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Strip mall's gem discovered in Brick Oven

Strip mall restaurants are sketchy. Of course there are exceptions, but overall they're pretty sketchy. It is hard to take a restaurant seriously when it is located between a pet store and a liquor store. So why even try?

Fortunately, the Brick Oven at the Rio Hill Shopping Center doesn't try to impress. With the focus not on ambience (sparse, institutional white walls and large curtainless windows), the restaurant simply offers generally good brick oven pizzas along with other Italian staples in a casual, family-style atmosphere.

The menu includes several appetizers and salads, nine pasta dishes, nine calzones and 29 pizzas.

If you really want pizza but can't decide on one type, you can get either one pizza pie made half and half or create your own. Similarly accommodating, you can augment the straight-up pasta dishes with meatballs, sausage, chicken, broccoli or shrimp.

The prices range from $11 for a medium pizza to $9 for an average pasta dish such as fettuccine alfredo, to $7 for a vegetable calzone.

Mostly families crowd the restaurant at midweek, which makes sense considering the prices and range of entrees. But it's also perfect for University students, donning jeans and T-shirts, who are sick of the Corner and crave pasta or fancier pizzas than Gumby's has to offer.

The Julia's Dream pizza, under the pizza subcategory "Mostly Veggie," is comprised of basil pesto, ricotta, mozzarella, garlic, broccoli and spinach. Although the ingredients were mostly well balanced, an occasional bite met with too much ricotta.

The Brick Oven has a health-conscious pizza - well, a quasi-pizza - that is cheeseless. It does come with grilled chicken and mushrooms, though, and tastes good, for what it is.

Considered one of their "Wild Ones," the Bobby's Baby probably shouldn't taste good, but it does. Instead of a mozzarella cheese base, this one comes with a cheddar cheese base. Then they add feta cheese and Cajun spiced shrimp and round it out with onions, garlic and olive oil. This pizza is a surprisingly good creation considering one ingredient is feta cheese and another ingredient is Cajun seasonings - which aren't exactly Italian food staples.

All the pizzas, because of the dough and the brick oven, have crunchy, tasty crusts. About an inch thick, the crust keeps a number of air bubbles that unsuccessfully try to escape during the cooking process. It's nice to see a pizza crust with some topography. We even thought about ordering another pizza just for the crust.

The pasta selections included baked ziti, fettuccine pesto, chicken parmesan and spaghetti. The only possible break from the basics is the first menu listing: Cape Cod spicy pasta. The dish features a bed of fettuccine tossed with shrimp, scallops, scallions, snow peas, sundried tomatoes and red peppers.

The cheese lasagna ($8.49) is what you'd expect - noodles and cheese. It's satisfying and comes in large enough portions that you could take some home.

The baked ziti ($8.49) is great. Although it has most of the same ingredients as the lasagna - ricotta and mozzarella cheeses - it stands out because of the sauce. The lasagna uses the usual house red sauce, but the baked ziti is spiced up with a tangier version.

The calzones range from vegetable ones like Helen's ($6.99), with spinach, basil pesto, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, mozzarella and feta cheese, to meat ones such as a Spring Chicken ($7.49), with grilled chicken prosciutto, basil, ricotta and mozzarella. There are some crossovers, too, including the Roni-Zone ($6.49), which features mushrooms and pepperoni.

The calzones are huge and easily make a full dinner.

Served with a side of red sauce, the sausage calzone ($5.99) is heavy on the sausage. The sausage taste permeates every bite, whether or not each bite actually contains sausage. If you like sausage, you'll find this appetizing.

The dessert list includes cannoli, cheesecake and Snickers pie. Ruling out the Snickers pie as not particularly Italian, we had to choose between the cannoli and the cheesecake. We chose the cheesecake. A tall slice of rich cheesecake with a graham cracker crust came unadorned on a plate. Very good.

So what's the bottom line? The Brick Oven is an unpretentious restaurant serving hearty portions of pizza and pasta. Although you won't find any culinary masterpieces, you will have good food, a cordial wait staff and occasionally be blinded by a car's headlight in the strip mall's parking lot.

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