Buffet quest 

Italian Express offers downtown an affordable and fresh buffet experience.

click to enlarge Pizza at Italian Express features dough made fresh every day. - JACOB THREADGILL
  • Jacob Threadgill
  • Pizza at Italian Express features dough made fresh every day.

In 1992, Pizza Hut installed all-you-can-eat buffets in 2,000 of its restaurants across the country. It was back in the days when Pizza Hut operated as an old-school parlor and was a full-service restaurant with booths and silverware.

Most Pizza Huts these days operate as a sterile, takeout-only bastions for mediocre pizza. Since Domino’s public mea culpa about a decade ago, it has skyrocketed up my personal big chain rankings with the reworked recipe.

Pizza Hut was my favorite as a child, but I’d rank it bottom tier now. I ate Pizza Hut on Christmas Eve because it was the only pizza place open, and the in-laws have a tradition to eat slices in honor of Jesus’ birth. I’ve heard the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad pizza,” but Pizza Hut — with its lacking crust, flavorless sauce and rubbery cheese — is challenging that assumption.

My desire to find a good Italian buffet recently took me to the downtown lunch option Italian Express, 119 W. Main St., Suite 101, where owner Hassan Daneshmand has been serving an affordable pizza, pasta and salad bar for 15 years.

Located in the retail portion of First National Center’s parking garage, Italian Express has long been a weekday lunch option for those working downtown, but it’s also worth making the trip if you’ve got a craving. 

I didn’t know what to expect when I made my first trip to Italian Express, but Daneshmand himself greets customers, gets your drink and, along with his kitchen staff, makes sure the buffet is freshly stocked.

click to enlarge Pasta options at Italian Express - JACOB THREADGILL
  • Jacob Threadgill
  • Pasta options at Italian Express

For me, buffets can sometimes be an awkward experience. Am I supposed to pay before or after? Will it just be a joyless conveyor belt of rotating Sysco options?

Daneshmand alleviated those concerns by heartily greeting me upon entrance and his attentiveness throughout the meal. Customers pay the $8.77 for the buffet and drink when they leave.

“It’s about taking care of the guests,” Daneshmand told me. “Money is the least of my concerns. If they’re happy, they’ll pay on the way out.”

Daneshmand arrives every weekday at 6:30 a.m. to prep the dough for breadsticks and pizza and sauces for the buffet, which are made fresh every day. He makes meatballs by hand. 

“I don’t own a freezer or a microwave,” he said.

Daneshmand came to the U.S. in the late ’70s from Iran and has extensive experience in restaurant operations with both Chi Chi’s Mexican Restaurant and Zio’s Italian Kitchen.

I’m a firm believer that there is an intrinsic connection between food preparation and the passion with which it is made. When someone like Daneshmand is getting up early every day to bring the buffet to downtown denizens, he can elevate the food to more than the sum of its parts.

click to enlarge Spaghetti with meat sauce - JACOB THREADGILL
  • Jacob Threadgill
  • Spaghetti with meat sauce

Italian Express could easily cut its already-affordable buffet cost by ordering premade pizza crust or using frozen meatballs, but I commend Daneshmand for not cutting corners.

I didn’t go to Italian Express with the intention of comparing it to Stella, Patrono, Osteria or any of the high-end Italian options in the city, but it surpassed my expectations.

Daneshmand said that little has changed with the buffet operation in its 15 years. It has the same salad, pizza and pasta options daily. The salad bar is a large bowl of iceberg lettuce with a few flecks of carrots and purple cabbage — the standard salad mixture. I’ve heard the argument that iceberg is good when it acts as a vehicle for other vegetables, but there wasn’t much in the way of nutrients at the salad bar. Vegetables toppings included tomatoes, olives, cucumbers and mushrooms, which are all fine and good, but I’d prefer a more nutrient-rich lettuce base. Iceberg offers almost nothing in the way of nutrition, while romaine has a gram of protein, 1.8 grams of fiber and more than 100 percent of the daily value of vitamin A per serving.

Of course, I realize no one is going to the Italian buffet in search of a health-conscious meal, but a solid dose of fiber can help mitigate an indulgent experience.

Customers can go to the pasta bar where they can choose from spaghetti or penne with variety of sauces: meatballs in red gravy, marinara, ground beef sauce, Alfredo and sausage. It also offers cheese ravioli in a tomato cream sauce and a cheesy lasagna with beef. The meatballs did their job, but I thought the accompanying sauce was a little thin and flavorless. The meat sauce and regular marinara were good.

I was impressed by the lasagna, which had a lot of ricotta in between layers, and I thought the ravioli was an unexpected surprise.

I liked the pasta, but the pizza was the star of the buffet for me. I ate a couple of cheese slices and was impressed with the sauce and fresh dough. There was also a vegetarian pizza without tomato sauce, a pepperoni pizza and a supreme version. I’d say that it ranks with Luigi’s Pizza, 7901 N. May Ave., for best lunch buffet pizza and is exponentially better than whatever Pizza Hut is selling these days. 

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