11 best restaurants, pizza and chocolate shops to open during the pandemic: Mimi’s Picks

From pizza shops and crepes to brewery and chocolates, these resilient and safety-focused businesses opened during the pandemic to welcoming and excited communities. Quality ingredients, well-trained staff and outstanding products have kept these places afloat, and hopefully, they will be in full sail this year. Here’s to a big good riddance to 2020 and a heartfelt Happy New Year to family and friends as we welcome in, with relief, 2021.

The Watershed Pub, 2129 Market Street, Cumberland County, 717-761-5000

The Millworks restaurant and brewery in Midtown Harrisburg has a new West Shore partner, The Watershed Pub. Centrally located on Market Street at the heart of Camp Hill borough, this mindful, locally focused eatery has already piqued the curiosity of nearby residents. After only two weeks of opening, reservations are booked up. Safety is a top priority here from the moment you step through the entrance of the modernized, centuries-old home. Customers are required to wave wrists across the free-standing instant-read temperature check machine before being seated at carefully spaced tables either outside on the lawn, beneath heaters on the patio or inside the building equipped with an HVAC system that filters airborne pathogens. The menu highlights sustainable-sourced seafood from the Chesapeake Bay watershed, grass-fed local harvest beef and produce as well as heirloom grains and organic greens. And prices reflect these sustainable, high-quality efforts and ingredients. The disposable one-page menu is well-thought-out and creative, from Maryland blue crab dip and garlicky grilled bread ($15); raw Chesapeake Bay oysters; half dozen (($14) signature Long Island wood-grilled swordfish loin ($28) with stone-ground raw milk cheddar grits; wallet-sized, Koji aged braised crimson short rib and grits ($29); to Fox Meadow sustainable ice cream ($7) and warm doughnuts served with chocolate, rich and buttery caramel and chai custard sauces. Keep in mind that buffalo-style (deep-fried with naturally fermented housemade hot sauce, shaved celery and bleu cheese) farm-raised Maryland snapping turtle boneless and breaded gimmicky “wings” demand far more chewing than crisply, fried, delicate and delicious buttermilk marinated clams ($13) served with intense charred oniony dipping sauce and delightful tarragon tweaked tartar sauce.

Rubber Soul

Rubber Soul Brewing is opening later this summer in Hummelstown.

Facebook photo

Rubber Soul Brewing Co., 136 S. Hanover Street, Hummelstown, 717-220-1741

Move over Troegs, there’s a new brew kid in the town next to Hershey. Robust, multi-nuanced brews made in-house range from locally named and always popular Flight of the Falcon (Lower Dauphin mascot) IPA “dry-hopped with citra and bursting with pineapple … and coconut,” to a Czech-style pilsner called Soul Patch, to a “sticky bun-inspired stout” called Sticky Stout that hints of cinnamon and candy sweetness. Take home a 32-ounce can or”crowler” (a play on growler only in can form.) or housemade cocktail, winter mule, cranberry fizz or spiced margarita with your next take-out order. We will all look forward to being able to sit inside at this cool, edgy, transformed municipal building space either at the custom copper-etched bar counter or at tables spread across patterned concrete flooring. A pub-style hearty menu features appetizers, soups, salads, pizza and sandwiches. Even if you are not a beer drinker, the food stands up to brews in bold flavor and quality. Crisp and flaky pizza crusts spin out of the brick oven with delicious toppings such as artichoke pizza garnished with black olives, mixed greens, mozzarella and a sprinkle of balsamic dressing. Soft and buttery perogies ($8) are hot and slathered in roasted sliced peppers and chopped bacon, and the soul burger ($15) intensifies the meat patty by layering pastrami, brie cheese, caramelized red onions, lettuce and chipotle sauce under the bun. Add either the hand-cut fries, ($2), onion rings ($2) or outstanding sweet potato fries ($3) to this massive and messy signature burger.

Chef de Crepe

Chef de Crepe opened Dec. 12 at 20 W. Main St. in Mechanicsburg.

