If there’s one thing that I know about food, it’s that pretty much everybody loves Italian. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that everyone loves food with Italian roots. Even the pickiest of kids I’ve known still adore pizza and spaghetti, but those dishes have come a long way from where they started, and some would say they’re not exactly better because of it.
As for myself, I love pizza and pasta, traditional or not, as long as they bring something to the table (hopefully that something is quality ingredients and good flavor). However, and the roommate and I have discussed this at length, at what point is an eatery considered “Italian” and not just a pizza joint? Olive Garden, though it pains me to say it, could probably be considered an Italian restaurant…or at least an Italian theme restaurant. I would even go so far as to call Casanova an Italian eatery, though all they really serve is pizza and sandwiches, because the pizza is the closest you’ll find to authentic Italian style around here, at least so far as I understand it. But I doubt anyone would argue that Pizza Hut is an Italian restaurant. I certainly wouldn’t. But why not? They’re serving pizza and pasta, aren’t they? Where is the line drawn? Does it really boil down to one of those “I know it when I see it” things? In the end, does it matter either way as long as the food is good? And how does all of this apply to Smoky Mountain?
|Smoky Mountain’s Eagle location, on State Street|
My roommate’s toddler just had her fourth birthday on Cinco de Mayo, and despite the fact that the cuisine for the birthday dinner would seem kind of obvious, it’s also the day that pretty much every Mexican restaurant in town turns into a zoo. The toddler, when asked what she wanted for her birthday dinner, chose Fuddruckers. Somehow, Mommy (who had been having a baked spaghetti craving for several weeks at this point) got her to change her mind in favor of Smoky Mountain. They’re a chain, but a relatively small one comprised of nine locations, eight of which are in Idaho. Much like my recent Friday’s experience, I had eaten there years ago but simply didn’t remember what I thought of the place. I thought it would be worth checking out, especially since they’re right up the street and have a “kids eat free” deal on Sundays, so I went along happily.
The two things I first noticed when walking into the Eagle Smoky Mountain were the surprisingly small dining room and the surprisingly large bar. Alas, there would be no imbibing this night, so it wasn’t long before my nose was buried in the menu. As I tried to choose my meal, I kept being distracted by the large mirror hanging next to the rear of our booth. More to the point, I kept being distracted by a dark reddish-brown smear of what was presumably some kind of food on the mirror. My roommate had decided what she was getting weeks before, ordering a side salad with her baked spaghetti and assuring me that their house dressing was really good. The children each chose a personal pizza from the kid’s menu, pepperoni for the tween and plain cheese for the birthday girl. I finally decided on the Chicken Pesto Parmigiana from the House Specialties section of the menu, mostly because I was intrigued by the fact that it incorporated both marinara AND pesto sauces. Our waiter was one of the more interesting ones I’ve ever had, he was literally almost a zombie. He didn’t seem tired or surly, he was just kind of a void. He didn’t smile, there was no friendliness in his voice, but he wasn’t rude either. Very strange. However he did score points when, after the toddler found no maraschino cherry in her drink (which I believe was a Shirley Temple), brought out a little cup full of them. He hadn’t been asked, he just happened to overhear.
|Kid’s Pepperoni Pizza|
|Kid’s Cheese Pizza|
The children’s pizzas arrived first. Each was served on top of a piece of foil which covered an inverted frisbee. I have to admit that as a free toy with a kid’s meal goes, it’s pretty cool, but the pizza itself wasn’t as impressive. It frankly seemed overcooked to me, and neither of the kids put much of a dent in theirs. I tried a bite of the cheese one, which was okay but could have used more flavor. I didn’t much like the consistency of the cheese either, but it had cooled off quite a bit by the time I tried it so that could have been part of the reason.
|Baked Spaghetti (Presto size)|
I could have sworn I had taken a picture of the roommate’s salad, but it doesn’t seem to be on my memory card. That’s really too bad, because the creamy Italian dressing on it was the highlight of the night as far as I was concerned. Her entrée was the second best thing, which is odd because I usually choose the better main course, while she has a much better nose for desserts. It’s hard to go wrong with spaghetti unless the sauce is just plain terrible, and it wasn’t, but I once again I didn’t care for the cheese here. The flavor of the provolone was mostly buried under the mozzarella, and overall the dish was something I could make much better myself at home (and for less money). It hit the spot for her, but she agreed that it would be an easy dish to recreate and/or improve upon.
|Chicken Pesto Parmigiana (Primo size)|
I had a combination of high hopes and morbid curiosity about my dish, which the menu describes as “Breaded chicken breasts, smothered with marinara, drizzled with pesto and ricotta cheese, then oven baked with provolone and parmesan cheese. Served over a bed of linguine with warm garlic bread.” I figured if anything sunk this dish, it would be an issue with balancing the flavors, but it turned out not to be that simple. First, the chicken had more or less the exact texture and flavor of giant chicken nuggets, right down to the super-crumbly breading. This would have been fine had I been dipping the things in barbecue or sweet & sour sauce, but it kept throwing me off in this context. My second issue was with the ricotta cheese, which added another (to me at least) odd textural component and seemed to serve no other purpose since once again the mozzarella overwhelmed all the other cheeses. Once in a while I would get a little flash of parmesan or provolone, but those moments were few and far between. The last and probably most personal issue was with the pesto. God how I love pesto, but here’s the thing: I’m not a big fan of pine nuts. I can usually cope, but whenever I make pesto at home, I generally use walnuts, and I tend to favor restaurants that do as well. Given the fact that pine nuts are an available pizza topping at Smoky Mountain, I assumed that they probably used them in the pesto as well, but I figured with all of the other components it shouldn’t be too overwhelming. Unfortunately, the “drizzle” was significant, the pesto was thick, and it had a VERY strong pine flavor that always came through in every single bite. It was interesting, I’m glad I tried it, but I would never order it again.
And that’s an important thing to point out here. I’m not trying to turn anyone off of this place, and in fact I know quite a few people who are fans. Some people like really browned pizza, huge amounts of cheese, and basic comfort food-style Italian cuisine. Nobody got sick or found their food completely disgusting (the only thing that disgusted me was that streak on the mirror, which the woman who came to bus the booth behind ours did nothing about, even though I mentioned it quite loudly hoping that she would overhear), it was just a little underwhelming. As always, if you’re curious you should try the place for yourself. Me? I think I might try my hand at baked spaghetti at home this weekend, but I just may stop by Smoky Mountain first for a bottle of their dressing to go…
Final Grade: C-