By REBECCA S. NIEMINEN
Vasilio’s Family Restaurant and Pizzeria is sometimes referred to as “Cortland’s hidden gem,” and after a recent visit, I could easily see why.
This self-proclaimed mom-and-pop diner serves delicious made-from-scratch Italian and American fare. It’s a place where you can order eggs and pancakes for your Monday breakfast and then a first-rate plate of veal parmesan for your Saturday dinner.
Paul Tambures, who owns Vasilio’s along with his parents, Chris and Toula, and his brothers Kris and George, said it’s not easy competing with chain restaurants, but Vasilio’s can hold its own among the bigger competitors.
“We are a true family restaurant serving quality food that is made from scratch,” Paul said. “A lot of places claim their food is made from scratch, but it really comes out of a freezer bag. We are serving food that is made fresh from items purchased locally when possible, and many of our recipes are old family recipes. Our famous sauce is made from an old family recipe that belonged to my great-great-grandmother.”
The sauce – an original, old-world meatless spaghetti sauce – is savory and sumptuous and is used in many of Vasilio’s signature dishes. It is available at Vasilio’s as well as at select local grocery stores including Giant Eagle and Sparkle. Patrons also can purchase the sauce online at www.vasiliosdining.com/sauce.
One thing that often surprises people about the Tambures family is that they are of Greek heritage, not Italian.
“The name Vasilio’s is actually an adaptation of my uncle’s name,” Paul explained. “People often assume it’s our last name, but my parents came here from Greece. Dad had a passion for the food industry. My parents opened the restaurant in 1985, and we have been at this same location ever since.”
Vasilio’s is located in the plaza next to Walgreens in Cortland.
During my visit, I sampled a variety of the restaurant’s most celebrated dishes.
First I tried some of Vasilio’s breakfast fare. Vasilio’s serves breakfast all day Monday through Saturday. (They are closed Sundays. They also sometimes stop serving breakfast early on Fridays.)
I had a Western omelet ($6.50) with home fries and a blueberry pancake ($4.75). This stick-to-the-ribs omelet featured peppers, onions, ham and tomatoes. The pancake impressed me with its generous amount of plump, juicy blueberries and its light, fluffy texture.
In addition to a variety of omelets, including a Greek omelet with feta, onions and gyro slices, Vasilio’s breakfast menu includes French toast, steak and eggs and biscuits and sausage gravy.
After my breakfast sampling, I tried two appetizers: the fried calamari with marinara sauce ($7.25) and “Vasilio’s Favorite” hot peppers and oil ($3.95). The deep-fried rings of calamari were skillfully done with a tender texture. I always cringe at calamari that tastes too rubbery. Dipped in the marinara sauce, they were extra scrumptious.
The hot peppers, which, as their name suggests are a renowned favorite, packed a refreshing crunch and a mild heat that was just fine with me since I don’t relish food that tastes like a three-alarm fire.
Other appetizer options include breaded mushrooms, cheese sticks and onion rings.
Vasilio’s menu offers a variety of entr es.
If you’re looking for an entr e that tastes like something straight from an Italian grandmother’s kitchen, order the eggplant rotellini ($11.95). This dish features deep-fried, thinly sliced eggplant that is stuffed with ricotta cheese, escarole and endive. It’s served with pasta and Vasilio’s famous sauce.
The chicken parmesan with spaghetti ($10.25) is a popular choice, boasting a perfectly breaded chicken breast smothered in more of that superb sauce. Delicious!
Other Italian entr es include: veal parmesan; lasagna; Italian fried greens; baked stuffed shells with cheese; tortellini with meatballs; potato gnocchi; cavatelli with meatball; linguine with clam sauce; fettucine alfredo; and chicken marsala.
If you’re in the mood for traditional American fare you can choose from roast beef, steak, meatloaf, liver, pork or turkey.
On the lighter side, Vasilio’s offers several large salads. I sampled the mixed berry chicken salad ($9.95), which consists of a nutritious and tasty blend of strawberries, cranberries, blueberries, fresh avocado and grilled chicken.
You simply cannot dine at Vasilio’s without partaking in one of its famous pizzas.
The old world-style pizza features a thick, perfectly prepared crust smothered in red sauce and garnished with pepperoni slices and a generous dusting of Romano cheese ($1.50 per slice, $12.95 for a medium and $14.50 for a large).
The white sauce vegetable pizza ($12 for a medium, $14.50 for a large and $2.50 per slice) is packed with peppers, onions, olives, cauliflower, broccoli and tomatoes.
For something different try a Greek pizza with spinach, Feta cheese, hot peppers, onions, olives, tomatoes, Romano and mozzarella cheeses (medium $11.50, large $13.50).
Vasilio’s atmosphere is casual and friendly, and I immediately felt right at home. When the main portion of the restaurant gets too crowded, patrons can find a table in the restaurant’s banquet area.
Vasilio’s also offers catering services.