Wait Watchers

If you've got the time, Angello's in Canton has the Italian eats.

The ravioli tastes lush and earthy; the lasagna seems - like a serving of Nonna's love. - Wanda Santos-Bray
The ravioli tastes lush and earthy; the lasagna seems like a serving of Nonna's love.

You can fuss, you can fidget, but you can't say management didn't warn you: If you're going to eat at Angello's, you're going to have to wait.

Owners Jim Angello and Monica Angello Bowe (a father-daughter duo) are only slightly apologetic about the delays guests will certainly encounter at their popular Italian restaurant in Canton. "We wish we could do fresh, homemade, 'to order' faster, but we can't," reads a small part of the lengthy disclaimer inside the multi-page menu; the same sentiment is echoed in signs strategically placed around the premises. But what else can a restaurateur do? Even with 100 seats, the lines of diners waiting to grab a table are almost inevitably out the door. Factor in the demands of a busy carryout trade, the kitchen's insistence on making meals from scratch, and a no-reservations policy, and diners have been known to while away two or three hours from the time they pull into the parking lot until the moment the last dribble of pizza sauce is blotted from their chins.

From a potential patron's perspective, of course, this raises an inevitable question: Is the food -- mainly brick-oven-baked pizzas and al dente pastas -- really worth that investment of time? If you happen to live in a part of the world where fancy pizzas and gourmet pastas are available on nearly every street corner, perhaps not. But we're not talking about San Francisco, Chicago, or even Cleveland here; we're talking about Perry Heights, a safe but somber neighborhood on the west side of Canton, where the major thoroughfare is lined with thrift stores and payroll advance joints, and where the waitresses offer caveats to diners who order the pesto, just in case they don't know what they're in for. ("Well, I didn't know what it was until I started working here," shrugged our server, after we assured her we were familiar with the basil-based sauce.) So from the POV of the locals, at least, the almost seven-year-old restaurant undoubtedly scratches a culinary itch.

Papa Angello, a Canton native who operated Italian restaurants in California and Colorado for 25 years before returning to his hometown, sometimes refers to his cuisine as Italian-Californian. The "Italian" part is clear enough: Angello's roots are in Abruzzi and Sicily, and his menu is full of such classics as wedding soup, antipasto, and meatballs. But the "Californian" reference seems a little more obscure, until one realizes it is shorthand for the owner's devotion to artisanal quality. For instance, preservative-free dough -- for both the pizza crusts and the dense loaves of Italian bread that come rolling out of the brick-lined ovens -- is made by hand every day. Soups and sauces simmer on the stovetops for hours. And such items as fresh -- not canned or frozen -- vegetables are sautéed to order, lest they fade before they're called to duty.

The California influence also shows up in the selection of pizza toppings Angello has brought to town -- "nontraditional" gourmet goodies like Gorgonzola, grilled eggplant, artichoke hearts, and sun-dried tomatoes, as well as standards like pepperoni, black olives, and sausage. All in all, in fact, the mix-and-match options include 44 different toppers and six types of sauces, on a choice of thick or thin crusts. And if that's still not enough to stir your sauce, there are 18 thick-crusted specialty "pizzas for a new millennium," each named after a person or place that left its mark on the peripatetic Angello: The "Mendocino, California," say, with a smear of creamy Alfredo sauce, tender grilled chicken and eggplant, roasted red pepper strips, Parmesan, and fresh oregano; or the Mediterranean-style "Jimmy Ain't Greek," with olive-oil-and-garlic sauce, fresh spinach, kalamata olives, feta cheese, zucchini, oregano, and freshly ground pepper.

On the plus side, all the pizzas we sampled were emphatically nongreasy, their chewy, slightly sweet crusts providing a sturdy platform for the good quality toppings and sauces, which were generously applied. That pesto, for instance? Fearlessly garlicky. The tomato sauce? Sunny and bright. On the minus side, though, other flavors seemed surprisingly subdued: Neither the "spicy" Alfredo sauce nor the "Cajun" grilled chicken on the Mendocino pizza, for instance, had any noticeable kick. And another potentially supercharged pie, the "Sedona, Arizona Southwestern Delight," bordered on bland, despite the alleged presence of garlic, chile peppers, and cilantro (which, along with ground beef, corn, black olives, onion, cheddar, and mozzarella, lent the 'za a terrific mouth feel, if not a lot of zest). Indeed, heaping spoonfuls of peppery on-the-side salsa (also homemade) were required to shake this hombre to life.

Among the pasta dinners, firm, toothsome ravioli du jour, freshly filled with finely chopped cremini mushrooms and creamy fontina cheese, and sauced with refreshingly tart marinara, tasted lush and earthy. And a brick of baked lasagna, with alternating strata of thick homemade noodles and ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan cheeses, all tucked beneath a blanket of meaty red sauce, seemed like a serving of Nonna's love. On the other hand, we were less impressed with the one non-pasta entrée we ordered -- grilled salmon seasoned with a sprightly lemon-and-herb blend: The fish was slightly overcooked, and its companion, a mélange of diced broccoli, cauliflower, and sun-dried tomato, looked tired and tasted dry.

Once seated (our own waits ranged from 15 minutes on a weeknight to 45 minutes on a Friday), famished guests are promptly treated to thick slices of that warm, yeasty bread, accompanied by a dipping blend of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and chopped basil; foil-wrapped butter pats and tiny tubs of nondairy spread are also tucked into the overflowing bread basket for the less adventurous. In addition, most entrées come with a choice of excellent soups (the unusually thick, savory, meatball-loaded Wedding Soup or the mellow Mom's Soup, its sleek tomato broth bristling with diced potato, carrots, corn, green beans, and slices of zesty sausage) or crisp salads (the house salad with iceberg lettuce or -- better -- the mixed baby greens, garnished with grape tomato, pepperoncini, and a handful of sliced black olives, at its best when tossed with the homemade balsamic vinaigrette). The menu also includes seven entrée-sized salads, including Monica's Chicken Salad Delite: an extravagant toss of mixed greens, dried cranberries, chopped apple, mandarin orange segments, and grilled chicken in warm bacon dressing, garnished with a bounty of crisp, toasted sunflower seeds.

If Angello's food is a cut above what you'd expect from your average pizza joint, its surroundings are similarly unanticipated. No cramped, strip-plaza storefront here, with fluorescent lights and checkered linoleum. Rather, the restaurant is nestled in a stately 93-year-old home, an elegant grande dame of a structure, wrapped in white clapboard and supported by four soaring Corinthian columns that give it the air of a wayward antebellum mansion. Inside, four cozy, interconnecting main-floor dining rooms are filled with vintage detail -- well-trod wooden floors, wide moldings, and arched doorways -- as well as with the owner's extensive collections of old cameras, radios, musical instruments, and Harley memorabilia. Tall, well-dressed windows and a good-looking assortment of Victorian-style lighting fixtures provide pleasant illumination, and faux-marble-topped tables and high-backed chairs are commodious and comfortable for guests of all ages.

Not trendy, not especially hip, but friendly, relaxed, and stocked with a good selection of imported and domestic beer, the smoky barroom sits upstairs, tucked beneath the eaves. We worked our way through bottles of Moretti and Peroni while waiting for a table and were contemplating a third round (probably Great Lakes' Dortmunder Gold) when the hostess finally came to seat us.

"Don't worry," smiled some fellow pilgrims as they slipped onto our still-warm barstools, "the food is worth the wait." And after polishing off Angello's pastas and pizzas, even city slickers like us may be tempted to agree.