Rico's Italian Pizza tosses its dough disks by hand before slathering them with sauce, sprinkling them with tasty toppings, baking them to a bubbly golden brown, and sending them off to inhabit the menu. Proto-pizzas begin their journey by taking circular form as a thin, medium, or thick crust, then sprouting any combination of the 19 available toppings, including salami ($12.45+). Specialty pies, such as the generously topped carnivore, squash the possibility of intense topping debates with prearranged layers of pepperoni, salami, italian sausage, linguica, and canadian bacon ($14.95).
At Vito's Ristorante, guests must fight the urge to walk into the walls. The restaurant’s gorgeous murals depict the alluring Italian countryside, serving eyes a visual feast of verdant fields, glassy waters, and marshmallow clouds. The aroma of chicken parmigiana and housemade marina sauce serenades olfactory senses from the kitchen, where chefs use time-honored culinary traditions to conjure up the Old-World flavors found in the veal marsala and linguine fra diavolo—spicy marinara over pasta, shrimp, and mussels. A new type of ravioli graces the menu every week, and past daily specials have included lamb chops with polenta and swordfish dressed in mango salsa and a musketeer hat. For a more urban, downtown vibe, Vito Ristorante’s V-Lounge hosts special events where guests can get their fill of libations and entertainment.
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Boasting a bevy of gooey pizza-pie options, Extreme Pizza has garnered a boatload of praise for its ability to fuse toppings without welding or undertaking genetic experiments. Frisbee-toss an indee-sized cheese disc into your well-watered mouth, such as the Paia pie, with pineapple, oranges, and Canadian bacon ($7.45+). Or try the Yard Sale, which includes sausage, pepperoni, salami, mushrooms, black olives, green peppers, red onions, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and mozzarella ($7.45+). Groups of 6 to 10 people, meanwhile, can prepare palates for the onslaught of hearty slices by prefacing them with a massive family-style salad, such as the caesar ($20.99). Others can stimulate taste buds without licking a defibrillator with a dozen X-Factors wings ($4.75 for six, $7.95 for 12).
It has been more than 40 years since the Medina family immigrated to Modesto, although the recipes that they use at Bel Piatto Cucina Italiana remain just as strongly rooted in Italian tradition. The lunch and dinner menus are filled with elegant pasta, seafood, veal, and steak dishes, as well as more casual calzones, which get stuffed with ingredients such as meatballs and spinach before being baked in the oven until their SPF wears off.
Wines ranging from real Italian reds to homegrown California chardonnays pair nicely with the entire spectrum of entrees, from the hearty bistecca di manzo—with wild mushrooms and a cabernet reduction accentuating a 12-ounce rib-eye steak—to the grilled salmon fresca highlighted by white wine, lemon, capers, and cream. Appetizers such as stuffed portobello mushrooms help to launch feasts.
Bel Piatto Cucina Italiana’s atmosphere is just as Italian as its food, surrounding diners with crisp white tablecloths, darkened wood, clerestory windows, and a wall-mounted wine rack.
Michael Calder began his pizza-making career in 1973, when he learned how to shape authentic crusts while working at an Italian family’s pizzeria. He put his pizza-crafting expertise to work at his own place when he opened Michael’s Pizza Bar and Grill, where the kitchen prepares specialty pies such as the meat-stacked Michael’s Masterpiece. The vegetarian Green Machine comes adorned with pesto sauce, artichoke hearts, and fresh garlic, while Heart Attack Dogs arrive at tables wrapped in bacon, crowned with cream cheese and honey, and accompanied by ominous organ music. Bartenders can mix dessertinis infused with espresso to follow hearty meals.