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Dining worth lines at Italian hideaway

It is no longer just the cozy little place I happened upon in, of all places, a truck stop east of New Haven.

No, Salvatori’s Authentic Italian Eatery has seen its reputation grow to the point that it is always packed and there is usually a line of folks waiting to get in.

One would think a bigger space was in order for the restaurant Sam Leto opened next to Bill’s Sun Mart and Taco Bell along U.S. 30. But keeping the numbers low allows Leto and his crew to concentrate on what is most important – making from-scratch Italian food better than the bigger places.

Leto still makes his meatballs by hand, still grabs an empty pot to start each order of Alfredo sauce and still takes time to ensure everything is up to his standards. Only recently did he decide to add to his menu.

The staples are still there, but there are some new twists, starting with an upgraded version of his to-die-for fettuccine Alfredo.

The Alfredo Especial has the same silky, cheesy, rich sauce, but includes crispy fried prosciutto, green peas, roasted red peppers and crushed red pepper. The peas popped with freshness, the prosciutto added a wonderful salty bacon-like quality, the roasted peppers added a touch of sweetness and the crushed pepper added some spice. This carbonara of sorts was an even better take on the best Alfredo in this area.

Another new addition that found favor was the Cavatelli Pesto. Shell pasta was beautifully enrobed by a bright green sauce made with fresh basil and garlic and tossed with roasted red peppers. The pesto sauce was not too intense (which is good if you are not a fan of pesto) but had a pronounced kick of garlic. I had chicken added to mine, and there were plenty of tender, juicy bits of breast meat throughout.

The Cavatelli Caiazzo was just as good. The pasta was joined by sliced spicy Italian sausage, red onions, mushrooms, stewed tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil in a rusty colored tomato sauce made using a spiced butter that was a little oily but really added some heat.

A small version of another new addition, the Philly steak pizza, made for a great appetizer.

Thinly sliced and melt-in-your mouth tender top round were joined atop the thin, crispy crust by fresh green bell and jalapeno peppers, red onions, roasted red peppers, globs of creamy Fontinella cheese and a drizzle of good ’ol bright yellow processed cheese sauce. It would have been great as a sandwich and was darn good as a pizza.

Speaking of great sandwiches, as much as I love Salvatori’s meatballs, I had never tried a meatball sandwich before. Big mistake.

The gigantic meatballs are sliced and served atop crusty Italian bread, which nicely soaks up the meat sauce that covers them along with sweet roasted red peppers, mozzarella and parmesan cheese. It is served open-faced and would be impossible to close and eat with your hands given the amount of toppings.

And although I usually stick with Salvatori’s thin, chewy breadsticks, the Fresh Vegetable Crostini was worth trying as a starter again. The crostinis were nicely toasted on the bottom and soaked up the zesty Italian dressing coating the chopped Roma tomatoes, red and white onions, mushrooms, black and green olives, carrots, cabbage, green peppers, roasted red peppers and banana peppers on top.

My only criticism was the crostini being topped with shredded cold mozzarella, which didn’t really add any flavor. Freshly grated parmesan would have worked better.

There was nothing better than dessert. The cinnamon roll, which found its place in my Jan. 1 “Best Of” column, is basically a big sausage roll only instead of sausage, cheese and sauce, it is filled with cinnamon, sugar and butter. It is then topped with either caramel sauce – my favorite – or white chocolate sauce.

It may be difficult to finish after a big Italian meal and you may have to wait a while for it to be prepared since it, like pretty much everything at Salvatori’s Authentic Italian Cuisine, is made from scratch.

But it is fantastic.

Just like the restaurant.

It may be way too busy and way too cramped given the folks lining up to eat there, but that is an inconvenience I will just have to learn to live with because not returning is not an option.

Restaurant: Salvatori’s Authentic Italian Eatery

Address: 12244 McKenzie Drive, New Haven

Phone: 748-2057

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Italian

Handicapped accessible: Yes, but very tight quarters

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Scampi ($8.95), vegetable crostini, ($4.95), Alfredo Especial ($11.25), Cavatelli Caiazzo ($9.25), Cavatelli Pesto ($8.75; $2.50 for chicken; $4.50 for shrimp), Philly pizza ($7.75 small; $15.25 large), meatball sandwich ($8.50), cinnamon roll ($5.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net and you can also follow him on Twitter (@DiningOutDuVall).