Enjoy homemade Italian favorites in a fun, funky environment

Enjoy homemade Italian favorites in a fun, funky environment

We’re starting to notice that we like hometown-styled Italian restaurants. Especially ones that offer home-cooked meals at a decent price in a zany environment with lots of noise.

Villa Nova Ristorante in Columbus is one such happening joint. We like it because it reminds us of Mike’s hometown in southeastern Ohio. Walk into the Villa Nova, and you immediately feel welcomed by folks who look like someone you’ve known since childhood.

The family-run restaurant, founded in 1978, offers a wide selection of pasta, chicken, steak and seafood dishes, as well as sandwiches and pizza. Go for the homemade meatballs and Italian sausage. All dinners come with garlic sticks and soup or salad.

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Italian standouts include lasagna, ravioli, gnocchi, tortellini, manicotti shells florentine, rigatoni and eggplant parmesan.

We love the atmosphere. We visited during a busy Saturday evening in March, and we had to wait about half an hour for a table. But they gave us a buzzer for our pockets, and we headed for the bar. Villa Nova’s bartenders aren’t afraid to tip the bottle when they pour you a drink. Mike, especially, appreciated that.

Meanwhile the kids raided a candy dish as I admired the restaurant’s eccentric decor that includes a wall full of nautical devices and another full of license plates and paintings from mob movies, as well as shelves overflowing with hundreds of copper kettles.


All meals on the children’s menu cost $1.99 on Monday for those ages 12 and under. Options include spaghetti with meatball, fettuccini Alfredo, pizza, chicken tenders, hamburger, grilled cheese and mini corn dogs.

A special on Sunday includes spaghetti, salad, soup and spumoni ice cream for $10.95.

Villa Nova is located at 5545 N. High St., Columbus. For more information, visit villanovacolumbus.com or call 614-846-5777.

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Starliner Diner: Quirky Hilliard eatery serves up Cuban-inspired fare

Quirky Hilliard eatery serves up Cuban-inspired fare

Worlds collide at Starliner Diner in Hilliard. As Martians fly spaceships alongside hamburgers, watermelon and pies on a fanciful mural, the independent restaurant dishes out Cuban-inspired fare in the city’s historic downtown.

A giant crescent moon gazes affectionally at the sun – a scene that’s become synonymous with this 20-year-old restaurant that moved a year ago from its longtime home on Cemetery Road to Main Street in the heart of Old Hilliard.

It’s this quirky atmosphere and an eclectic menu that makes Starliner Diner our family-friendly restaurant pick for February.

The unique combo draws crowds, especially for breakfast, which is served until 3 p.m. on weekends. Big portions of traditional favorites, such as huevos rancheros and an egg scramble called Chiliquiles, have earned Starliner Diner accolades as the “Best Breakfast in Columbus” in polls of local magazine readers.

Prices range from $3.25 for a banana pancake to $13.75 for Cajun Jambalaya with shrimp. There also are lots of of vegetarian choices.

Strainer Diner is located at 4121 Main St., Hilliard. For more information, visit www.starlinerdiner.com.

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Cap City Fine Diner: Comfort food at its finest in Columbus

Comfort food at its finest in Columbus

We love diners, but we find the experience finer when the owners really care about what they put on the plate. Our go-to spot for elevated comfort food in central Ohio is Cap City Fine Diner – our family-friendly restaurant for January.

Why go?

This Cameron Mitchell classic opened in 1996 in Grandview, and transformed everything we associate with diners – including neon signs, red vinyl and meatloaf – and cranked it up to foodie levels.

Here, meatloaf is artistically served with molded beef stacked upon a slice of thick toast and topped with buttermilk-chive mashed potatoes and chili onion rings.

The three-layer “Seriously Big Chocolate Cake” lives up to its name and is more than suitable for sharing.

What’s missing?

You won’t find weathered waitresses who affectionally call you “Honey,” but you’ll find attentive young professionals who mind their own business when they’re not taking and bringing orders.