Photo by Annie Phillips Photography

Chef de Crepe. 20 West Main Street, Mechanicsburg, 717-603-3821

Chef de Crepe is a glimmering sign of hope that despite the pandemic it’s business as usual at this cheery, family-owned exclusive Main Street shop. French music livens the mood as local residents stop in for take-out friendly sweet and savory crepes. Twin crepe stations behind the counter are thoroughly prepped and ready for numerous orders, so wait time is minimal even for walk-ins. Come in early before the ever-popular chicken salad runs out. I missed out on the chicken salad but I wasn’t disappointed by the second choice, chicken Florentine ($10.75) (Florentine always means a garnish of spinach)intensified by sautéed mushrooms and creamy béchamel sauce. House-made toothsome crepes include the Mexi breakfast crepe ($10.25), which is best eaten with a knife and fork. This morning meal consists of egg, guacamole, nuggets of Angus beef, cheddar cheese and salsa. For dessert, go with either the Oreo lovers ($10.75) New York cheesecake, Oreos and Nutella or grandmere’s apple pie ($11.25) with homey apple pie filling and dulce de leche.

Takeout restarant service

Chandra Kotzatoski of Simply Greek restaurant in Briarcrest Square in Hershey, Pa., Apr. 23, 2020. Hours: Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Takeout and curbside orders caon be placed on their website simplygreekhershey.com, or by calling 717-298-6668. Delivery is available through Doordash. Simply Greek specializes in traditional Mediterranean fare, including Gyros, souvlaki, saldas, moussaka and spanikopita, along with a large variety of house-made desserts. Mark Pynes | [email protected]

Simply Greek, 23 Briarcrest Square, Hershey, 717-298-6668

Even before the pandemic, Simply Greek was set up to succeed as a takeout and delivery business. There is very limited seating at this small clandestine eatery, but you can use delivery apps like GrubHub, Uber Eats and DoorDash to order out.

The authentic Greek fare here is fabulously flavorful and addictive. The hands-down most popular item is the signature shrimp pita ($9.99), slathered with your choice of housemade sauce: tzatziki, creamy or spicy feta and Harissa yogurt sauce. You’ll want to add an order of hand-cut French fries ($1) to the interior of this soft pita package that’s already stuffed with oversized shrimp, tomato and onion slices and fresh parsley. And you’ll be back for such classic Greek dinners as macaroni and ground beef layered pastitsio ($12.99), eggplant layered moussaka ($12.99) and spanakopita ($9.99). The nut and honey-laced baklava and baklava cheesecake are just two of the mouth-watering, homemade desserts for sale here.

Tuskers Indian Fusion

Vegetarians will go nuts over all of the choices, beginning with an order of samosas ($5.99 for two), deep-fried tender pastries filled with cumin-scented potatoes and peas.

Tuskers Indian Fusion, 3716 N. 6th St., Harrisburg, 717-210-3931

“We signed the lease to the building one week before everything shut down,” said Tuskers owner Lycka Dsouza. “With restrictions across the state and the difficulty in finding an Indian chef that could work right away, we waited until June 29 to open. We were really scared at first but the neighborhood has really been amazing and supportive. Things have been slowly picking up.”

Vegetarians will go nuts over all of the choices, beginning with an order of samosas ($5.99 for two), deep-fried tender pastries filled with cumin-scented potatoes and peas. Gobi Manchurian ($10.99) are a deep-fried cauliflower entree piquant with chiles and substantially substitutes for a meat dish. As a popular Indian street food item, pani puri ($6.99) are delicate, crispy dough balls filled with potato, chickpeas, tamarind and a minty liquid. (It was suggested that I watch the YouTube video at home before tackling these one-bite appetizers.) The tomato and cream-laced butter chicken melts in your mouth. Just don’t dare take a bite of chicken in the car or you’ll be wearing the sauce on your shirt.

Dania's Kitchen opens in Harrisburg

Dania’s Kitchen opens in Harrisburg and serves Puerto Rican and Dominican food. August 11, 2020 Sean Simmers | [email protected]

Dania’s Kitchen, 316 N. 2nd St., Harrisburg, 717-695-0006

The storefront is tiny and almost missed if not for the crimson trim outlining the entrance. Once you’ve stepped inside, the wafting scent of roasted meat permeates the small, uncluttered room. Latino and American specialties are spelled out in Spanish (time to brush up on your languages) on the printed take-out menu. Start your meal with empanadillas ($2) fork-crimped deep-fried flaky turnovers enveloping meat, chicken or ham. From papas cargadas (loaded fries), pasta Alfredo con camarones (with shrimp) and fried fish dishes to mofongo; a Puerto Rican specialty dish consisting of a mounded, thick cake of mashed, garlic-laced plantains. Prices hover between $8 and $15. The mofongo specialty dish ($8-$12) can also be sumptuously toppled by grilled sliced chicken breast or seared skirt steak. As a meal ($10), mofongo comes with a side salad and tender pinto beans simmered in a flavorful broth. My favorite item over mofongo or papas fritas (french fries) is pulled pork – thick shards of slow-roasted crispy-edged meat. The portions are generous, but save some room for dessert. It’s worth it. Traditional tres leche (three milk) cake is very moist, especially with that milky vanilla moat. This recipe is one of owner Damiana Lopez’s – a.k.a. Dania – and it is a keeper.

Captain Krab

The Captain Krab Cajun Seafood & Boil will open at 421 Friendship Road in Swatara Township.
Photo by Sue Gleiter|[email protected]

Captain Krab Cajun Seafood & Boil, 421 Friendship Road, Swatara Twp., 717-412-4233

This expansive, wood-trimmed, nautical-themed restaurant has brought the seafood boil trend to the Harrisburg area. It’s currently open for business with safety features in place – the restaurant provides plastic gloves, oversized bib and wet wipes while you provide the enormous appetite needed to finish those large portions. Make your own seafood combo by selecting pounds or clusters of snow crab legs ($12), shrimp ($16 no head, $14 with head), crawfish ($12), black mussels ($12), baby clams ($11), Dungeness crab cluster ($33) and even lobster tail ($18). Next, add a seasoning: garlic butter and Louisiana flavor Cajun, lemon butter or Crab’s house special sauce – they are all exceptionally good and there is no skimping. It’s a little weird picking through and plucking freshly steamed seafood from doubled up plastic bags. However, the shrimp, tender mussels and buttery clumps of snow crab are perfectly steamed and exceptionally succulent. There are big red potatoes and chewy halves of corn thrown into the boil as well.

La Bella Sicilia Bakery & Gelateria, 5510 Carlisle Pike, Hampden Twp. 717-590-8188

While most businesses were closing or closed due to the pandemic at the beginning of April, La Bella Sicilia Bakery & Gelateria was just opening its doors.

“We had to open to pay the rent. And that’s exactly why I wanted to open, because everyone else had closed,” said “Jon” Giampiero Faranone, co-owner with Sheri Tolomeo.

“Opening in April was really good for business and people really liked that we had pastries, pasta, Italian coffees and house-made gelato available for takeout and curbside pick up. We have people from all parts of the world that live here in Hampden Township – French, Romanians, Tunisians, Indians, Italians – and they are very appreciative of the business,” Faranone said.

This dazzling, clean Sicilian bakery and gelateria is like nothing you’ve ever seen in central Pa. You almost have to pinch yourself that, yes, those dramatically lit showcases full of cookies, eclairs, mimosa and cannoli cake slices, tartlets, cannolis, pastries and more are for real and edible. Products and ingredients at the bakery are sourced from Italy. Let’s note that there’s a case off to the side of the main counter containing savory, oversized, creatively topped focaccia, and individual aluminum containers mounded with pasta dinners ($9.95) al dente rigatoni, freshly sliced mushrooms and ground beef in cream-laced béchamel sauce. Keep in mind the bakery charges an additional 3 percent if paying by credit card.

House of Vegans

Three ingredients: a simple menu, a simple vegan (no animal products) soul food concept and a novelty slap burger have piqued the public’s interest in this tiny takeout establishment in midtown Harrisburg.

