By Vickie Lewis
Let’s face it—life is hectic! People are working longer hours, varied schedules, and commuting farther and longer to get to school or work. Busy families are faced with after-school or extra-curricular activities for their children, often lasting late into the evening. With such busy lifestyles, cooking at home and sitting down with the family around the dinner table for a meal is not nearly as common as it once was. Hence, fast food establishments can be found everywhere, many of which are undesirable due to the often-perceived unhealthy fare offered, and the mediocre quality and freshness of the products served. Well, for those embroiled in the aforementioned hectic lifestyle, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a healthier, fresh alternative available—ZIO’s Pasta Pronto! Located in the Pinole Vista Shopping Center on Fitzgerald Drive in the former location of Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, ZIO’s is next door to Panda Express on one side, and Cold Stone Creamery on the other.
Owners of ZIO’s Pasta Pronto, Tony LoForte and Sherry Bolus LoForte, previously owned the Dickey’s Barbecue Pit franchise at this location, which operated between 2014 and 2016. For various business reasons, the LoFortes decided to exit the barbecue business and convert the venue to a “take-out” version of their fine dining restaurant, Zio Fraedo’s, located in Vallejo. The popular Italian waterfront restaurant has been in operation for over 12 years and has been nominated as the “Best Restaurant in Vallejo” for the past several years. Tony’s father owns and operates the original Zio Fraedo’s restaurant in Pleasant Hill, which has been in business since 1974. Tony is a very experienced restauranteur, having grown up in the business, helping his father since he was only three years old.
Leveraging some of the recipes from Zio Fraedo’s, ZIO’s Pasta Pronto offers a great selection of fresh, non-traditional fast food options that are prepared to order. The menu includes appetizer selections, entrees, salad, and a variety of sandwiches. Examples of appetizers include Fried Zucchini, Fried Ravioli, Mozzarella Sticks, Chicken Wings, and Calamari Fritter. Among the six salad choices are a traditional Caesar, Chinese Chicken, Cranberry Spinach, and Crispy Chicken BLT. There are several Panini selections on the sandwich menu, as well as a French Dip, all of which are served with a choice of French Fries or a bag of potato chips. Popular entrees include Chicken Parmesan, Chicken Marsala, and of course, pasta! When we visited, Zio’s Pasta Pronto offered a Create Your Own Pasta option, which allowed customers to choose their own type of pasta and preferred sauce. However, Tony informed us that this option would be replaced by traditional popular pasta dishes, such as Spaghetti and Meatballs and Fettucini Alfredo. After six months in business, the Lofortes decided to introduce revisions to the menu to remove some of the less popular items, and replace them with some new offerings for customers to try and enjoy. The revisions to the menu have now been made, and readers can view the full selection on Zio’s Pasta Pronto’s website http://www.ziospasta.com.
The interior of Zio’s Pasta Pronto provides a bright, comfortable, and welcoming atmosphere. The wood and tile accents, and the suspended lighting create a design that Tony described as “shabby chic.” He and Sherry did all of the interior remodeling themselves when the restaurant switched from Dickey’s to Zio’s. The restaurant has an open feel, and there are an ample number of comfortable wooden tables and chairs for customers who choose to dine in. Customers place orders at the front counter before being seated, referencing either printed menus or the chalkboard menus on the back wall. Displayed prominently on the wall to the right of the front counter is a large black and white canvas print of Tony’s father and other family members who inspired his love of the restaurant business. A refrigerated counter displays available canned and bottled drinks, as well as individually portioned desserts. There is also a beverage dispenser for fountain drinks that includes a seemingly endless selection of sodas, teas, and lemonades. Everything appears very neat, clean, and well-organized.