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You won’t find bathrooms with rusted plumbing and quarter-operated machines, but you’ll find dimly-lit pamper rooms with complimentary mouthwash.

You also won’t find spatula-flattened grilled-cheese sandwiches with cooked pickles for less than $3. Rather, a pan-seared ribeye with a twice-baked potato cake and steamed broccoli will set you back about $30.

Why take the kids?

This is a rare, finer restaurant where kids seem encouraged to join you on a date – as evidenced by the care that’s gone into the children’s menu titled “Capital Cuisine for Kids.” Pick from complementary baby food to a grilled PB&J, to a kid-sized portion of Cap City’s famous meatloaf.

Cap City is a place where kids go gaga over the giant bubblegum machine, and adults freak out over the bar’s giant container of vodka-soaked pineapple wedges.

Cap City has two locations: Cap City Gahanna and Cap City Grandview. A third location will open in Dublin in the summer of 2017. Our go-to location in Grandview is the original at 1299 Olentangy River Rd. For more information, visit capcityfinediner.com.

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The Seasoned Farmhouse: Build skills, confidence at recreational cooking school

Boost skills, confidence at recreational cooking school

In this fast-paced world where heads of lettuce are sold pre-shredded in plastic bags, it’s nice to slow down and crack an egg once in a while.

I recently did just that and more with my daughter, Rosie, thanks to a Christmas gift from my husband. It had us measuring and mixing ingredients to make cookies during a cooking class at the Seasoned Farmhouse in the Columbus neighborhood of Clintonville.

The recreational cooking school offers classes that help home cooks boost their skills and confidence with hands-on instruction.

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Tricia Wheeler, who graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York City, opened the school in 2013. She and other local chefs can teach you how to make everything from pies and cakes to soups and salads to a five-course French meal.

Rosie and I took a daughter-and-mommy baking class over winter break. We made six types of cookies in two hours and got to take the goods home to share.

Wheeler said she found inspiration for the class from a box of child-sized aprons that she bought.

“I chose this age group because my daughter, Kensington, is 10,” Wheeler told our group of a dozen girls and their moms. “I picked age-appropriate recipes in the hopes that your girls will make these cookies on their own at home, too.”

Wheeler and her helpers created six stations for participants to use over two hours. It was amazing what we could accomplish when we put our minds to it.

We made sugar-cookie bars, chocolate chip cookies, no-bake caramel sea-salt cookies, pretzel toffee, Nutter Butter acorns, and polar bear marshmallows that we dipped into hot chocolate with homemade whipped cream.

When done, each girl received a basket that she filled to the brim with the group’s cookie creations. Since then, we’ve duplicated several of the recipes at home.

Most classes are geared toward adults, but kids’ classes occasionally are offered, such as a Valentine’s Day candy-making class. Otherwise adult classes are open to teen-agers with an adult chaperone.

Classes typically accommodate a dozen students and last up to three hours. Currently advertised hands-on classes cost from $65 to $150.

Classes fill up quickly. Learn about classes before they’re posted online by subscribing to Seasoned Farmhouse’s e-newsletter by clicking the “Be the First to Know” tab at the lefthand-side of the website at www.theseasonedfarmhouse.com.

The Seasoned Farmhouse is located at 3674 N. High St. Call 614-230-6281 to learn more.

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Buca di Beppo: Let kids eat spaghetti and get whacky

Let kids eat spaghetti, get whacky

Buca di Beppo: Let kids eat spaghetti and get whackyIn the spirit of family gatherings over the holidays, our family-friendly restaurant pick for December is Buca di Beppo. Sure it’s a chain restaurant – with more than 100 locations worldwide – but our kids love it, and we can’t resist the smile-inducing decor.

What’s the story?

Buca di Beppo is an American restaurant chain that was founded in 1993 in the basement of a Minneapolis apartment building. Its name means “Joe’s basement.”

How’s it Italian?

Buca di Beppo: Let kids eat spaghetti and get whackyTo encourage sharing, plates of pasta, pizza, salads and breads are served family style, making the dining experience more of a social engagement.

