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Thursday, May 27, 2004 11:18 am

Takeout treasure

Carmelo, Michael, and Catherine Maggiore of Buon Appetito
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

When you think of takeout, the options that usually come to mind are cartons of Chinese food, a pizza, or a bucket of fried chicken. Homemade eggplant Parmesan and stuffed artichokes probably aren't the kind of dishes you usually pick up for dinner on the way home from work -- but they should be.

A tiny business in a strip mall on Springfield's west side is one of the city's takeout treasures. Carmelo and Catherine Maggiore and their two sons, Michael and Joseph, operate Buon Appetito in Fairhills Mall. The eatery has a few small tables for dining, but it's mostly a takeout business for customers who want to sample family recipes without spending hours in the kitchen.

What makes the restaurant special, besides its delicious food, is that the Maggiores serve up a rich history and tradition with each dish to customers who take the time to listen. "We share with the public," says Carmelo, a native of Sicily.

The family focuses on providing food that is fresh and old-fashioned, Carmelo says. He and his wife, a Springfield native, moved here eight years ago after operating a similar restaurant in New York.

"It's a disgrace how people eat," says Carmelo, referring to the popularity of fast-food meals loaded with calories and preservatives but, in his opinion, lacking in taste. He's as passionate about the way his food is prepared as he is about how it tastes. He explains that he uses only fresh produce and heart-healthy ingredients such as olive oil, low-sodium cheeses, and fresh vegetables. Carmelo says he tries to educate customers about the importance of eating homemade dishes prepared with the finest ingredients.

"We offer traditional dishes that go back 3,000 years. Behind each dish there is a story and a history," he says. "Our cooking comes from the heart."

Son Michael notes that the wreck of a 2,000-year-old Roman ship laden with olive oil, wine, and honey was recently discovered off the coast of Sicily. The vessel apparently sank while transporting these goods. "These are all of our traditions that go back 2,000 years or more. You have to be from the Mediterranean to know our food. Olive oil, eggplant, cauliflower, and broccoli are all from the Mediterranean. Many of our dishes go back to the Roman Empire. Nobody knows the history behind each dish, so we explain to our customers," Michael says.

"The success of our business is two things: the food we serve and the people who come here. We really appreciate it," he adds.

Indeed, a customer who asks about any dish on the day's menu is encouraged and, if need be, enthusiastically persuaded to try samples as descriptions of the ingredients are given. The menu, which changes daily, generally includes four pasta dishes, two meat dishes, a few side dishes, and three desserts. Dishes include spinach, beef, and eggplant lasagna; spaghetti with fresh artichokes, garlic, wine, and olive oil; broiled and breaded chicken breast served with potatoes; penne noodles with meatballs; handmade rustica fettuccine with homemade sausage, fresh tomatoes, and olive oil; stuffed peppers; ravioli; stew; stuffed artichokes; eggplant Parmesan; or pizza. Gnocchi is offered each Saturday. All of the food -- even the sausage, ravioli, and pizza dough -- is homemade.

Buon Appetito's menu reflects what the Maggiores are in the mood to prepare on any given day. It also reflects what produce is in season. This time of year, several artichoke dishes are being offered -- stuffed, fried, tossed with pasta. In the summer, more dishes featuring eggplant, peppers, cauliflower, and broccoli are offered.

Desserts, which include cannoli, tiramisu, pies, and cakes, are displayed in a glass case. There's no written menu, so seeing what's available each day is always a pleasant surprise.

Customers can order takeout dinners in one-pound containers, which are filled with one chosen option or several. Each container costs $10 and holds enough to serve two people. For $12 you get a complete dinner, including a salad. "It costs you less than breakfast," says Carmelo says. Homemade rolls are included free with each entrée.

During a recent visit, I sampled each of the day's entrées, which included a spicy pasta dish with sausage and a lightly breaded chicken breast. Everything I tasted was delicious, and the menu offered a nice variety of options. I decided on two versions of spaghetti. In the first, the pasta was tossed with garlic, olive oil, cauliflower, and broccoli rabe. This simple dish was wonderfully executed, with just the right amount of oil, cheese, and garlic to bring a burst of flavor to each bite. In the other version, the spaghetti was tossed with a tomato-and-artichoke sauce, which was richer. Both were delicious.

For dessert, I tried the lemon and orange sponge cakes, which were so moist that they melted in my mouth. The cannoli was divine. The traditional Italian pastry, made with smooth, creamy ricotta cheese filling inside a tubular crust, was the perfect way to end a meal -- and I didn't even have to do dishes. Isn't that the point of takeout?

Buon Appetito is located at 1941 W. Monroe St., in the Fairhills Mall; 217-698-9844. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat.

Ice break

There's a reason that the corner of Durkin Drive and Lawrence Avenue is crowded in the afternoons these days. It's because the Ice Deli is open for the season.

The tiny stand offers 54 varieties of flavored ice, such as coffee, coconut, cotton candy, cinnamon, cheesecake, brandy, kiwi, grape, blackberry, tangerine, tutti frutti, spearmint, sour cherry, praline, peppermint, lime, and orange. Several sugar-free flavors are also available.

More than 180 specialty flavors are offered. Some are named for movies and action heroes, such Little Mermaid, Lion King, Harry Potter, Wolverine, and Superman.

There are also creamy ice treats, made with milk, aimed at adult customers. Those flavors include Irish cream, Kahlua, key lime, and brandy Alexander, made with brandy, chocolate and vanilla velvet flavorings.

Ice Deli is located in the Chateau Village parking lot (home to Soccer World) at the corner of Durkin and Lawrence. Hours: 3:30-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 2-9 p.m. Sat. and Sun.

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