Tony's Pizza Downtown - 1120 Washington St.

Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tony’s Pizza Downtown, a fixture in the Columbia lunch scene, is tucked below street level on the 1100 block of Washington Street. Set underneath a dreary parking garage, amidst a string of loan sharks and other small businesses, a clean, new “Tony’s Downtown” awning invites Columbia business people underground.

Once inside the door, you’ll typically be met immediately by the line of nurses, bankers, office staffers, bureaucrats and lawyers silently struggling over whether to get the usual or take a chance on the simple little restaurant’s expansive menu. The atmosphere feels just dated enough to make you feel at home – like your great aunt who keeps everything nice and clean, but complains about how they don’t make TV’s in wood panel boxes like they used to (to be fair, it should be noted that, in a wildly ironic display of modernism, Caveman finds it a bit dark).

Even when extending out the door, the line moves quickly; probably because most folks I know say “Lasagna, Italian Dressing and a Tea” or “Baked Spaghetti, Thousand Island and a Water,” and pick up their plastic number to head for a booth. A few brave souls call out for The Special or The Cock and Fire Sandwich, and their courage is also richly rewarded. Ristorante Divino it is not – or so I’m told – I’ve never actually had the coin to visit the vaunted Gervais street eatery. The Italian fare at Tony’s is simple and homespun.

Speaking of simple, I always get the lasagna. To see why, check out the picture - compliments of our very own Pizza the Hut. With that dish, Tony’s starts you out with a small bowl of salad. Unless you are in tip-top cardiac shape, I suggest requesting the dressing on the side. Maybe it is to mask the less-than-perfect iceberg lettuce or maybe they just like it that way – but the ratio of dressing to salad is nearly 1:1. The salad is followed shortly by a basket of buttered garlic toast. Buttered with an enthusiasm rarely seen outside high school cafeterias, the hearty toast is a great way to dispense with all that left over salad dressing. On the heels of dipping your butter sponge in the dressing comes the real deal – everything happens fast here – Tony’s lasagna comes out steaming hot in an oval shaped dish. It seriously tastes just like Mom’s. No weird spices. No fancy presentation. No funny Italian sausage. Just pure deliciousness. Even the Queen of Frozen Cuisine agreed that the lasagna made her rare trip out of the office an excellent experience.

By the way – you’ve cheated yourself if that butter sponge didn’t get a go at the bottom of your lasagna dish.

I would be content to end the story there, but Tank and Rabbit insist we explore more of the menu, so here goes. Rabbit, true to form, had the Greek salad with grilled chicken. I dare say Rabbit aka “Salad the Greek” is an expert on all things salad – particularly Greek salad. Adequately portioned in a medium sized black bowl, the presentation was simple and appetizing with a healthy portion of right-sized chicken morsels atop a classic Greek salad. Rabbit’s report: “baller.” I guess that means he liked it. Tank and Caveman both opted for The Special: Greek pasta with grilled chicken. As Rabbit later remarked: “equally baller.” Both Tank and the hard to please Caveman remarked about how good the chicken and pasta were, as well as how the flavors were appropriately paired.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that many in my office enjoy Tony’s without falling all over themselves to gush about it. Objectivity be damned; in the words of our Governor, “this is a love story.”

A more balanced reviewer would probably conclude the following: Tony’s isn’t exactly reinventing lunch here – they’re a lot like a Bobby Knight team running the Motion – lots of options, solid execution and plenty of hustle.

- The Publican, guest columnist

Herodotus’ History Corner
: Tony’s Pizza used to be a chain – thus the various restaurants by the same name around these parts. However, the franchise went out of business years ago and the individual operators who stayed in business ran their restaurants as they pleased, resulting in diverse menus and atmospheres.

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Rabbit, Tank, and The Publican are three dudes just trying to get through the work week here in Columbia. Rabbit is a Columbia native, Tank is from Charleston, and The Publican hails from Greenville. Rabbit's favorite lunch spot is the No Name Deli on Elmwood, where you may find him putting down a grilled chicken salad and a side of vinegar pasta. The Publican usually wants to find food to cure his all-too-common hangovers. Tank claims no favorite lunch spot - he lives for the thrill of the hunt.