Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday; 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday.
Price Range: Pizzas from $3 to $8.50. Entrees $5 to $6; subs and sandwiches, $1 to $2.50.
Atmosphere: Simple, straightforward. Service is friendly.
Special Facilities: Booster chairs; plenty of parking; no children's menu. No special arrangements for handicapped, but management will be helpful.
Credit Cards: Visa, Master Charge, American Express.
Reservations: Not necessary. Call ahead for carryout.
Hurrah for Zio's! It's an oasis in a concrete desert, a throwback to the ethnic restaurants usually found in city neighborhoods, where a family cooks the same food for customers that it serves itself.
At times Zio's reach exceeds its grasp. But in a suburban stretch dominated by fast food joints serving plastic food amid plastic decor, Zio's shines like a gem.
It took a crafty lawyer to find a fluke in the county zoning law that allowed Zio's to open up a year ago in an industrial park across the street from the Courthouse on Shady Grove Road in Gaithersburg.
The restaurant is a big open room with a lot of windows. A small divider separates the carryout from the diners. There's no attempt at atmosphere -- just a few plants, a few wall hangings, small formica tables set with paper napkins and plain stainless.
The menu, reminiscent of Baltimore's "Little Italy," is more ambitious. It's unpretentious but authentic. There's a tavola fredda to start the meal. At Zio's, this is a plate of soppressata salami, fontina cheese and pickled vegetables. Entrees include melanzane imbottiti (halved eggplant stuffed with sausage), several veal dishes and basic pastas such as manicotti and lasagne.
The biggest surprise is that Zio's makes its own pasta. Yes, real homemade pasta in a Gaithersburg industrial park!Simply for trying, Zio's gets A for effort. However, Zio's could enhance its pastas by serving them al dente, that is, cooked just to the point of being fork tender but not soft, so there's a bit of "bite" left in them.
Alas, our spaghetti was too soft. The homemade ravioli ("made by the owner's aunt," said our waitress) would have been delightful if it were not overcooked. The stuffing was well herbed, very tasty, though a bit heavy on the spinach and bread crumbs and light on the sausage (the menu promised it would be "bulging"). Both pastas were served with a rich, chunky tomato sauce, homey in character.
In spite of shortcomings, such dishes are authentic efforts at honest cooking, a far cry from pre-packaged, defrost-and-microwave school of restaurant cooking so common today.
The fried zucchini appetizer arrived with the entrees. It was generous (even at $2.50), beautifully crisp and delicious, surrounded by plenty of lemon slices.
The veal romano was overcooked and tough and the portion was small for $6.75. The romano cheese and lemon flavoring were minimal.
But the pizza! Who would ever go to a franchised pizza joint when you can go to Zio's and find a huge, bubbling round of freshly made, crisp dough enclosing superb ingredients?
Authenticity characterized the large pizza ordered with three toppings ($8.50): the sweet peppers were fresh, lightly sauteed in olive oil before being added to the pizza; the sausage was high quality, fennel-flavored; the pepperoni a generously garlicky counterpoint. The tomato sauce had large chunks of tomato in it, in contrast to the standard slush of a franchise pizza.
An idiosyncrasy of Zio's pizza: Toppings are placed under the blanket of cheese rather than over it ("so they won't burn" was the explanation).
Zio's salad bar is standard, except for the welcome addition of romaine and escarole lettuce mixed with the iceburg.
A puzzling failing was Zio's undistinguished bread. Good bread can be had nowadays with far less effort than homemade pasta.
Zio's trucks in desserts from Baltimore's "Little Italy." But the zeppole is made on the premises. These little "cannon balls" of crisp, fried dough smothered in confectioner's sugar cost 75 cents for half a dozen.
Beer is on draft. House wine is Californian.
A final fillip: A basket of buttercream mints at the door.