My guest and I visited Zio’s during the lunch hour on a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, there were two tables of guests dining in the restaurant, and no customers waiting. We were pleasantly greeted by Elisa upon entry, who was working behind the counter. Soon Tony emerged from the back, and as we talked, he ordered various menu selections for us to sample and share. First up was an order of one of Zio’s most popular appetizers, Fried Ravioli. These yummy mini pasta squares are stuffed with mozzarella cheese, and are served crisply fried, with a side of house-made marinara sauce. All dipping sauces, as well as all pasta sauces, are freshly made in-house at Zio’s Pasta Presto, and the marinara sauce was exceptional—one of the best I’ve tasted (outside of my grandmother’s kitchen!) My guest and I both loved the fried ravioli! They were easy to just pop in your mouth, although it was better to make them last two to three bites just to savor the flavor. The ravioli squares are not made in-house at Zio’s, but they are none-the-less a very good appetizer option that will satisfy most taste buds! An order consists of approximately a dozen ravioli with sauce for $8.95.
As we continued our visit with Tony, Elisa delivered to our table an order of Calamari Fritti, a generous portion of both tubes and tentacles fried to a perfect golden crispness, and served with a home-made Creole Remoulade sauce. The calamari were tender and not chewy, and was delicious with or without the sauce. The sauce was really very good—the creole flavoring gave the sauce just a little kick, but it was not hot or too spicy. The calamari are fresh, not frozen, and are cooked to order, and are also priced at $8.95.
Next, we were treated to a bit of a healthier (i.e., non-fried) option—the Zio’s Salad. The salad consisted of a mound of mixed greens, topped with chunks of seasonal fruits, which included cantaloupe melon, grapes, pineapple, and honeydew melon. A raspberry vinaigrette dressing was served on the side, along with sides of candied walnuts and bleu cheese crumbles. When all items were added, the salad was easily large enough to suffice as an entrée by itself. Salads are served with a warm, fresh garlic breadstick, a perfect accompaniment for these lighter, fresh selections. The breadsticks are not made from scratch in-house, but are procured from the well-known local Maggiora Bakery. We thoroughly enjoyed the Zio’s Salad, as the combination of flavors—the sweet fruits and walnuts, the tangy/tart vinaigrette dressing, and the bleu cheese crumbles—was very delightful and refreshing. The entrée salads at Zio’s range from $9.95 – $10.95.
The parade of food continued with a dish of savory Chicken Marsala, which included a generous portion of tender chicken breast chunks, topped with a marsala and mushroom sauce. The sauce on this dish was divine—very flavorful and rich-tasting. As with the other dipping and pasta sauces, Zio’s also makes their own marsala sauce, and this one happens to be a recipe that originated forty-four years ago at Tony’s father’s restaurant. It has certainly been perfected, in my opinion! There were plentiful chunky mushroom pieces in the sauce, and both my guest and I really enjoyed this sample of one of Zio’s most popular entrees. Chicken Marsala and other entrées are typically served with a side of pasta; however, we did not have pasta since our was a sample-sized portion. However, we were served more yummy breadsticks, and I enjoyed dipping mine in the surplus marsala sauce.
My guest and I were feeling full, but were still picking at the leftover calamari, ravioli, salad, and chicken marsala, when Elisa arrived with two steaming bowls of clam chowder. Every day of the week, Zio’s features specials of the day, and the clam chowder was one of the daily specials on that Saturday. Zio’s clam chowder recipe is also one that has been perfected over the years at the LoForte family restaurants, and is always made from scratch on site. This was probably the richest and most creamy clam chowder that I’ve ever tasted, with plentiful chunks of clam, celery, potato, as well as bacon bits. Tony explained that the recipe uses heavy cream to thicken the soup, which makes it extra creamy and rich. The soup was served with a small bag of oyster crackers, which we both added to the creamy mixture. I don’t think either of us was able to finish the soup because its richness made it extremely filling—especially after everything else we’d had the opportunity to consume. If you are a fan of clam chowder, I highly recommend that you try a hearty bowl of it at Zio’s when you stop in. The new menu indicates that this wonderful soup will be available regularly on Fridays and Saturdays, versus just an occasional special of the day.
