THE EATER- My gyro! In search, third time was the charm

Ray Phillips of the Expresso Italian Villa hoists the winner

Can Charlottesville serve up a decent gyro? I was craving this Greco-American sandwich and decided to find out– even if it meant crossing the forbidden train tracks around the UVA Corner.

I first tried Basil Mediterranean Bistro on functionally hip 14th Street. The dining rush was winding down on a school night, but almost every seat was still full at quarter to nine, and the space was packed with conversation and world music with great drum beats.

Basil's gyro is skewered lamb and beef with tomatoes and onions and a light dousing of homemade tzatziki sauce. Usually, tzatziki merges yogurt and cucumbers, and perhaps a little dill, lemon, and garlic, and this one included feta. This improvisation was a positive.

All the pieces were fresh and tasted great, but the sandwich didn't work. It looked like one you'd see in a cartoon: two large, thin pieces of pita the shape of slipper bottoms wrapped up halfway in foil with fillings that, if drawn into a world where laws of physics don't apply, would stay between the bread when you picked up the foil side. Homer Simpson's "scarfing" sound effect comes instantly to mind.


In reality, however, the floppy bread peeled back, letting little chunks of beef tumble out right before each bite. (I'm just sorry I brought work, not a date, as it would have been fun to watch me biting air.)

 I didn't tell my server this was an issue, though— not after he put the dish under a heat lamp because my French fries arrived cold, and the bread could have used some warmth too.

Later in the week, I went back to Basil for lunch. The Santorini, a salad with gyro meat and a variety of other traditional Greek toppings, was the way to go—the flavor of the lamb was highlighted, and I could get it from plate to mouth civilly.

Unfortunately, our server brought my dining companion the wrong sandwich (not even close!), which, in the interest of time, she opted to keep. The server really seemed to care— he brought her baklava on the house— but he needs a notepad.

After later speaking with owner Raif Antar, who spoke reassuringly about his quality control in the food preparation, I think a little quality control in the staff training would do well to equal his menu.

At the College Inn, about a block away from Basil on University Avenue, my server definitely had a sense of purpose— to feed me and anyone else who came through the door. I went on a different school night, same time, and the crowds weren't there, as it was the end of the reading break for students.

The College Inn has always struck me as a place where you go if you want to get full, cheaply. When I told my foodie friend I was going there, he described it and the UVA sports paraphernalia on the walls as "gimmicky." It seemed generous.

The gyro platter comes with a four-bite salad. A circle of the thick, chewy pita I like was cut into quarters, and strips of pre-cut lamb were folded and laid on top. I'm not against using frozen gyro meat, as I've had more than a few killer gyros from street vendors using frozen strips. But this was visibly greasy. And the steak fries were dry. Go figure.

My Eureka moment wouldn't come until I visited the Italian Villa, the venerable Greek/Italian diner on Emmet Street. And glad for them, too, because their menu boldly boasts that their gyro is "A Villa favorite for over 20 Years!"

No pressure, right? I ate in the company of a solid lunch crowd, including Cavaliers wide receiver Jared Green.

(I realize that the venerable Tip Top plus two food scene newcomers, Pacino's on the Corner and Pesto in Crozet offer gyros, but I let them all off the hook– this time.)

The Italian Villa gyro turned out to be as good as it gets, straight from the skewer.

This is how I imagine that it goes in the kitchen: A large, thick, doughy round of pita is pan-fried just enough to give it some heat and that golden hue and placed on top of a sheet of foil. 

Next, a generous portion of sliced meat is placed in the diameter, and then tomatoes, onions, and a ladling of thick tzatziki on top.

The gummy pita is stretched around the heaping mass like a cone, and the foil holds it together, barely. It's plated, and the opening of the gyro is just staring me down, daring me to eat the whole thing.

I did. And the fries.

What do you even call these things, anyway? Around these parts, you can get away with calling it a gyro. But I like saying it's like a hero.