Licari's Sicilian Pizza Kitchen

(Grand Rapids, MI) — A few months ago, an acquaintance alerted us to a new restaurant opening up near Knapp’s Corner, an Italian eatery next to The Crushed Grape called Licari’s Sicilian Pizza Kitchen. Both of us love pizza, so it was just a waiting game before Licari’s secured a liquor license and opened its doors. We drove up the Beltline on a hot, sunny evening to find out whether these first-time restaurateurs could deliver an authentic Sicilian experience in southwest Michigan...

He Fed:

It takes forever to find a parking spot. There must be some kind of local event, because there are many people milling about the outside of the restaurant and there seems to be a line out the door. Still, I can see some empty tables on the patio so we circle around and come back just in time to snag a spot right out front, as another patron drives away. Score!

Despite the gaggle of people nearly blocking the entry, there is no one waiting at the hostess stand just inside. Unfortunately, there is also no hostess. We wait, standing, as server after server passes by, flashes us a quick look, then continues about their business. It takes about 5 minutes before a pretty young waitress approaches us and announces it will be a 30 minute wait for a table. What about the 2 or 3 empty tables I can see in the dining room? It’ll be 30 minutes, she repeats. Clearly, she wants us to leave, but I am stubborn. Why the wait? The kitchen is backed up 30 minutes, she says. Fine, can we get drinks while we wait? The bar is right there, she tells us. (And, indeed, the bar is right there, with no chairs available.) I play my final gambit: “How about seat us at one of the empty tables and we’ll order drinks from our server?” Sure, she says, but it’ll be 30 minutes for food. Fine.

We are seated along the far wall, at a narrow two-top. It’s not the most convenient location, as servers whisk by carrying big plastic bins from the bar to the kitchen. (One server even accidentally smacks the chair of our neighboring diners with a large plastic glass holder.) Suddenly, our waitress appears to take our drink order. She is friendly, keeping up with the dinner rush with humor and efficiency. I get a Peroni on draught to start. She leaves and a couple minutes later, another waiter appears at our table, asking what we’d like to drink. What? We explain we already have a server. He appears confused and flustered, then slinks away.

When our waitress reappears with drinks, she asks, “Have you decided on dinner?” What? We’d been told it would be a 30 minute wait and here we were, ordering after only 10 minutes! Excitedly, we get the Arancinis, crispy rice balls filled with meat sauce and mozzerella. They are beautifully composed and a perfectly crispy, gooey temperature. However, they are also filled with peas, and Juliet hates peas. She gamely picks them out, eating around the green. I really enjoy them, but I feel kind of bad for her. It would have been nice to know ahead of time about the contents of the arancini.

For our main, we go back and forth, finally deciding on Gianni Za, a stuffed pizza filled with ham, tomato, and green olives. I guess I didn’t read the fine print, though, because the sauce is not tomato but olive oil and herb. The tomato slices are thick and really hotter than the rest of the contents, making it a risky venture with each scorching bite. I am not a fan of the crust, which is too dry and crunchy. It seems as though they par-baked two crusts, put toppings on one, then just put the other on top before finishing the bake. I would have preferred a true stuffed pizza and tomato sauce instead. Overall, I find it dry and not much fun to eat.

All new restaurants need some time to work out kinks, and I hope Licari’s can find a rhythm. Not including our great waitress, it’s been awhile since we’ve had such laughable service. Although the arancini seemed authentic, I am not a fan of their least the stuffed version. I can’t think of any instance where I would choose to dine here again.
She Fed:

I love pizza whether it’s a cheap greasy one from the delivery boy, a highbrow pie from a wood-fired oven in Manhattan, or one of Jeremy’s concoctions on the grill. So I’ve been anticipating dinner at Licari’s ever since we heard they were opening. Jeremy’s been keeping his eye on the place waiting for them to open so we can give them a try.

We arrive to find them bustling, with parking at a premium. Good sign for the owners! Once inside we wait for the hostess. And wait. Servers make eye contact but no one says a word. (You know, like “the hostess will be with you in a second.”) Minutes pass and we are past the awkward point. Just as I’m about to suggest we come back another time, the hostess approaches, confirms a table for two, and tells us it will be a half hour wait for food. We eyeball several empty tables, asking what the delay is and she explains that the kitchen is backed up. Jeremy asks if we can be seated for a drink while we wait and she responds, “I can seat you and you can go to the bar to get a drink and wait.” He thinks he’s misunderstood her so he repeats his question. She rolls her eyes and says “Alright. I can seat you AND get you a drink while you wait.” Then she adds in a very stern tone “But I’m not kidding, it will be 30 minutes for your food.”

You can imagine our surprise when the waitress offers to take our dinner order with our drink order. We start with the arancini which arrive quickly. Two huge orbs are hunkered down in a pool of chunky marinara and garnished with grated Parmesan and julienned basil. We each spear a sphere and dig in. In addition to the “meat sauce and mozzarella” filling listed on the menu, there’s diced carrots and green peas. I’ve never been a fan of peas, especially these wrinkled greyish ones that look like they’ve seen better days. I pick them out (it’s the kid in me) and take a bite. The rice still has a bit of tooth to it and the meat sauce is pretty flavorful. The marinara is really excellent with sweet tomato-y richness.

After a brief wait, our pizza, the “Gianni Za,” arrives. I’ve seen plenty of stuffed pies before but none like this. It looks as though the dough was par baked, sliced in half, filled and then finished in the oven. The crust is thin and crisp, especially the top portion. Unlike Jeremy, I didn’t expect a tomato sauce for it as the menu lists an “oil and herb sauce,” but he’s right when he suggests this pizza could use a side of marinara for dunking. The filling is lukewarm and quite dry. While the tomato chunks add a bit of moisture, the salty olives and ham act like a desiccant. Coupled with the cracker-like crust, it’s almost hard to eat. A spot of extra sauce on the side would surely help. Maybe a little cheese inside, something dewier than Parm.

Our table is smack dab in a major thoroughfare of the restaurant. My chair is bumped by wait staff numerous times and the dishwasher slams into my chair twice returning clean glasses to the bar. The acoustics are horrific for such a small place. When we first sat down I could barely hear Jeremy. None of this enhances our dining experience.

I really want to like this place. It’s owned by a neighbor of a friend and they’ve got a great passion for Sicilian food. I always love to hear when people decide to pursue a lifelong dream of opening their own restaurant, so I’m rooting for these guys all the way. But between the oddball greeting from the hostess, the overly dry pizza, and the lackluster surroundings I’m not sure it merits a return trip for us.

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