Aware that we were likely too full to eat dessert, Tony offered each of us a piece of home-made Tiramisu to take home. There were a couple of other dessert options to choose from, as well; but after all, what is an Italian meal without Tiramisu for dessert? This was the first time my guest had ever tried this dessert, and she found it to be light, moist, and flavorful. The cream was fluffy and not too rich, and the rum flavoring was definitely evident but not too strong. I have eaten plenty of Tiramisu over the years, and this one ranked right there among the best. I would highly recommend Zio’s Tiramisu—that is, if you manage to save room for dessert!
During our visit, a steady stream of customers came in for lunch, several of which ate in the dining room and others who ordered food to go. Tony informed us that about 50% if their business is take-out, which is good, because the idea is to provide fast and fresh high-quality cuisine that customers can take home or back to work to enjoy. The head chef at Zio’s Pasta Pronto is Martin, who has worked for the LaForte family since 1991. Martin previously worked for Tony’s father at Zio Fraedo’s in Pleasant Hill, and is very familiar with the various recipes and food preparation. He definitely prepares orders quickly, based on our observation that day. Most orders were ready within approximately five minutes.
As previously mentioned, Zio’s modified their menu somewhat, and the new selections are now published on their website. During our visit, Tony told us that one of the new featured menu items would be Fish and Chips. For this dish, Zio’s uses beer-battered Icelandic Cod during, and on Fridays, will offer a special Salmon Fish and Chips. There will continue to be new daily featured specials, as well as ongoing Family Deals. Zio’s had just introduced its first Family Deal shortly before our visit. This deal advertised 1 family-sized order of Spaghetti with Meatballs, 1 family-sized order of mixed green salad with either house or Caesar dressing, and 10 breadsticks, for $44.95. This could easily feed a family of four or five, at a cost of approximately $10 per person. Variations on the family deal will be featured in the future; however, Tony informed us that customers can order family style meals at any time by just telling the employee at the counter that they wish to do so. Zio’s Pasta Pronto also offers full catering options, available for pick-up or for delivery on-site. On-site catering is arranged as a buffet; seated catering service is not available. Please contact the restaurant for further information.
Zio’s Pasta Pronto offers a pleasing new option to the West Contra Costa County community, serving fine dining fare without having to dine at a traditional restaurant. While there is the option to dine-in, all of the menu options are conducive to take-out, and are prepared quickly, in spite of being cooked to order. One aspect of our dining experience at Zio’s that was a bit surprising was that all items were served on paper plates (except for the soup.) The cutlery is also plastic, which is appropriate to provide when food is taken “to go”, but not as common when dining in at a restaurant. Tony said that they would soon be moving to regular plates and flatware, as they now have a commercial dishwasher available. The paper plates didn’t really bother me; however, I could see how some of the dishes, for example, those served with sauces, could get soggy after sitting for a short while. My daughter discovered Zio’s before I did, and she has visited multiple times to get her favorites–Chicken Parmesan, Fried Ravioli and Fried Zucchini–and always gets them “to go.” The good news is that the take-out containers are all plastic, eliminating concerns about soggy food.
Tony and Sherry live in Benicia with their two daughters, Elizabeth and Isabella, who are 12 and 10 respectively. They are busy on-the-go parents, but still manage to run multiple successful restaurants. The LoFortes plan to open yet another food establishment, Sherry’s Kitchen, at the former location of Dickey’s Barbecue in Pleasant Hill, which they also previously franchised. But for now, the focus is on getting the word out about Zio’s Pasta Pronto and introducing customers to the many great options available from their “fast and fresh” menu. My guest and I had a fabulous experience when we visited, and as mentioned, my daughter has quickly become a fan of Zio’s over the last couple of months.I believe that once you have an opportunity to try out some of the delicious food selections here, you’ll be a fan too!
1473 Fitzgerald Avenue, Suite 102, Pinole | (510) 223-ZIOS (9467) | ziospasta.com
Hours: Sunday – Thursday 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM | Friday & Saturday 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM