Mon-Thu, 11am-10pm; Fri, 11am-11pm; Sat, 4-11pm
I have been dreaming of one day finding an Italian restaurant like the one in Big Night. A quaint, yet elegant place where the maitre d' rushes about in black and white calling clients by name. The type of place where a slightly misanthropic yet brilliant culinary wizard might stoop for hours over boiling pots and hot ovens, waiting until sauces find their Epicurean angle of repose. The type of place where, with alchemical precision, the chef can turn simple flour and water into delectable morsels of edible heaven. I imagine that it is a place where, from time to time, that same chef may peer out of the kitchen, tomato stains upon his apron, hands callused from decades of use, and check that people are cleaning their plates -- And then, I flip the channel in my mind and see Marlon Brando in a darkened corner, and hear someone say, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli ..."
And then, I open my eyes and find myself in Austin, where Italian restaurants are a bit like Mafiosi in minivans. Here, Italian restaurants proliferate primarily in strip centers rather than on street corners, serve heavy hamburger lasagna instead of light risotto Milanese, and offer designer tequila rather than old-fashioned anisette as an after-dinner drink. But despite this apparent break with tradition, a few Austin-area Italian restaurants still manage to cultivate the sort of neighborhood loyalty that seems to define the genre in cities all over the country. Although it might not be the eatery that Godfather fantasies are made of, Mama Mia's seems to be this type of local Italian restaurant.
Since Mama Mia's opened eight years ago, it has consistently attracted a dedicated crowd of northwest Austinites who crave the filling fare offered from their bustling kitchen. With a cigar bar, a formal dining room, and a more casual bar area, Mama Mia's offers an affable luxury not found in many Austin restaurants. A nightly piano player taps out classic lounge pieces, adding decisively retro sophistication to the general ambiance of the restaurant. It is an altogether pleasant setting to sit down with a date and get to know one another over a romantic candlelight dinner. The fact that Valentine's Day seems to be one of their busiest nights of the year offers telling insight into the character of the place.
With a menu the size of a small novel, and an equally weighty wine list, newcomers to the restaurant will surely find it hard to choose when ordering. I recommend starting with one of the house's excellent specialty martinis. While sipping that, sample an appetizer of battered, fried squid accompanied by a spicy marinara sauce ($5.95). Or try an appealing plate of mussels stuffed with tomatoes, peppers, and herbs ($5.95). Pizzas, soups, salads, and a number of other savory antipasti plates also feature among the first-course offerings.
Just like an old-world style pasteria, the restaurant offers house-made pastas which can be had in a variety of shapes with just about any sauce they serve. Sauces include Alfredo, Siciliana, olive oil and garlic, pesto, Bolognese, or carbonara. Just matching one of these to the multifarious varieties of pasta can become an exercise in decision making. And these do not even include unique Mama Mia creations such as their linguine with sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, and hot pepper ($8.95); or spicy rigatoni with bacon, prosciutto mushrooms, and cream ($9.95). Nor, for that matter, does it even touch upon the numerous fish, meats, or specialty items also listed on the Mama Mia repertoire.
When ordering one of their pastas, it helps to know in advance what types of sauces work well over certain types of noodles. For those who don't, the staff are eager to suggest combinations. Their very competent pesto sauce, for instance, seems perfectly suited to their firm linguine, but is less successful atop a plate of their stuffed ricotta ravioli, which cries out instead for the tangy flavors of a spicy tomato sauce. Likewise, I would not advise an Alfredo sauce over tortellini, but rather save the little cheese-filled dumplings for a lighter garlic and oil sauce.
Mama Mia's offers the requisite oven dishes such as manicotti Bolognese or lasagna (both $8.95). They are competent and filling. However, I was disappointed that the manicotti seemed more like an Italian version of cheese enchiladas, rather than what I envisioned would be delicate, stuffed pasta tubes baked with a simmered sauce of cubed beef and pork. This ground beef and sausage Bolognese was nothing like the carrot- and celery-accented, cream-kissed tomato sauce I remember from childhood get-togethers with my Italian relatives in New York.
Generally, sumptuous cream and heavy tomato sauces dominate the menu, making Mama Mia's a veritable Eden for lovers of rich food, but perhaps less attractive to dieters. For that matter, those who crave more delicate flavor articulations may not discover their heart's desire here; the cuisine at Mama Mia's is anything but subtle. The veal marsala ($11.95), for instance, has all the right ingredients -- fresh mushrooms, sweet marsala, and tender scallops of veal -- but somehow lacks the finesse of veal marsalas I've eaten in the past. It simply fails to become more than the sum of its parts. Another popular menu item, the sautéed veal scaloppini with spinach, proscuitto, and cream ($12.95), comes drenched in a thick nutmeg-scented sauce, laden with cream and cheese. Fresh spinach and slivers of spiced ham (not prosciutto as advertised) add an exotic note to the overall flavor. The whole ensemble is definitely tasty, but after three or four bites, it becomes almost unendurably heavy on the palate.
Cream lovers, however, may discover the taste of manna not only in this dish but in a long list of other heartstoppers starring at Mama Mia's. Plates such as salmon with shrimp, crab, and cream ($13.95); or chicken with mustard, artichokes, and cream ($9.95) left me checking my pulse just reading about them. However, it is clear that Mama Mia's has carefully marketed their menu to suit the taste of their Austin clientele, all of whom seem as faithful to the restaurant as denizen's of New York's Little Italy might be to their local corner trattoria.
Sweets also tend to be on the heavy side. The dessert tray at Mama Mia's generally features a somewhat stout version of the classic tiramisu ($5.95). The layers of spongecake come thoroughly soaked in marsala, and the rich cheese filling is accented by a strong coffee flavor. The coffee buttercream torte ($5.95) I tried one night was decadently rich, while a second visit's Linzertorte ($5.95) proved only slightly less opulent. Altogether, the desserts seem like one of those offers that can't be refused.
I went to Mama Mia's hoping to find my Big Night. What I found instead was the type of place that may have put the little restaurant in Big Night out of business. That is, I found a restaurant offering food that has been meticulously edited for American consumers, but that is nevertheless fun, satisfying, and hearty. Mama Mia's is the perfect place for that first date or for the family. Their voluminous menu ensures that most people will find something there they want to eat. And the next time I go to Mama Mia's, I will remind myself of a certain fact: In today's Austin, minivans are just more popular than Lincoln Continentals.
Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.