House of Vegans, 1426 N. Third St., Harrisburg, 717-963-7120

Three ingredients: a simple menu, a simple vegan (no animal products) soul food concept and a novelty slap burger have piqued the public’s interest in this tiny takeout establishment in midtown Harrisburg.

“We had planned to open in April but then the pandemic hit. We waited until now once things got better,” said owner Stefan Hawkins, who came up with the idea with his fiancé and co-owner La Quana Barber. “For now I’m keeping my day job driving a Pepsi truck so we aren’t able to open until 3:30 p.m., but the way things are going who knows?”

Three versions of these plant-based, teetering burgers ($10-$14) are on the menu: The Slap Burger, made with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, “cheez” and house sauce; the Big Zaddy with mushrooms, provolone “cheez”, sautéed onions, lettuce, BBQ sauce, and a mayonnaise-based house sauce; and the Open House, consisting of onion ring, “bacon cheese,” jalapeños, lettuce, pickles, BBQ and a house sauce.

In the assembly-line case, you’ll find classic Southern favorites such as house favorite Baked Moka Mac n cheese, collard greens, potato salad, peppery sautéed cabbage, breaded crunchy deep-fried cauliflower floret, mock drumsticks and BBQ “pork” served on a bun. Surprisingly no meat or dairy is used in any of these recipes. Jackfruit has the chunky appearance of fork-tender pieces of pork slathered with barbecue sauce. The breaded drumsticks, however, resemble poultry in texture but don’t have quite the same taste. The assorted colorful rosette topped cupcakes are prepared by baker Alisha Perry.

Blaze Pizza

3506 Capital City Mall Drive, Camp Hill, 717-677-2727

Blaze Pizza takes the CDC guidelines for COVID-19 so seriously that a list of “Wayz to Blazin’ It Safe” is posted on the front door. You’ll be impressed by masked faces and gloved hands behind the counter, team member wellness checks, hand-washing and contactless pickup.

Skip the socially distanced line at lunchtime by ordering from the blaze pizza app, blazepizza.com, or by phone. Head straight to the Baker’s Shelf against the wall to pick up sealed, piping hot pizzas. There’s no extra charge for toppings or if you order the classic dough (vegan). Gluten free, cauliflower, high-rise dough and Keto crust will cost an extra $2.99.

Slim, crisp crusts lie beneath fresh, artisanal ingredients. The signature art lover pizza ($8.49 for an 11″ pie with unlimited toppings) is a colorful palette of red sauce, mozzarella circles, strokes of garlic pesto (you get to choose your sauce), and sculpted mounds of ricotta, garlic and pieces of artichoke. The Blazin’ Hot Chicken Pizza features ghost pepper, chicken meatballs, mozzarella, Frank’s red sauce and a Scorpion pepper slaw. Have a glass of milk ready on the side for this incendiary pizza – and maybe the s’more pie, made with cookies, melted chocolate and marshmallows.

Cocoa Creek Chocolates

Cocoa Creek Chocolates is opening a shop in Camp Hill.

Provided photo

Cocoa Creek Chocolates, 18 South 18th St., Camp Hill, 717-697-6950

If anyone can open a business during the pandemic and make it work, it’s Diane Krulac. owner of Brittle Bark in Mechanicsburg; she recently opened Cocoa Creek Chocolates in September. This tiny, walk-in closet-size boutique showcases shelves of artistically detailed chocolates and confections from truffles, caramels and creams to bar collections. “Every chocolate tells a story” is the motto at this boutique shop. But who has time to wait and listen to a gloriously rich maple bacon chocolate, speckled with real bacon bits and cast in a dark chocolate shell? Fine chocolate sourced globally is the key to micro-batches of exceptionally beautiful and uniquely flavored chocolates and bars. For a little something extra added to your gift of wine or champagne, purchase the 4-pc. Truffle Bottle hanger ($8). It’s a box of chocolates that is meant to dangle from the neck of the bottle. The “Warm up to the holidays collection” is based on hot drinks featuring individual truffled chocolate flavors: hot cocoa, hot buttered rum, mulled cider and hot toddy.