I’m going to go right ahead and say it. In the incredible ethnic food scene that stretches across America, the most inevitably disappointing is Italian. I don’t know why this is, but it’s true. Having spent plenty of time in Italy I know how good Italian food is. The Italian-American population is huge, and if you go by their houses you will find amazing dishes in every pot. Why then is it that every time I go to an Italian restaurant I find it so underwhelming? If I order pasta I usually feel as though I could have made better at home in 20 minutes. It’s actually gotten to a point where I won’t even go to an Italian restaurant anymore. This is why Muriale’s in Fairmont, West Virginia was such an amazing find.
If one person tells me about a restaurant, I will tuck it away somewhere in my head. But when you hear someplace come up over and over and over again, you start to pay attention. It seemed as though everyone I talked to and everything I read pointed me towards Muriale’s until I just had to give it a shot.
When I arrived, the outside was incredibly underwhelming and generic looking. The three huge parking lots, including one obviously added later down by the river told a different story though. When I walked inside, my initial observations faded in the warmth of the entryway. The rooms were bright and colorful and the whole place felt alive and bustling.
We were seated in the back by the bar, an impressive room which felt comfortable and homey. I ordered the Taste of Italy, a combination of rigatoni, ravioli and lasagna with one big meatball, a salad and bread. I figured if this place was as good as people said, I’d want to try a few different things and this accomplished that on one plate.
The salad and bread came first. One look at the salad was all it took to know that this was better than your average crummy restaurant included salad. In the United States, our salad comes before the meal making this the first impression your customers will get of your restaurant. Some of the salads you see are downright embarrassing, a pile of soggy lettuce and one cherry tomato. This salad was wonderful, flavorful, beautiful to look at and just the right size. The bread was soft and warm, but also crusty and solid. This meal was starting off on the right foot.
My salad finished and cleared, my meal arrived right on time. It was perfect from start to finish. The pasta was clearly homemade, fresh and cooked to perfection – al dente but not hard in a way that only fresh pasta can be. The meatball was mild but well-seasoned and rich enough that one really was enough. The lasagna was in a league of its own. I savored every bite. It wasn’t a massive portion, but it was so satisfying that it was just enough to fill me up.
The service was excellent throughout and the manager stopped by twice as well, a sure mark that they take pride in their restaurant and are confident in what they are serving. In a good restaurant, management is visible. If they aren’t stopping by to check on you, it’s because they are running food or bussing tables, but they are there on the floor. If you don’t see a manager, it’s not a good sign – from my experience working in restaurants they are probably hiding in some back corner office.
Walking out past the generic exterior of the building was a little like coming out of the wardrobe from Narnia. I knew the magic that was inside. Muriale’s was, quite simply, the best Italian meal I’ve had in the United States. Who’d have thought it was to be found in tiny Fairmont, West Virginia.