On our first trip to the new Gondolier restaurant in Dayton, Tenn., we were tickled when the host seated us at such a roomy booth. That extra-long, six-seater seemed pretty swanky for just the three of us.
Maybe he knew something we didn't. By the time we left, we felt like we'd doubled in size. We consumed a LOT of food - and still had leftovers to take home.
Like other Gondolier restaurants I've frequented, the Dayton location is roomy. It's a bright and open layout, except for a small, offset banquet room. Arched doorways, wrought iron and pendant lights add visual interest.
Booths line the entryway for patrons waiting on tables or to-go orders. If you just want a pizza but haven't called ahead, you can bypass the host and go to the counter to place your order.
* Where: Gondolier Italian Restaurant and Pizza, 200 Able Drive, Dayton, Tenn.
* Phone: 423-428-9200.
* Website: www.gondolierpizza.com.
* Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
* Price range: Large pizzas $8.29-$14.99; burgers and sandwiches $5.99-6.99; dinners $9.59-$13.99.
* Alcohol: Imported and domestic beers.
Note: Chattanooga location is at 6901 Lee Highway; 899-8100.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a dinner menu so thick with food. I counted 13 appetizers (including chicken wings); 10 salads; 18 side items (ranging from anchovies to french fries); 18 pasta dinners; seven chicken dinners; five seafood plates; 28 sandwiches, burgers, hot melts and subs; eight house specialties; 19 calzones and strombolis; 14 traditional pizzas and 10 white pizzas (made with ricotta cheese and no sauce). And that's not counting the kids menu or the different ways you can customize your pizza, spaghetti or baked rigatoni.
The order (for three): Chicken tender salad ($7.29), shrimp linguini ($13.29) and the Zorba Special ($13.99), with hummingbird cake for dessert ($5.99). A server brought complimentary breadsticks and marinara with our drinks.
I've had the baked lasagna, chicken piccata and the house pizza at other Gondolier restaurants, so I wanted to try something new.
The Zorba Special looked like it had a good variety: slices of gyro meat, chicken souvlaki, pork tenderloin souvlaki and grilled shrimp, served with Greek salad, pita bread and tzatziki sauce and the choice of rice, spaghetti or french fries. I went with rice.
Instead of a little bit of everything, the Zorba had a lot of everything. It came on a platter, and they skimped on nothing. The salad looked full size. There was a mound of gyro meat atop a quartered pita, then three kebabs on top of that and rice heaped on the side.
I ate and ate and barely made a dent. The story was the same all around the table. There were plenty of shrimp with the linguini. The chicken tenders were served atop not only a Greek salad but with Greek potato salad underneath. Lots of food, and all of it delicious.
But even when we pushed away the entrees and asked for three take-home boxes, the towering cakes we'd seen at the front counter triggered my daughter's sweet tooth. The waiter was soon back with a slab of hummingbird cake and not one but three forks inserted. Good man.
Our waiter, Joey, had several tables, but for the most part kept up the pace. Other co-workers ran interference when he was busy elsewhere. A side salad arrived with the wrong dressing, but that was quickly remedied. He brought lemons to add a spritz of flavor to the linguini, a welcome suggestion.
Service was a little slow out of the kitchen, but my multitudinous entree alone might explain that.
The red plastic drink glasses were large enough that the two of us drinking sweet tea and water didn't need refills, which may be a first. Only my mother's coffee cup needed Joey's attention during the meal.
The Dayton Gondolier is one of 30 franchises in eight states, including Calhoun, Dalton and Rome in Georgia and Athens, Benton and Chattanooga in Tennessee.
The original is in Cleveland, at 3300 N. Keith St. According to the company website, it was founded in 1974 by Bill Sioutis, who was looking to open a place where families could enjoy a menu full of variety backed by a guarantee of quality and freshness.
I'd say he's succeeded on all counts.
Now, where are my leftovers?