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Fill 'er Up 

Mollica's masters the art of fulfilling meals

Sometimes food is just fuel, and the purpose of a meal is to fill up the tank. Think of runners carbo-loading before a race. Think of the powerbars and trail mix you take along on hikes. Think of a weekday lunch when you've little time to spare and a long workday ahead of you.

You need something filling, nutritious, tasty and you need it fast. You're too health conscious to consider something drive-up-window fast -- and the food that awaits you there -- but you can't spare the time for the kind of leisurely lunch you might enjoy on the weekend. You need Mollica's.

They've offered quick lunches to the workers along the Garden of the Gods corridor for years, and have perfected the art of feeding the hordes that eat between noon and 1 p.m. (Staggered lunch breaks still seems a struggling concept in most organizations.)

The line to the counter forms inside the door. Use this time to read the chalkboard or grab a printed menu. Order and pay. Unless you're drinking water, which the friendly counter guy will get, you'll be given a glass for soft drinks and directed to the soda machine. Take the display number and seat yourself at one of the checker-clothed, glass-topped tables. Within moments another friendly red-shirted service guy will bring your meal.

Although there are salads available as well as a grudging veggie sandwich, Mollica's is for meat lovers. Specifically, Italian meat lovers. Sausage, meatballs, Genoa salami, capicola ham and pepperoni share center stage in a variety of grinders and sandwiches. Other meats like turkey and honey ham are Boar's Head, a delicious premium brand. Most sandwiches are made with provolone cheese, though Swiss and cheddar are also available. A small serving of bow-tie pasta salad accompanies all sandwiches.

We sampled soup, salad, an assortment of sandwiches and a calzone (there are at least two kinds of calzones prepared each day). Each meal was generously sized. Sandwiches come on wax paper in plastic baskets for easy and efficient cleanup. Glasses are hard plastic. This is a fueling stop, not a dining destination.

The hot Italian roast beef was thinly sliced and layered with melted provolone. There was less roasted green pepper than I would have liked but my disappointment was assuaged by the fresh crusty roll it came on and the full-flavored dipping jus. The bread alone is reason to order a sandwich.

We also tried the meatball grinder, called the Dominic on the menu. I'm not sure who he is but Dominic makes a mighty fine meatball. It had more meat than breadcrumbs, the filler of choice by cooks trying to stretch things. His red sauce ain't bad either -- rich, thick and tomatoey.

One of the day's specials was a grilled sausage sandwich, a slight variation from the regularly offered Bravo Sandwich that features sausage patties, lettuce, mayo, provolone and roasted green peppers. The sandwich special used Mollica's homemade sausage links, a spicy hot Italian sausage redolent with fennel, melted provolone, a token bit of roasted pepper, and a side of red sauce for dipping.

Mollica's gets extra mileage out of its limited ingredients by offering combinations like half sandwich and soup, half sandwich and salad, soup and salad. This is an easy way to keep the diet of regulars happily varied. The steaming Minestrone soup we tried came in a huge bowl filled with vegetables and pasta. The overwhelming flavor (besides tomato) was dried oregano -- someone was a little heavy handed in the kitchen. But it was hearty and, on a blustery day, just the thing to take the chill away.

It's possible to eat a calzone every day at Mollica's and not get bored. You might put on a little weight, what with all the dough and cheese, but with the variations offered, you wouldn't be bored. We had a massive calzone, filled with Ricotta, pesto and shrimp. Smaller appetites could easily share one.

If you're not in an Italian mood, try the hot pastrami and Swiss. If you're not in a hot sandwich mood, try the turkey or ham and cheese. Both these standards prove the point that excellent ingredients make excellent meals.

Diners craving more food can order pasta -- lasagna, manicotti or the pasta of the day with your choice of their traditional red sauce, a vegetarian version of red sauce, or an Alfredo. These entrees come with either soup or salad. I'd suggest staying away from the salads, the base ingredient of which is iceberg lettuce.

Should you be still hungry after your filling and reasonably priced lunch (pastas are $7.95, everything else well under $7.00), stop at the pastry display case. Sinful things lie there. We righteously passed by but I did catch a glimpse of cannoli shells and cheesecake. Something for your afternoon break perhaps? It could be a long day at work; who knows when you'll get out. You'll need the fuel to keep going.

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