It’s not a place to eat alone, unless you like lots of leftovers.

You’re also likely to hear the music of Frank Sinatra, whose parents were Italian immigrants.

What’s with the decor?

The chain is known for its amusing, vintage photographs plastered closely together on the walls.

During our last visit, I spied portraits of Sophia Loren, Luciano Pavarotti, Joe DiMaggio and a nun wiping a baby’s bottom.

The maze-like layout also adds to the chaotic feel, making it hard to find the bathroom, which is plastered in even more amusing pics.

For large parties, reserve the Pope table – it’s big, round and has a bust of the Pope as its centerpiece.

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Biggest complaints

I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t cook, but when I do, it’s usually spaghetti. So the idea of going out for dinner to eat spaghetti isn’t usually my first choice. That said, our kids like spaghetti. (And nobody wants to share a big plate of eggplant parmigiana with me.) But the idea of spending $27 for a large plate of spaghetti with marinara sauce is a bit much. Capeesh?

But if you want to save money, join Buca’s eClub to receive emails and occasional $10 coupons, which will at least buy you another glass of chianti.

Why do we keep going back?

We go for our kids. They like the food and they get to be as loud and goofy as they want, because other kids and adults are acting the same way.

Also, the food is pretty good. They’ve got pasta, pizza, salad, fresh garlic bread and yummy cannoli and tiramisu for dessert. And, there are always leftovers.

There are two Columbus-area locations – in downtown Columbus and Worthington. Our favorite is in the Arena District at 343 N. Front St., Columbus. For more information, visit www.bucadibeppo.com.

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Hofbrauhaus Columbus: Monthly 'Family Nights' make this German beer hall a blast for all

Monthly ‘Family Nights’ make this German beer hall a blast for all

hofbrauhaus_secondary2Things are getting festive this time of year, and that’s why our family-friendly restaurant pick for November is Hofbrauhaus Columbus – a lively beer hall that gives kids their all on the second Tuesday of the month.

Visit on “Family Night,” beginning at 6 p.m., and get a free kids meal with a purchased adult entree. The “Kinder Menu” includes Kinder Schnitzel (breaded pork cutlet), Kinder Gegrillter Kase (grilled cheese) and Kinder Makkaroni mit Kase (mac and cheese).

Portions are large, enough to create a lunch for the following day.

Bonuses include live entertainment, face painting and balloon animals made by a young man on stilts wearing lederhosen and a felt fedora.

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The echoey space can be loud, but it’s fun hearing live music. We enjoyed traditional and modern children’s songs played on the accordion – from “Bingo Was His Name-O” to “The Bare Necessities.” The best seats are the picnic tables in the middle, which have a family-style feel.

hofbrauhaus_secondaryPlus, for adults, the beer is really good. It is made from original Bavarian recipes that date back 400 years.

So bring your kids, raise up a stein and enjoy.

Hofbrauhaus Columbus is located at 800 Goodale St., Columbus. For more information, visit hofbrauhauscolumbus.com.

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Watts Restaurant: Nostalgic diner captivates with meals like grandma’s

Nostalgic diner captivates with meals like grandma’s

Roger McCoy

Roger McCoy

Comfort food is in order this time of year and that’s why our family-friendly restaurant pick for October is Watts Restaurant in nearby Utica.

Founded 1912, Watts is known for its homemade pies and traditional recipes, including beef and noodles, and ham with raisin sauce.

“Watts is definitely the last of the old-school restaurants,” says Roger McCoy, who bought the restaurant from the Watts family in 2015. “We small-batch cook every day, so it’s sort of like going to grandma’s for supper.”

Longtime customers appreciate that McCoy has preserved this well-loved restaurant that’s endured by staying true to its roots.

“As soon as church lets out on Sunday, it’s standing-room only.”

Why make the trip from Columbus?

Nostalgia. Watts’s got it all – from booth seating to sympathetic servers to a display case full of dreamy pies including lemon meringue, butterscotch meringue and coconut cream.

