Delicious Italian dining in a strip mall?

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Vitale's of Zeeland's Rigatoni di Casa. Photo by Jason Roth.

Inside the unassuming strip mall exterior of Vitale’s Pizza in Zeeland, you will find a low-key gem of a restaurant that has a lot more to offer than you might expect.

Vitale family restaurants are a West Michigan dining dynasty, which began in 1966 when Salvatore Vitale opened the first Vitale’s restaurant in Grand Rapids. Its success prompted other family members to follow suit by opening restaurants as well. The Zeeland Vitale’s is owned by Ryan and Maria Snyder (Maria is a Vitale by blood). The others operate primarily in West Michigan, but one Vitale relative opened one under that name in Guam. Yes, seriously! A fun fact confirmed by the staff in Zeeland is that every Vitale’s restaurant uses a slightly different recipe for their red sauce.

My friend Walt accompanied me to Zeeland on this lunchtime odyssey. Vitale’s exterior is quite plain, even nondescript, but this does not seem to deter business — the parking lot was packed. The interior is far more impressive, well-kept with calm ambiance and a good deal more seating than we expected. Business was bustling, so we sat at the bar rather than wait for a table. Our servers were extremely friendly and attentive.

Perusing the menu, we found the pizzas and subs the sign outside led us to expect, but also a wide variety of appetizers, pasta dishes, burgers, wraps, paninis, desserts, even a wet burrito, all made in-house. Not your typical pizza joint!

Walt ordered Buffalo Mac & Cheese, which features bowtie pasta, cheese sauce, crispy buffalo chicken and panko breadcrumbs. Walt’s review: the pasta was done right, firm without being too rigid. The chicken was crunchy, not soggy. He loved it.

My choice: Rigatoni di Casa, as it sounded more off the beaten path. Rigatoni with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and homemade sausage was topped with a pinkish vodka-style meat sauce. The flavors work together beautifully, and the portion was big enough that I took some of it home for dinner.

Jason Roth gives Vitale’s in Zeeland the “thumbs up.” Courtesy photo.

Enter the desserts, also made in-house. Walt’s pick: Caramel Oreo Cheesecake. It was gone in a flash and Walt said it was as great as it sounds.

My pick: cannoli! I’m hardly a stickler for presentation, but when it’s this perfect, it bears mentioning. These cannoli were a perfect example of food as art. They arrived artfully arranged on a stylish square plate with chocolate sauce (the real stuff, not Hershey’s) drizzled on like scribbles from a fountain pen. As good as they looked, they tasted even better. A movie fan like myself can’t resist slipping in a “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” reference from “The Godfather.” Definitely take the cannoli.

If you’re coming back from the beach and looking for great eats, or just happen to find yourself in the area, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better meal than at Vitale’s restaurant. They have a little something for the whole family. Don’t miss it!

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