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Worth the Drive: Buona mangiata! (good eating)

Pintoli’s brings a touch of Italy to south Alabama

LEFT TO RIGHT:  Pintoli’s waitress Wendi Ramer carries a tray of tiramisu, house spaghetti, and breadsticks with marinara sauce; Muffaletta with fries; pasta and meatballs.

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Rome – except maybe Pintoli’s Italian Cafe, the best Italian restaurant in Satsuma, Ala.

OK, Pintoli’s is the only Italian restaurant in Satsuma, Ala. But ask anyone in this town of 6,000 residents, north of Mobile. Pintoli’s Italia, mamma mia – that’s for me-ah, cuisine is like fine cheese: It’s Gouda.

The Highway 43 eatery, about two miles off I-65, Exit 19, has been a local fixture since 1999. The outside is an unpretentious strip mall tenant. But once inside the pasta paradise, Satsuma becomes Venice, minus flooded streets.

“I visited Italy to research their cafes,” said Pintoli’s owner, Stephanie Nicholson. “Over there, restaurant exteriors are often plain but the inside is much fancier.” Pintoli’s is like that.

Stucco pastel walls, warm lighting, and arched dining parlor entrances surround linen-laid tabletops. “People are surprised, walking in for a first visit,” Stephanie says. “Seeing the outside, is not what you expect on the inside.” Pintoli’s is not what Stephanie expected either.

She comes from a family of restaurateurs. Her relatives are owners-operators of dozens of establishments, from pizzerias to fine dining. “I am all of those in one,” she says. But it was not always like that. Pintoli’s was not her original career choice.

In 1999, Stephanie’s intent was to complete college as an English Literature major and teach school. But the young lady from neighboring Baldwin County agreed to help family members open the fledging Satsuma restaurant on a temporary basis. Temporary basis is now 18 years and counting.

On a wing, a prayer, and pepperoni, Stephanie and former husband, Jose Pinto, launched their venture as a tiny pizza pick-up with limited seating. Rewards were few and work was great. Her chef hat was multi-purposed: waitress, cook, cashier, menu designer, dishwasher, and more. Stephanie was a 22-year-old restaurant owner and business was terrible.

“We had little money, and virtually no equipment,” she recalls. “We couldn’t even afford a sign. I spread a canvas banner across the building with our name on it.” Their food was great but so was the competition, including one nearby with a red roof.

In 2006 Pintoli’s took a major plunge – expansion in both building and menu. Incorporating her father’s recipes and mother’s help, new dishes were added. Satsuma welcomed fettuccini Alfredo, crawfish pasta, chicken parmigiana, mountainous muffalettas, and lasagna kissed by angels. Floor space and seating capacity doubled, a new wing was added, and the staff grew from 10 to today’s 30-something. Bring on the Stromboli

Pintoli’s rebranded itself as the best of both worlds. As executive chef Marcus Beekman notes, “We are a pizza parlor, and offer free in-town delivery to the community and area hotels. But we’re also an Italian restaurant, popular for wedding rehearsals, parties, and family dining.”

The customer base is a mix: locals, neighboring towns, and Interstate 65 – where one can drive in from Chicago without a traffic light. “A lot of people from all over the country write us through our website after stopping here while traveling,” says Stephanie. “It is very rewarding receiving compliments from people passing through.”

Pintoli’s day starts the night before. Fresh breads are made from scratch. Sauces are produced in caldron-sized kettles. Daily specials are planned. Chef Marcus oversees the operation.

“We make sure everything runs smoothly,” he adds. “I do a lot of behind the scenes operations the customer never sees.” Customers may not see it but they smell, and most important, taste it. That’s when you hear “Momma mia!” – with a Southern accent.

Pintoli’s cooks about a thousand lasagna plates a month. Rounding out the most popular menu entrees are crawfish pasta and shrimp and bacon Alfredo. Custom-built toasted sandwiches are available, including the Italian (smoked ham, salami, pepperoni laced with mozzarella cheese.)

Five types of pizzas are available, and assembled, based on and named for celebrity favorites: Frank Sinatra (supreme), Rocky Marciano (combination), Al Pacino (all meat), Sophia Loren (veggie), and Joe Pesci (gourmet).

All entrees include a basket of garlic bread sticks and homemade marinara sauce –good for munching while studying the menu. For the indecisive among us, there is the Pintoli’s Sampler – portions of the most popular dishes on one platter, including chicken parmigiana, pasta Alfredo, and of course, lasagna.

Steaks are available on Valentine’s Day and other occasions. Also, and somewhat surprisingly, Pintoli’s has good collection of wine, by glass or bottle. And desserts? Delizioso!

Tiramisu – alternating layers of imported mascarpone and ladyfingers soaked in expresso and a touch of liqueur. Turtle cheesecake, covered – you heard me – covered, with caramel, chocolate, and pecans. A slab of chocolate cake and New York-style cheesecake.

Pintoli’s special of the day changes daily, forcing diners to return often for updates. That is a good problem to have for a taste of Italy in one of the most unexpected places.

Pintoli’s Italian Café

5573 Highway 43
Satsuma, Ala. 36572

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and Saturday
11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Friday