Located in the heart of downtown Salem, Ezio's Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria has been Salem's best kept secret for over 40 years. You enter into a bar and small dining room but to the left is the newly expanded dining area that is absolutely gorgeous. Hardwood floors, exposed brick and textured walls all add an ambiance like no other. It's like stepping into a Tuscan dining room complete with dish filled hutches, a fireplace, side tables and occasional chairs here and there. It's warm and inviting, casual yet elegant.
I was greeted by owner, Joan "Tiny" Ferri. Tiny and her husband Ezio have been married over 47 years and have five children. Before entering the restaurant business, Ezio was a meat cutter and Tiny was a teacher. The restaurant itch all started when Ezio wanted to open a pizza shop has a "hobby". One pizza shop turned into two, then a breakfast restaurant and at one point, they were running four restaurants while raising five children when Tiny finally said, "Ezio, pick out the casket, I'll jump in." And that's how Ezio's in Salem came to be the only restaurant the Ferri's would continue to operate. All I can say is, "Salem is one lucky town."
The menu has all what you would expect an Italian restaurant to have. Bruschetta and Greens, Fried Cheese, Calamari and of course Pasta and Wedding Soup. As I scanned the menu, Tiny sat with me and began to tell me more about Ezio's. She makes fresh pasta every day; Gnocchi, Lasagna Noodles and Tiani, which is a Semolina Wheat Fettuccinni. "Making the pastas from scratch is a lot of work but well worth the effort." The gnocchi is made from "real potatoes, no shortcuts here", says Tiny. Word came from the kitchen that the food was ready. Tiny jumped from the chair and wanted to check it before serving. "I'm a perfectionist," she stated. Once she gave the nod, out came the plates. As each one was set on the table, I could see the pride in Tiny's eyes as she told me what each dish was and couldn't wait for me to try them.
Where to begin. I was starving and knew I had to pace myself. I started with the steak. A beautiful, large ribeye, cut by Ezio himself, served on a bed of greens that Tiny said are "the best". I took one bite and she may be right. Perfectly cooked, lots of garlic, and a little heat. The steak also was cooked perfectly. Tender, juicy, seasoned well and a very large cut. I couldn't stop eating but Tiny insisted I try the gnocchi.
Homemade Gnocchi Lombardi. So this is the "no shortcut" gnocchi. The pasta is in an Alfredo sauce dotted with green peas and bacon. I took my first bite and couldn't believe how light and delicate the pasta was. I've had gnocchi before and it was so heavy. You eat five or six and you're about to explode. Not Tiny's gnocchi. Each pasta pillow is coated in this delicious Alfredo with bits of bacon clinging to every bite. The green peas add just the right amount of color and just the right amount of texture. A great dish and the gnocchi is a must order on this menu whether with the Alfredo or red sauce.
I moved on to the Tiani dish. Beautiful wheat pasta tossed in olive oil and garlic with a bit of crushed red pepper to kick it up. On top, three golden, Panko crusted jumbo scallops sprinkled with Romano cheese. Let me just say Tiny's pasta is amazing. It's light, it's fresh, it's so good you almost don't need sauce. The scallops are delicious. I love scallops and these are beautifully cooked and the perfect compliment to the pasta. What a great dish.
Could it possibly get any better? "Try the sauce," Tiny said as she put the last pasta dish in front of me. It had my name written all over it. Is that a stuffed hot pepper? Oh yes. Stuffed Hungarian Peppers. Tiny buy's them locally when they're in season and freezes them whole. She'll take them out as needed, stuff them and when they're gone, they're gone until next year. Today was my lucky day. Still had hot peppers and she warned me "they're really hot". Let me just say after one bite I felt the heat and it was the best stuffed pepper I've ever had. Filled with hot sausage, topped with mozzarella and to make it even better, sitting on a bed of spaghetti and sauce. Tiny's sauce. I'm picky about my sauce, this sauce is about the best I've had at any restaurant. It's thick, it sticks to the pasta and it's packed with flavor. It's the kind of sauce that sits in a big pot on the stove and just cooks all day. The pepper definitely was hot, but the hotter, the better. This dish was made for me. I could eat this at least once a week and never get tired of it.
My last dish was a calzone and it too was delicious. It wasn't like calzones I've had before which seemed were nothing more than a lot of crust and no filling. I was about to try Ezio's Calzone Classico. The crust is thin, almost flakey, filled with sausage, pepperoni and mozzarella and served with a side of that sauce. It's long like a pepperoni roll, golden brown, topped with garlic, parsley and a sprinkle of Romano cheese, then sliced in six pieces. I grabbed a slice, dipped it in the sauce and took a bite. The cheese oozes out and you taste nothing but lots of filling and just the right amount of dough and that sauce puts it over the top. I would actually order this as an appetizer and share it at the table. What a great way to start a meal but I was very pleased to end my meal today with it. I couldn't get enough of that sauce and I couldn't get enough of the food.
Lucky for me, I got to bring home my leftovers. If I wasn't driving, I probably would've been eating on my drive home but I managed to wait until later that evening. I finished the steak and greens and the next day had the gnocchi for lunch. Tonight for dinner I'm heading right back to that hot pepper but when my leftovers run out, I'm heading back to Ezio's.
If you like Italian, you'll love Ezio's. Tiny said she was a perfectionist, and in a way, so am I, so the next time I'm in the mood for Italian, I'm going to Ezio's. You can't get any better than perfect.