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Rico’s Pizzas & Subs: A Carter County success story comes into town

Mystery Diner • Nov 17, 2017 at 8:15 AM

Transplanted New Yorker-turned-Carter County resident Rico Baltaji has been deftly wielding his culinary expertise since 2006, producing some of the best Italian and Mediterranean entrees in East Tennessee. When it comes to restaurants that the dine-around bunch and I wish we could visit more frequently than we do now, his is the one that tops the list.

So why aren’t you and your family and friends more familiar with Baltaji’s amazing expertise in the kitchen? Maybe it’s because his restaurant, Rico’s Pizzas & Subs, is located about 10 miles north of Elizabethton on Highway 91.

Yes, that’s right, Rico’s is right in the heart of the Stoney Creek community, just a little bit south of Jim Deal Road. The place’s parking lot has been middling full each time the bunch and I have stopped by, so the good word about the place has obviously gotten around. Still, I’ve always thought Baltaji could be greeting and feeding more hungry patrons if Rico’s was closer to town.

It was the Retiree who, on one of her travels throughout the Mountain Empire, spotted a bantam-sized storefront pizza parlor tucked into a Broad Street, Elizabethton mini-mall.

Her jubilant announcement text to my dining partner consisted of just five words: “Rico’s has come to town.”

“Stay there,” my partner texted back, “we are on our way.”

Ten minutes later, my dining partner and I met our friend inside the Elizabethton venue of Rico’s Pizzas & Subs.

For his Elizabethton operation, Baltaji has managed to fit all the equipment necessary to work his culinary magic in what started life as a car wash bay. Residing in this cinder block shoebox you will find a pizza oven, pantry, walk-in cooler, freezer, prep area and a pot sink. In short, everything needed for a first-class takeout pizza parlor, including six chairs along the front window for customers to sit in, which is just what my two friends and I were doing.

Baltaji has populated this shoebox with Shawn, Tasha and Josh, three capable, friendly and hard-working employees who do a good job duplicating the efficiency and output of Rico’s Stoney Creek location. As with any first-class operation, nobody does just one job here. Everybody lends a hand at everything that goes on at Rico’s Pizzas & Subs.

Take our order, for instance. I wanted to try Rico’s grilled chicken salad ($6.50) while my dining partner chose a Rico’s favorite of hers, the chicken parmesan calzone ($6.50). The Retiree also ordered a favorite, Rico’s 12-inch New York-style cheese pizza dotted with artisan-quality pepperoni ($9.00). Shawn busied himself prepping the doughs to be used in our meal.

At the same time, Tasha was busy grilling the chicken for both my salad and the calzone, and Josh was collecting the meat and cheese toppings for the pizza. Shawn gently but firmly kneaded the doughs into the required shapes, spread a thin layer of the house pizza sauce (called “ragu” in Italian) adding toppings to the pizza while Tasha saw to stuffing the calzone with its delicious ingredients before having it join the pizza to bake in the very hot oven. As the pizza and calzone were baking, Tasha completed assembling my grilled chicken salad.

Twenty minutes of hard work later, the Rico’s team had our three entrees bagged, boxed and ready to go. Another 20 minutes and we were in my kitchen un-bagging (my dining partner’s task), un-boxing (the Retiree’s) and setting the table (mine).

Though the mileage between Ricos front door and ours may have shortened, our meal from Rico’s was still long on savor and quality. My grilled chicken salad was excellent, the chicken marinated just so, grilled to perfection and served atop a salad of iceberg lettuce as crisp and cold as its namesake. Some diced tomatoes and sliced red onions for variety, and the house Italian dressing adding just the right sour and spicy tang made my grilled chicken salad perfection personified.

My dining partner and the Retiree both liked the chicken parmesan calzone, taking the same grilled chicken used for my salad packed into a capacious turnover of pizza dough with some smooth mozzarella cheese and fresh-grated parmesan and bakes it until bubbly inside and out, and complemented with the house marinara sauce.

The Retiree was especially fond of the New York-style pepperoni pizza, sneaking a slice off the pan during grace. Our amateur sneak thief gathered in first two more slices and then a third while my dining partner had her attention momentarily monopolized by the calzone.

With bottled sodas and a fresh pitcher of iced tea, we had a fine time dining (or perhaps a time of fine dining?) on Rico Baltaji’s best. Not having to drive quite so far to get his best was even more enjoyable. See if you don’t agree.

Rico’s Pizzas & Subs

817 Broad Street

Elizabethton

543-1395

Mon-Sat 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Available on Facebook

Credit cards accepted

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