Great and Not So Great Expectations
BY MIKE WARING – MAY 2008
As a bit of a counterpoint to the signature chef restaurant reviews, we also checked out a couple of more down-to-earth restaurants for which Mary has received numerous recommendations over the years: Cici’s Pizza Buffet and Wolfgang Puck Express. The results of our investigations were quite … surprising. As a matter of fact I don’t think there ever has been quite as wide a gap between our expectations of certain restaurants and what we actually experienced when we ate there, in all the years we’ve been reviewing eateries for MouseSavers.com.
The first, and by far the biggest, surprise was CiCi’s Pizza Buffet. To say we had low expectations would be putting it mildly. It would be more accurate to say that we actually had negative expectations. The main thing we’ve always heard is that they offer the cheapest food available. And they do, for the most part. What we didn’t expect was that the food would be actually, well, edible.
For the uninitiated, which we were until recently, CiCi’s is an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet restaurant. From what we had gathered, the “signature dish,” if there is such a thing, is a macaroni and cheese pizza. The restaurants are franchises and from what we’ve seen, having visited a grand total of two now, they do vary a little. The two we checked out near Walt Disney World had slightly different prices and slightly different offerings.
Pricing is aggressive. Both CiCi’s we visited had the same adult pizza buffet price of $5.49 and fountain drink for $1.89 (for kids 10 and under, it’s $3.49 for the buffet, $1.39 for the drink). Prices for takeout pizza, on the other hand, were a bit different, with one place charging $5.99 for a large 15″ pizza while the second place charged $6.99.
The interior is basic. Very basic. Padded booths, tables, a buffet line and a soft drink fountain. That’s pretty much it. I think there was a floor. Wouldn’t swear to it.
The food consists of salad, pasta, pizza (duh!) and desserts. The two outlets we checked out had completely different salad offerings. The first had a small salad bar with a couple of bowls of lettuce and standard toppings such as tomatoes, sliced olives and croutons, plus various dressings. We were pleasantly surprised to see that romaine lettuce was an option in addition to iceberg. The second store had three different pre-mixed salads that did not look very appetizing.
The pasta option at both locations consisted of a container of spiral pasta and vats of red sauce or white sauce. It didn’t look too enticing and we didn’t try it.
The pizzas are the thing. New ones are brought out and put on the buffet frequently. The toppings vary depending on what’s available at the time you’re there, the whim of the store owner, or the positions of the stars. Choices include cheese, pepperoni, sausage, ham and pineapple, beef (hamburger?), ham, as well as “signature pizzas.” These include such choices as zesty pepperoni, zesty veggie and zesty ham and cheddar. What makes them zesty is unclear. There’s also Mexican Ole and buffalo chicken pizza, which I had the serious misfortune to miss.
And of course there is the one signature pizza that CiCi’s is deservedly famous for – the mac and cheese pizza. This was not available at the store where we ate (at least while we were in there), but Mary said it was on the buffet at the second store, which we stopped and checked out briefly. I feel like I really missed out there.
We tried the pepperoni, which was about Domino’s level in quality. The sausage pizza had little plugs of sausage similar to what you’ll find on the cheaper varieties of frozen pizza, but it was fairly inoffensive. There was a white pizza with some sort of carbonara-type sauce on it that was clearly made with fake bacon. Needless to say that one wasn’t so good. Between us we tried about eight different toppings, and roughly half of them were not bad. It seemed like the basics (pepperoni and cheese) were the best. The nice thing is, if you hate one of the toppings, you can go back to the buffet and try another.
As for the desserts – let’s just say that kids will like them and adults should only try them if they’re interested in seeing what glycemic shock is all about. There are cinnamon rolls, an “apple pie” pizza with streusel topping, and brownies, but we’re kind of trying to prevent the onset of Stage 2 diabetes, thank you very much.
Overall, the food wasn’t nearly as bad as we feared it would be. Don’t make any mistake – this is not good food. It’s more like adequate food. Cici’s is a starch fest, pure and simple. If you want something light and healthy this is not the place for you. However, if you’re interested in quantity over quality, and/or you have a bunch of kids, then this might be a pretty decent deal for you. The prices can’t be beat. As one local told us, he takes his four teenage sons there and feels like he makes money on the deal.
