I seldom write about food chains. Let's face it, all else being equal, who wouldn't prefer to eat in a distinctive, independent restaurant rather than a bland cookie-cutter copy? But everything isn't always equal, and sometimes it's worth eating off plastic plates at Formica tables to get great pizza at a ridiculously low price.
We stumbled across CiCi's on a Pennsylvania strip mall, while we were trying to work out minor details like where to stay for the night... and what to have for dinner. Andy spotted the sign across the parking lot.
"Sure," I agreed. "Let's get pizza."
The queue was almost out of the door, which would normally be enough to put me right off - but by the time we saw the queue, I'd also seen the prices. How could anywhere afford to offer unlimited pizza for $4.99? A soft drink or coffee was only another dollar. No wonder people were queueing to get seated. Hand in hand, we joined the line.
It didn't take us long to get to the front, where we paid our dollars and took our plates. The buffet had salad and garlic bread, pasta with two types of sauce (simple but tasty tomato, versus rather plasticky cheese), and then a bewildering selection of pizza. Even as a vegetarian, I struggled to sample every option, from standard mixed veggies to a spinach white pizza to a flaky-based olive and mushroom slice. Prize for the most calorific carb-crazy dish would have to go to the mac-and-cheese pizza, which featured a regular pizza base topped with pasta spirals, drenched in an indecent amount of cheese sauce. (I didn't actually like it that much, mostly due to the plastic cheese, but it does have the honour of joining the deep fried Mars bar as one of the unhealthiest foods I've ever eaten.) There was even a dessert pizza (topped with custard and icing), along with brownies and (my favourite) cinnamon rolls.
And you know what? Chain restaurants might have a bland, impersonal atmosphere - but it can be a very distinctive local flavour of bland. In the case of Lancaster, this could hardly be demonstrated more clearly than by the Amish and Mennonite youths patiently queuing for their pizza alongside us. But we went again in Maryland, where the clientele was different, but still distinctively American.