In the decade I’ve lived in Champaign-Urbana, it’s only in the last two or three that I have made real efforts to frequent Lincoln Square Mall to eat or shop. I wish I could have seen it in its heyday. These days, if and when I go, it’s usually to go to Common Ground Food Co-op. Sometimes I browse a shop or two, but it’s rare I go inside the mall with purpose. What may be changing that are the handful of specialty restaurants and eateries at the mall.

You might have read the hype about Stango Cuisine by now. Try it if you haven’t yet. Another big draw is Baldarotta’s, a Sicilian/Italian restaurant in the food court serving up hot and cold sandwiches, street food, specials, and breakfast. This is where I ended up recently with a hearty appetite and ready for a big lunch.

Despite the quiet in the actual mall area, when my husband and I arrived at the food court where Baldarotta’s resides, it was quite full of people. It was a heartening scene. We grabbed a menu and with some difficulty, narrowed down what we wanted to try. We decided on two hot sandwiches: the Baldarotta ($15) and the pesto grilled cheese ($8). I stuck with the side of kettle chips and pickle spear that comes with every sandwich, but we also ordered arancini ($5) and my husband upgraded to a side of the Mediterranean potato salad ($2.50). I found out upon ordering that the “o” in Baldarotta is long, so it’s actually pronounced Baldarōtta.

Just a quick aside: for people who have strong opinions about Coke or Pepsi, they serve Coke products.

Image: A split image of arancini at Baldarotta's. On the left, a view of the whole ball served in a white paper dish. The rice ball is large and fried golden brown. On the right, a cross section of the rice ball. The inside feature yellow rice and reddish meat. Photo by Zoe Valentine.

For the most part, the food prices here are pretty reasonable, although I noted that the fancier sandwiches that have a variety of meats or cheeses were more costly. Still, from our experience, it’s completely worth it. When our order was ready, we decided to dive into the arancini first as an appetizer, an ostrich-egg sized fried ball of risotto. Inside it was stuffed with a ragu of veal and peas. For my personal taste, I did not think the veal added enough flavor to necessitate its presence. I would have preferred just cheese and/or something a tad more acidic. This is one of those dishes that would do really well as a vegetarian option instead of having a tablespoon of veal inside, but others may disagree. That said, the shell was crispy, did not have an overwhelming taste of oil, and would pair with a salad really well. It’s enormous and perfect to split with another person.

Image: A black plastic food basket lined with brown paper holds a bag of Great Lakes brand potato chips and two sandwich halves wrapped in white paper. Photo by Zoe Valentine. Image: A black plastic food basket lined with brown paper holds a bag of Great Lakes brand potato chips and two sandwich halves wrapped in white paper. Photo by Zoe Valentine.

The sandwiches come pre-split in half (huge props for that) so we were easily able to share and try both sandos. The Baldarotta has mild Sicilian sausage, porketta, salsa verde, smoked provolone, and Sicilian salsa on a hoagie roll. It exploded with flavor, with fennel being one of the standouts. (If you are not big into fennel, you may want to avoid some of the meat sandwiches.) There was no shortage of meat here and they did a fantastic job of layering it with the other acidic and oil-laden components. The smoked provolone was delicious — it didn’t seem like it was there just to be there, taking up space and calories. I probably could have eaten just the hoagie bun dipped into the Sicilian salsas, quite frankly.

Image: Medterranean potato salad at Baldarotta's served in a brown paper cup. Inside are large pieces of potatoes, sliced red onion, kalamata olives, and chopped roasted red peppers. Photo by Zoe Valentine. Image: Medterranean potato salad at Baldarotta's served in a brown paper cup. Inside are large pieces of potatoes, sliced red onion, kalamata olives, and chopped roasted red peppers. Photo by Zoe Valentine.

In between sandwiches, we sampled the Medterranean potato salad. This was a bigger hit for my husband than myself but I’m extremely particular about certain elements. This salad boasts Yukon gold potatoes, kalamata olives, fennel, capers, roasted red peppers, red onion, and white wine vinaigrette. This was everything my husband enjoys in a cold side salad, whereas I would have picked out a couple of things if I had ordered it on my own. That is not to say that it wasn’t tasty; I particularly enjoyed the vinegary potatoes and red onion. It’s a great option if you want some lighter fare. My “potato” side was a bag of kettle chips; in fact, they are the Great Lakes brand, which I have found to be superior to other brands. They have a great crunch, are not oily, and they have bits of potato skin on them.

Image: The inside cross section of the pesto grilled cheese at Baldarotta's. Thin and crispy bread contains oozing white cheese, green pesto, and diced tomatoes. The half of the sandwich is wrapped in white wax paper and sitting on brown paper. Photo by Zoe Valentine. Image: The inside cross section of the pesto grilled cheese at Baldarotta's. Thin and crispy bread contains oozing white cheese, green pesto, and diced tomatoes. The half of the sandwich is wrapped in white wax paper and sitting on brown paper. Photo by Zoe Valentine.

We moved on to the pesto grilled cheese. It was phenomenal. They layer what felt like an entire pound of cheese, tomato, and pesto mayo onto focaccia which is grilled like a panini. The three cheeses are Fontina, mozzarella, and provolone, culminating in a flavor explosion. Both of us agreed that this was the standout of the lunch. The grilled focaccia was perfect: it had to be crisp enough to withstand the tremendously gooey tower of cheese and pesto bliss inside. The pesto and tomato added the brightness and acidity needed to round out the bread and cheese. There is only one other place in town I enjoy ordering a pesto grilled cheese from (Aroma in Downtown Champaign), but I am thrilled to say now there are two.

Other things on the menu we noted for future visits:

  • Dessert! They have a Genovesi for $2.50, which is lemon custard stuffed into a pastry (origination: Sicily) and cannoli served only on Sundays for $3 each, which is a house-made pastry tube stuffed with sweetened ricotta and dressed with crushed pistachios, melted chocolate, and powdered sugar.
  • There are three specials of the day per week: Wednesday (chicken parmesan sandwich, $11), Friday (meatball smash sandwich, $12), and Saturday, (pastrami & pepperoncini melt, $12).
  • Topping the list of sandwiches I want to try: something from the cold sandwiches menu and also the hot Italian beef ($12).

Lastly, they now serve breakfast on Saturdays from 7 to 10:30 a.m., which appears to have a nice mix of some of their Italian offerings coupled with American fare.

The revival of Lincoln Square Mall may just happen with the strategy of, “Go for the food, stay for some full-belly shopping and mall-walking,” thanks to places like Baldarotta’s.

Baldarotta’s Porketta & Sicilian Sausage
Lincoln Square Food Court
300 S Broadway Ave
Su 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.Urbana
T-F 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sa 7 to 10:30 a.m. & 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Top image: A view of Baldarotta's restaurant from the food court of Lincoln Square Mall. It's a fast-casual set up with an open view to the prep area and kitchen. The walls are painted red. The menu is black chalkboard with hand lettering and sits above the grill. A small sign says "order here" on the right, above a computer cash register. Photo by Zoe Valentine.