Had dinner at this quirky but excellent restaurant last Sat. night with another couple. We'd been once before and were prepared for a wait, so we went early and put our names on the list (one hour wait at 6:30) and wandered down toward the James, beer from the corner store in paper bags. (There is a bar where you can get wine and apps, but it was such a nice evening!)
We were seated right when they said, and the service was professional if not cuddly. Then menu and food were amazing...what I wouldn't give for a place like this here in Charlottesville. Menu up on a chalkboard, changes daily. Among the apps: fresh sardines, scungille, stuffed tomatoes, squid and beans, all in the 7-9$ range. A pasta section lists maybe ten sauces with one or two pasta shapes available (8-10$). Unlike many restaurants, the entrees are every bit as good as the apps--real Italian soul food like calves liver, sweetbreads, classic stuff like veal and lamb shanks with white beans, beautiful whole rockfish, zuppa di pesce, calimari or clams over linguini..
We shared a dish of cold scungilli in garlic and parsley, then sweetbreads with pancetta and portabellas in a winy, garlicky pan sauce (side of some creamy penne)and a lamb shank with perfectly cooked white beans, followed by a beatifully creamy, classic cannoli. Wines (small but tasty selection)are "help yourself" to a bottle from a wire rack at the back--the waitress brings glasses and uncorks.
Mama Zu is in the largely ungentrified neighborhood of Oregon Hill, and the atmosphere would best be described as roadhouse, complete with graffiti on the bathroom walls, although there are candles on the table. No Visa is accepted, although they do take personal checks and take Amex. Service, as I mentioned, is efficient but not snuggly. Best part next to the delicious food? Bill per couple was $70 with tip--granted, we could have spent more on wine.
I HIGHLY recommend this place as part of any Richmond adventure, provided you're prepared for the wait and down-home atmosphere.