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“The restaurant opens at 11 a.m., but we’re here at 5 a.m. making the pies,” McCoy says. “We use old recipes, so our butterscotch is made in an iron skillet and we use Crisco in our crust.”

Also, driving less than an hour northeast of Columbus to Utica affords a couple other worthwhile stops. Pick apples and pumpkins at Legend Hills Orchard, and soak up the rustic beauty and charm of Ye Olde Mill, where Velvet Ice Cream is made.

Watts puts its own spin on Velvet Ice Cream. For instance, the seasonal Pumpkin Pie is transformed into a pumpkin pecan roll after it’s mixed with nuts and topped with marshmallow and caramel sauces.

“It’s amazing,” McCoy says.

What to eat.

Some menu items are influenced by McCoy’s German heritage, including the Kraut Salad made with sweet sauerkraut, and an interesting Banana Salad that’s simply a banana on a fresh bed of lettuce, dabbed with Jif creamy peanut butter and drizzled with house dressing.

Watts also is known for its Lake Erie trout, homemade egg noodles and fried bologna.

What’s in it for the kids?

Comfort meals for kids cost less than $5 and include the regular standouts like hamburgers, corn dogs and spaghetti.

Our kids liked that they were each given an Etch A Sketch to play with during lunch and were permitted to take home a piece of candy from the throwback rack stacked with Razzles, Necco Wafers and Swedish Fish.

Watts Restaurant is located at 77 S Main St., Utica.

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Brio Tuscan Grille: Easton location’s fountain makes this fine-dining destination our top family-friendly restaurant for August

Easton location’s fountain makes this fine-dining destination our top family-friendly restaurant for August

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It’s August and it’s hot. But that’s no reason to consume another box of mac and cheese in an air-conditioned home. Instead, consider heading to Brio Tuscan Grille at Easton Town Center for penne pasta and cheese, enjoyed on Brio’s patio adjacent to Easton’s Town Square and fountain.

Columbus-based Brio has multiple locations, but the fountain is key to the family-friendly quotient at Easton. Ask to sit on the patio, alongside the fence that faces the fountain. Reservations are not accepted for this area, so it’s first-come, first-serve. We sat by a gate that allowed our children to exit and re-enter the patio. It gave us a chance to enjoy fine food and a conversation, mostly uninterrupted by our kids, who were frolicking in the fountain.

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Town Square is the site of many ongoing events during the summer at Easton, including an outdoor movie series on Tuesdays, concerts on Wednesdays and a farmer’s market on Thursdays. So if the fountain isn’t running, such as during concerts, the patio is still the best seat in the house. Learn more about events.

Are bathing suits acceptable attire?

We were skeptical if it’d be OK for our children – ages 7 and 9 – to wear their bathing suits concealed by coverups to the restaurant, only to tear them off during dinner to splash in the fountain. Assistant General Manager Brian Peters assured us that it was OK. Just be sure to bring a towel and change of clothes, if you plan to splash in the fountain. If you forget, though, there’s a Gap Kids a stone’s throw away.

Brio recently updated its menu, but Mike’s go-to dish remains the Pasta BRIO, made of rigatoni, grilled chicken, seared mushrooms, and roasted red pepper sauce. I like to try any number of the delicious seafood dishes. “Bambino Favorites” include ravioli, lasagna, chicken parmesan and grilled salmon – all under $7.

Our kids loved the mac and cheese, but the fountain got all their attention. They ran around in circles with other kids and soaked up the experience. That is, until we had Torta di Cioccolata, a cake-based dessert with a warm chocolate center, vanilla bean gelato, anglaise sauce and a chocolate drizzle.

And for the parents?

Mike and I liked having a good meal somewhat by ourselves as we watched our kids play in the fountain – something we thought they may have outgrown. It was nice to see they hadn’t – at least not yet.

Brio Tuscan Grille is located at 3993 Easton Station, Columbus. Learn more.

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