If you’re of a certain age, the phrase “Mamma Mia” is usually associated with an Alka Seltzer TV commercial that went viral before viral was viral, with a beaming Italian man repeating over and over again, “Mamma Mia, that’s a spicy meatball!”
More modern generations might associate it with the hit by the Swedish group ABBA and talented producers’ ability to turn that and other pop songs from the group into not one but two movies. No I haven’t seen this summer’s yet, and yes, everyone assures me it’s just fabulous. Netflix it is.
The phrase is now the name of a new downtown restaurant opened by Nelson Furman, a former cook at Luigi’s who wants to get his piece of the American dream, and, based on what we experienced on a visit in late August, it might happen. There are those usual glitches that you see when a restaurant is new, but the food alone makes this a place to watch.
Mamma Mia is located in what was last Happy Hour Bar & Tapas, which had promising food and feuding owners. It still has that confusing system where you can enter from either Chester Avenue or 18th Street, which is actually where the small bar is located. We entered from Chester and found no one, but eventually a pleasant employee seated us and we found many tempting choices on the dinner menu (there’s a different menu at lunch). Though a friend sang the praises of the porcini sacchetti ($16.99, ricotta/porcini mushroom stuffed pasta purses with a brown butter sauce), I opted to order the braised short rib ravioli ($18.99). My companion almost selected Scottish salmon filet with caramelized walnuts and pecans ($24.99), but instead wondered how the half and half ($12.99) would be if we didn’t get it at Luigi’s. Since our waitress told us the hazelnut gelato ($5.99) was made in house, we had to order that, too.
What I ordered is a perfect example of why this place that opened so close to one of our premier Italian restaurants, Uricchio’s, is one to keep an eye on. Short rib beef is so commonplace now it’s almost a cliché, but the graceful treatment of the kitchen crew is what made it special. (We saw Furman, dressed so well with a vest and tie, working through the kitchen window.) The beef was braised with Chianti then finely minced with onions, Parmesan and asiago cheeses before being stuffed into the six pasta pockets. Those very diverse textures and flavors blended so nicely. The garlic butter sauce was simple, not brown butter, and there was powdered and fresh-shaved Parmesan on top. Still, it was lukewarm. An example of the kind of detail that you hope will be refined once the place is a fine-tuned machine.
My companion’s pasta sauce was quite comparable to what we’ve enjoyed at the east Bakersfield institution, but the penne pasta was a tad overcooked. The beans were missing something. Can’t quite put my finger on it. The dinner menu also offers three steaks, pork shops, lamb chops, other pastas, flatbreads and a couple big salads.
Service needs work. We were not presented with utensils until after our entrees were brought to the table, a real pet peeve of the regular companion. We noted other guests nearby complaining that they had not received a “set up,” which I took to mean water and menus. Still, the potential is there. The water we had served in a stemless wine glass was cold, quite tasty (had to be at least filtered water) with a nice lemon wedge in it. The bread they bring is an Italian herb toast that had to have a butter/olive oil/garlic brush on it. Quite great if you have a sauce to sop up, as I did with that simple butter. And that hazelnut gelato, with a drizzle of caramel sauce on it, was quite winning, reminding me of just how the Italians have mastered the frozen dessert concept.
And the atmosphere fits the fare, with a pressed tin ceiling, a red, white and green color scheme, attractive, tall and thin paintings of Italian scenes of places like Venice and red tablecloths.
The wine list is another work in progress, pretty thin right now and OK chardonnays going for $10 a glass. With time, I’m sure that can be expanded.
By the time we finished dining on our weekday night visit, four other parties had been seated. I am certain that with patience and some tweaking, Mamma Mia will not be inspiring use of antacids and could instead lead to dancing in the streets.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.