Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review

If you're thinking Cannoli Joe's is a typical buffet, you couldn't be more wrong

Cannoli Joe's

4715 Hwy. 290 W., 512/892-4444,
Weekday lunch, 11am-1:30pm; Sun.-Thu., 5-8:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-9:30pm; Sat.-Sun., 11am-2:30pm
Restaurant Review
Photo by John Anderson

Cannoli Joe's

4715 Hwy. 290 W., 892-4444
Weekday lunch, 11am-1:30pm; Sunday-Thursday, 5-8:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-9:30pm; Saturday-Sunday brunch, 11am-2:30pm

When driving to the Sunset Valley Farmers Market, you pass Cannoli Joe's, where a large Wolfe Nursery used to sit on the frontage road of Highway 290 West, between Brodie and West Gate Boulevard. The exterior attempts to resemble an Italian village, and once you step inside, you definitely get that impression. Winding down the center of the restaurant are different food stations, each suggestive of a food vendor or shop along a lane in an old Italian village. Dining areas are separated into unique spaces, accented with period Italian decorations, embellishments, and doodads. The whole effect is one of casual, authentic Italian with a dose of tongue-in-cheek kitsch.

Cannoli Joe's is a buffet, but not in the classic sense. More than 70 dishes are displayed in numerous food stations (salad and antipasti, pizza, pasta, seafood, poultry, oven-baked, dessert, etc.), but only moderate amounts of each dish are out at a time, and each dish is rapidly replenished as needed. Every­thing is cooked in-house from fresh ingredients. County Line Bar-B-Q honcho Skeeter Miller saw the concept in Canada and really liked it. "There are a lot of similarities between barbecue and Italian food," says Miller. "Both present really bold flavors, and folks are naturally drawn to both. We love this arrangement, because it allows us to cook fresh food in small batches, and people aren't forced to queue up in a line like robots. You can pick and choose from any of the stations and eat what you like, and we're constantly rotating new dishes into the mix. It's an idea that our customers have really adopted."

Our last visit we managed to sample 36 different items, and with only a couple of exceptions, we were very satisfied. From the salad section we had crisp bruschetta with pesto; sweet boiled shrimp with a zippy cocktail sauce; a sweet-and-sour eggplant caponata; Greek, chopped, and Caesar salads (all chilled, crisp, and tasty); and a pesto-and-pasta salad with roasted red peppers. There was a brief interlude with a rich minestrone soup, followed by slices of delicious pizza made with wonderful yeasty dough that was perfectly browned on the bottom: three-cheese, pepperoni, bianca (feta and spinach), pepperoni and jalapeño, and Margherita with lots of fresh basil.

We went more free-form after that: a luscious, tender, braised beef with portobellos; sautéed spicy Italian sausage with red peppers; garlicky Parmesan bread sticks; grilled steak in marsala sauce; big cheese-stuffed ravioli in a nice tomato sauce; a delicious lasagna Bolognese; and some good eggplant parmigiano (although it would benefit from a thinner breading). Pasta Rosa with a red bell pepper cream sauce was great, while the fettuccine Alfredo needed more Parmesan (conveniently located next to the pizzas behind you). Rosemary roasted new potatoes and the whipped potatoes with fontina and garlic both excelled. The cauliflower with capers and the spicy lemon broccoli were dynamite.

Normally, I would flee from a salmon dish on a buffet, but this moist and perfect salmon was marinated and grilled, resting on a bed of garlic-and-caper orzo. The meatballs were a little dense for my taste, but the meat loaf with balsamic glaze was just right. The Sicilian orange-and-honey carrots were a nice foil for the jalapeño-and-garlic polenta bites. The rotisserie chicken had a wonderfully caramelized skin, and there was a knockout gratin with acorn squash, onion, and yellow squash. The calamari with arrabiata sauce had too much breading and was almost out, but I was too full to wait, and the dessert section was beckoning.

Cannolis were present, filled with ricotta and chocolate. Tart lemon bars kept suckering me back, along with the spumoni and the other 11 ice creams. A raspberry-chocolate cheesecake was strangely a tad salty, but the chocolate-dipped strawberries were just right. There were several other cakes, a warm apple crisp, and a bread pudding with Frangelico sauce. Profite­roles, chocolate-dipped macaroons, and several more enticed, but I'd hit the wall.

Lunch is $9.99, weekday dinner (when more items are added to the mix) is $13.99, and weekend dinner is $15.99 (with still more additions). You definitely feel like you get your money's worth (hell, I could eat $16 worth of just pizza and feel happy). But there is a big plus: On Monday and Tuesday nights, Cannoli Joe's adds filet mignon to the dish mix, and Wednesday and Thursday nights, look for its Tex-Italia Wine Celebration, with fantastic live jazz and exceptional prices on some excellent local wines (with all wine proceeds going to local charities). Saturday and Sunday brunches take the regular lunch menu and add a wealth of typical brunch items for $13.99.

If you're thinking Cannoli Joe's is a typical buffet, you couldn't be more wrong. It's a dizzying array of fresh Italian food cooked in small batches, presented in a really comfortable and artistically unique space.

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Cannoli Joe's, Skeeter Miller, buffet, pizza, Tex-Italia Wine Celebration, lasagna Bolognese, fettuccine Alfredo

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