it wasn’t automatically provided or at least suggested if it was an up-sell. (Which it shouldn’t be! )
Villa doesn’t skimp on cheese. My stromboli was loaded with lots of gooey mozzarella. Although I was told feta was included, I could barely detect it every three or four bites. But, between the crust and the cheese, I felt like I had eaten a full dinner, but not too heavy.
The counter workers were pleasant enough, but the mall was dead at the time, so it’s not like I saw them perform their jobs under any kind of a clip. There was only one person in front of me when I arrived, and no one behind me. Everyone working the counter was high-school age.
Oh, I also bought an unsweetened iced tea. My total bill was $6.78. Not bad.
Rating* (out of five stars): 3.5
*I am not comparing food-court establishments to sit-down chain restaurants, mom-and-pop diners, fine-dining restaurants or other places that wouldn’t be found at a mall. Ratings are inclusive of food quality, service, speed, presentation and order accuracy / completeness within the context of mall food-court fare.
Sirius Alpacas is a family farm in Chardon, Ohio that raises and boards alpacas for fun, therapy and profit. The farm uses its fleeces in the production of high-quality yarns and felted goods. Sirius Alpacas also imports fair-trade Andean items including socks, scarves, hats, gloves and more from Peru and Bolivia, offering the style and culture of South American goods while helping the farmers, artists and craftsmen of that region.