Mary felt the location at 8586 Palm Parkway (west of SR 535/Apopka Vineland Road, on the south side of the street) was better than the location at 13605 SR 535/Apopka Vineland Road (south of Vineland). The Palm Parkway location had a salad bar rather than premixed salads, offered soup (which she didn’t notice at the other location) and is located in a nicer strip mall. Oddly enough, the price of take-out pizza was also lower at the Palm Parkway store. Both are located a very short drive from the eastern edge of Disney property.
The other quick bite place we checked out on this trip turned out to be quite a disappointment. We’d heard good things for some time about Wolfgang Puck Express, located in the Marketplace area of Downtown Disney. We have wanted to try it but every time we were on our way there, we got distracted and ended up eating at Earl of Sandwich. Not this time though. We were on a mission.
We expected to like Wolfgang Puck Express, because we’ve had some pretty good food at the main Wolfgang Puck Café on the other side of Downtown Disney. The basic concept of Express is quick gourmet food, with California style pizzas, soups and salads, sandwiches and pastas, and a few heavier entrees like rotisserie chicken. The preparations are fairly simple. Ordering is done at the counter and the food is brought to your table. So it’s fairly impersonal, but it’s supposed to be fast and efficient. Supposed to be…
In our case it wasn’t either fast or efficient. Mary ordered a Margherita pizza ($9.95) and I tried a Rotisserie BBQ beef melt sandwich thingy. Mary also had a side Caesar salad ($3.95). I had a side of herb seasoned fries ($3.50), purely in the spirit of scientific inquiry. After ordering, getting our drinks and sitting down, we waited and waited and waited. People who sat down beside us fifteen minutes later were served, though we noticed their food was coming out one item at a time, and still we waited.
Finally, our food arrived, also one item at a time, sans any explanation or apology for the delay. Mary’s pizza came out first. She took one bite and called one of the servers over (which was pretty easy since there was a clump of four standing near our table discussing the pressing issues of the day for the entire time we were sitting in the restaurant) and asked her to take it back and put it in the oven again, since it was both cold and not completely baked.
The pizza was duly returned around 10 minutes later, warmer and somewhat more cooked (though still limp), with the fresh tomato slices and basil, which would normally be added at the last minute, now totally torched. I’m probably being a little persnickity here (and who doesn’t like using that word when they can – persnickety) but usually when you return something that isn’t right, it would behoove the manager to decree that it be replaced with a newer, and one hopes, a more fully cooked one. But hey, that’s just me, I guess.
The delay did permit Mary the opportunity to fully address her Caesar salad, which was tasteless and lacking in any vestige of character. The herb-seasoned fries, which arrived before my sandwich, were all right, though not terribly herb-y.
My sandwich fared somewhat better than Mary’s pizza. At least it was still warm when I got it. It wasn’t particularly good though. I’ve had the same sandwich at a local sandwich shop, where it is probably around 80 to 90% better. Not quite twice as good, but close. More damning though, is the fact that the Wolfgang Puck sandwich cost $10.95. I mention this because on our way to the Wolfgang Puck Express, we passed the Earl of Sandwich, where I’ve had many a better sandwich for the princely sum (“Earl”-y sum just doesn’t sound right) of $5.75.
Heck, you can almost get two excellent sandwiches at Earl of Sandwich for the price of one of Puck’s assemblages. Of course, at the Earl you will have to go to the counter to pick up your sandwich, whereas the servers at Puck bring it to your table (when they’re not discussing what’s up with Britney), which probably accounts for the $5.20 price difference.
Is there any reason to go to Wolfgang Puck Express? In our opinion – no. For a quick sandwich you can get a better one at a much lower price at the Earl of Sandwich, which is almost next door. If you want a California style pizza, why not go over to Downtown Disney West Side and eat in the full service Wolfgang Puck Café, where the same pizza Mary ordered is served in for only $2 more. That’s right – the Express version of the Margherita pizza is only two dollars less. There’s a lot more choice at the main restaurant and it’s less crowded at lunch, usually. And there’s sushi.
Based on our mini-survey of cheap(er) eats in the Disney World area, Wolfgang Puck’s Express is not worth the money. You can and should do better elsewhere. On the other hand, CiCi’s Pizza Buffet, which we confidently predicted was going to be a train wreck of epic proportions, was not actually that bad. We’ll probably never go again, since we seldom get a hankering for unlimited pizza. But if you have a passle of pretty undiscriminating kids, CiCi’s might just be a pretty good deal. Well, one that won’t actually poison your kids anyway.