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Surrender the Arrows

Maybe Mamma is misunderstood.

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It's not fair. I come early for dinner at Mamma 'Zu and have my pick of tables. My waitress is friendly. In fact, the service in general, while not lightning fast, takes no longer than it does anywhere else. I like the dark, moody dAccor, and since I lived on Pine Street during college, I've had no qualms about the neighborhood.

Mamma 'Zu's reputation is now, as far as I'm concerned, ruined. No more vitriol about surly waiters and long waits for food is justified. Of course, the place is full by 7 and the bar begins to stack up after that. But why wouldn't there be a wait during prime-time dinner service? This place has the best food in town.

I'm biased, though. This happens to be exactly the kind of food I like. It's a menu full of crystal-clear flavors: garlic, wine, fresh sage, fresh basil. Everything on the big blackboard menu is simple and yet profound.

How good can polenta be? Fried wedges with a crispy crust melt into a creamy corn interior. White beans get just a sautAc of olive oil, garlic and black pepper and cause me to mop up every last drip with whatever bread I can snatch from the basket before that's all gone. Medium rare duck breast luxuriates under a sweet Marsala sauce that makes me want to demand an apology from everyone who's served me the usual dry chicken breast in the past.

The branzino, a whole fish with a scatter of cracked pepper and chopped parsley, converts my oldest child to a wholehearted embrace of all things fish. Not much of a surprise, because the fish is cooked just until the moment it needs to leave the pan and go onto a plate. The mussels swim in a spicy, focused marinara made with top-notch tomatoes, and fat meatballs get tucked into that good marinara when you order the spaghetti with red sauce.

I could live off the quick-fried oysters and their slippery spurt of the sea, if I weren't so tempted by other things like the pork stew deeply braised with tomatoes, wine and tender chunks of fat-marbled pork. Even the side of garlic and olive oil spaghetti that accompanies many of the dishes is much more than promised, with its pile of fried garlic punctuated by pine nuts and the spark of salty caper berries.

Simple appetizers like fresh mozzarella, olives, roasted red peppers and fresh basil in a pool of olive oil are as good as more complicated ones. Right now you'll find cotechino with lentils, a dish traditionally eaten in Italy on New Year's Eve to bring good luck and wealth in the coming year. It's in a big, brothy bowl of du Puy lentils and wide circles of cotechino, a fresh pork sausage with cinnamon so subtle it's almost like a memory that's about to slip away.

Although there are two choices for dessert — cannoli and tiramisu — there's only one choice for me: espresso-soaked ladyfinger layers alternate with generous slathers of lightly sweetened mascarpone to create a tiramisu that's at once thick and rich as well as effortlessly airy. I have no problem eating an entire piece all by myself and recommend keeping a spare fork around to fend off the others at your table. Once I drew blood and that was a good lesson for everyone.

I don't tolerate waiting well. I don't ever tolerate rude staff or bad service. I've learned to come early to avoid tables full of annoying people talking loudly next to me. I have experience now, as opposed to unrealistic expectations about what a restaurant is supposed to be.

I admit, once the crowd sweeps in around 7, the kitchen seems to grind to a halt and our entrees take longer than I might like. That'll happen when a kitchen gets deluged with orders at once, and I bet that happens every night at Mamma 'Zu. But it's OK. I think I might be in love with the garlic, the bread and the powerfully flavored sauces. Love can fulfill you, but it also makes you hunger for more of the same. I'll be back to Mamma 'Zu as soon as I can, to wait patiently for my love to be satisfied again. S

Mamma 'Zu
301 S. Pine St.
788-4205
http://myspace.com/mammazu
Monday to Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.

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