Loose translation: Mandola’s is gross, but boy do I like Hog Island!
Mandola’s Italian Market noticeably evokes—in its literature and aesthetic--a typical market in any small town in Italy. It would be great if someone delivered on this concept. The offerings that I sampled at Mandola’s, however, were neither particularly authentic nor good. They seem to be counting on the fact that most Texans don’t know real Italian food.
On my visit, the baked goods, cheese, and cured meats were mediocre to bad. The sfogliatelle looked great and had some crispness to them, but the sweet filling lacked any hint of candied citrus-zest. I tried four kinds of biscotti and concluded that even for a cookie that is not moist in ideal circumstances, the ones at Mandola’s were overly dry and flavorless. The Florentine cookie’s distinctive characteristic was its chewiness. That should not be the high point of any cookie, in my opinion. The fruit tart was awful. It was so mushy on the bottom that I couldn’t even pick it up without it collapsing. The cream-filling was both grainy and runny, as if it hadn’t set properly. It looked great, though. As for the cheese and meats, the mozzarella that I sampled was made in-house. But that just goes to show you that not all fresh mozzarella is good mozzarella. Their version was not rich or creamy at all. Plus, its texture approximated those pre-fab blocks of mozzarella at the grocery store rather than a good-quality hand-pulled cheese. I also sampled some salami, which was sub-par. I don’t know what’s wrong with the Genova salami in Austin. It’s all supposed to be imported, but I have yet to find a good one.
Given my experience, I couldn’t work up enough interest to try Mandola’s prepared foods. I’m not tempted to order their pizza because I assume it will be made with that terrible mozzarella. And the prepared antipasti in the case (including panzanella and Italian tuna) looked inauthentic as well as unappetizing. Mandola’s bread looked beautiful, but then again so did the pastries. You can see my dilemma. And given what I know of the cheese and salami, I’m not tempted to try their cold Italian panini, either. So what’s left? Pasta, hot sandwiches, or soups. It’s always possible that some of these are decent. Yet as Greg Spence recently said on another thread, if a place can’t get the basics right, then what good are they?
The almentari (foodstuffs) section featured an extensive selection of products by Cento (a serviceable but not exemplary Pastene-like brand) as well as Cefalù (which I’d never even seen at an Italian grocer in Italy or the U.S.--until I moved back to Texas). Mandola’s selection of Italian cookies, crackers, and candies was paltry. They do carry olive oils, vinegars, anchovies, sardines, capers, pasta, and you may stumble upon a few good-quality products at decent prices. But that’s true of other stores in town (like World Market) as well as on-line sources. More importantly, you’d have a better chance of finding the best locally-available olive oil, anchovies, etc., in a more carefully-edited Italian market (like Enoteca Vespaio) or the Italian-foods section of one of the better grocery stores (like Whole Foods).
I understand that Texas lacks a large population of Italian-Americans with recent ties to Italy, which diminishes the quality of Italian offerings for all of us. Up and down the East Coast, for example, Italian tough customers refuse to buy prosciutto that’s gone soft; they insist that the person behind the counter re-slice the meat if it’s not tissue-thin; they taste the offerings only to reject them; they get mad if their favorite kinds of cookies or panettone aren't both in stock and fresh. But there’s no excuse for selling faux-authentic food. At Enoteca Vespaio the owners manage to get many things right, and they educate their staff and customers about Italian cuisine. Mandola’s gets the look right, but it’s just a mirage.
Hog Island Italian Deli, on the other hand, does get it right. They’re doing East-Coast-style Italian-American hoagies (with chopped lettuce, tomato, roasted sweet red peppers, hot peppers, marinated onion slices, oil, and vinegar) as well as Philadelphia cheesesteaks, meatball and sausage hoagies, and some pastas and salads. I loved their Paisano hoagie with thinly sliced (finally!) and extremely flavorful capicolla, sopressata, and provolone. Their cheesesteak was the best in town, though they don’t have any real competition. I had mine with just onions and mushrooms--no sweet or hot peppers, no pepper flakes. It was good and greasy, with a coating of cheese on all the thinly sliced meat. I read somewhere that their cheesesteak was better if you added the hot stuff, but I don’t usually like too many toppings on mine.
I wonder if they’d be willing to see what they could do with a Boston-style steak-and-cheese sub? It sounds the same as a Philadelphia cheesesteak, but it’s not. The steak is usually thicker, and sometimes a better cut of meat is used. For the Boston-style sub, large pieces of steak are fried up with onions and/or mushrooms and then topped with provolone cheese. The meat combo is then slid onto a bun that’s toasted in a pizza oven until the cheese melts. Then it's topped with a little mayo; shredded lettuce; chopped tomatoes, pickles, and onions; salt; black pepper; and hots. It may not be Philadelphia-style, but it is good. And I haven’t found any sandwich shops run by folks from Beantown.
Anyway, I’ll definitely be back to Hog Island to try their Old Italian and Regular Italian subs. And those sesame-seed-topped rolls! I hear you can buy them to go. They’re so good--dense, chewy, flavorful. All sandwich rolls should taste like this. Kudos to Hog Island for turning out authentic hoagies and cheesesteaks when most Austinites wouldn’t know (or care?) if they were taking shortcuts.