My wife and I considered what restaurant should be my Mardi Gras, my indulgence before the deprivation of Lent -- ie, my upcoming diet. (See here: http://www.extramsg.com/modules.php?n...). We thought a bit and then it became obvious: Mama Mia's. There's a reason every mafia movie has a Fat Tony. Like Mexican-American food, Italian-American has the twin calorie carriers of fats and carbohydrates, in this case, cheese and pasta.
Heading back from Tigard at 9:30 on a Saturday we showed up around 9:45 and quickly found a parking space right in front. They serve their full menu until 10 and a late-night menu until the early morning hours. They seated us and let us order off the full menu. A basket of sesame crusted bread and samples of their garlic bread quickly arrived. Both were warm and good.
I really like the room. Quite appropriate for my Mardi Gras because despite it being New Jersey Italian food, the interior said New Orleans. Crimson walls, marble table-tops, chandeliers hanging from the tall ceiling, a faux balcony with black rod-iron, lacey sanguine drapes fringing the lengthy windows, bathrooms with black or red tiles separated by gold-mirrored tiles, brassy sinks.
The menu is broken into three main categories -- appetizers, pasta, and entrees -- plus a few others (sides, sandwiches for lunch, pizza, and dessert). The entrees are split into sub-categories of poultry, meats, and seafood/vegetarian. All the classics we've grown up on, all the standards we've waited in line for at Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill, are there. Fettucine alfredo, minestrone, meatball hero, chicken parmigiana, veal milanese, scampi, lasagna, and so on. The lasagna changes daily, like the macaroni and cheese at Mother's.
Prices are very reasonable. Except for the several veal dishes and seafood, most items are less than $13, not out of line with the national chains. No item exceeds $20, even the NY steak.
My wife and I split the caesar without chicken ($6.95) and a plate of "Grandma Mary's Sunday 'Gravy'" ($12.95) to start with. They didn't charge us for the splits. They brought out the salad first. It was okay, but weak on lemon and in need of anchovy. I wouldn't get it again. Also, relative to other dishes, a bad value.
In contrast, Grandma Mary's plate of pasta was huge. Either half of the split dish would have been enough to feed both of us. The penne were coated with a complex and flavorful tomato sauce. Sweet, spicy, and tangy elements blended wonderfully, a hint of balsamic or wine being the final touch, making the first red sauce I've had outside my home worth every penny. The pasta was supplemented with tender chunks of braised pork, sweet Italian sausage, and delicate meatballs. An excellent version of such a "basic" dish and a mountain of food that would impress even the Old Spaghetti Factory patrons.
Not that we needed entrees, but my wife and I had already ordered them. She got the chicken pamigiana ($12.95) and I got the pizza prosciutto ($12.95). Luckily, thinking ahead we had them box up a lot of Grandma's generous serving.
The parmigiana was quite large, maybe a foot long and 5 inches wide of uninterrupted chicken, breaded, and covered in melted mozzarella and sauce. It was served with a side linguine with choice of olive oil and garlic or tomato sauce (she chose the former). The chicken was fork tender and juicy. The flavor was just right, bright tomatoes and rich cheese balancing each other. Even the side of pasta was good. Again, we had much of this boxed up.
The pizza, a 10" pie with tomato sauce, house-made mozzarella, prosciutto di parma, and arugula (a few fresh leaves added to each slice) was good, but not great. The crust was a little thick and bready, though crispy on the bottom. The sauce, quite good, matched well with the cheese, but overwhelmed the ham and greens a bit. I did like it, but I think other upscale restaurants, such as Wildwood, do a better job and they're no challenge to the soon-to-open Apizza Scholls.
Yes, once we started, the gluttony had to continue; we ordered dessert. And not one to share. The desserts sounded too tasty. We each got our own.
We rarely like tira misu, even good versions, the cheesecake sounded too heavy, the tartuffo was de-prioritized since I'm not a fan of chocolate ice cream, and we wanted something more interesting than just gelato or sorbetto. We went with the panna cotta and the cannoli (all desserts are $5.50). I've had panna cotta at all levels of restaurants, from crappy Italian chains to The French Laundry. So it'd be a good benchmark. I think my wife figured the cannoli would be a good balance between something light and something unique to Italian.
The panna cotta was quite good. Very creamy and smooth, almost like an ultra-dense whipped cream with more flavor. It was served with a sauce of berries, most likely blackberries or marionberries. Too often such sauces are overly sweet or overly plain. This was neither. It was lightly sweetened, though full of berry flavor. The sweetness seemed to be offset by a hint of alcohol, possibly reduced.
The cannoli shells were nice, very crisp and light. But the filling was too bland. It tasted like nothing more than straight, very dry, ricotta. And there wasn't enough chocolate sauce to offset that blandness. Di Prima Dolci's cannoli clearly eclipse Mama Mia's.
A table behind us got a little raucous with 30-something wanna-be punk hipsters putting the din in dining. The open room doesn't absorb much sound. (PSA for all Gen-X wanna-be punk hipsters: when the boobs sag, the tattoos sag with them.)
Service was good, friendly and helpful, usually around when I needed anything. My water stayed full, though, the ice did pile up after a while. Any used silverware was promptly replaced.
I very much enjoyed my meal. Good food, great prices. This block is the best value in town. Not only do you have fabulous deals at Mother's and Mama Mia's, but Karam is just up on the other side of 3rd on Stark. I think I'll find myself coming to this section of downtown a lot, especially when visited by out-of-town family with conservative taste-buds and tight wallets. But there's no reason to limit visits just to that.