Editor's Note: Sidespin's restaurant critic, who has been with Sidespin for 20 years, recently developed ageuisa, a loss of the sense of taste, after a lifetime of smoking.
Mama's Italian Kitchen, 213 Pinecrest Blvd
When I heard that yet another Italian restaurant was opening up downtown, it was hard to suppress my skepticism. Another Italian place? Don't we have enough of those already? Thankfully, Mama's Italian Kitchen manages to separate itself from the pack with its sense of atmosphere. Chef Reggie Mellon didn't choose the name Mama arbitrarily; the place is meant to conjure images of Italian home cooking. The decor is a little kitschy/Olive Garden, but it's suitably rustic, with a touch of rococo styling. The service is excellent and candid; if they make a recommendation, take it. All of this wouldn't matter, though, if the food couldn't back it up, and, thankfully, it can.
Much of the food is standard Italian fare. The ravioli, for example, arrives piping hot and blanketed in a red sauce that is also very hot. The ravioli themselves are large, thick circles, filled with a white material that is likely cheese. The seafood is also an option listed on the menu; especially appetizing is the shrimp scampi. The shrimp scampi is an alfredo pasta, covered in a clear sauce and shrimp, and surrounded by some greens which may or may not just be for decoration. The overall impression is a very aesthetically pleasing dish that I can only assume tastes like shrimp and pasta and possibly garlic.
Not everything on the menu is a winner. The baked ziti arrives sad and droopy, as if it had just been microwaved after being frozen for years. Indeed, a single bite reveals it is lukewarm and unevenly cooked. Chefs can forget that maintaining an even temperature throughout a dish is as important as taste. When I picked up the ziti and squeezed it in my hands, I was disgusted. This ziti feels nowhere near as satisfying to the touch as the pasta I had eaten at, say, Bonaventure's Ristorante. Still, the dinner options are ultimately very pleasing. Vegetarians should be happy with the simple fettuccine alfredo, which is pasta in a white sauce. Its simplicity gives it a sense of visual wholeness, and it makes no sound at all, which is good, as pasta should not make a sound.
Most modern upscale Italian places have a fantastic wine selection, and Mama's is no exception. Mama's carries red and white wines from many different years. The staff assured me that all of the wine is very good, and I believe them. The 1996 Pinot Noir was a dark shade of red, and, pleasingly, made me very drunk.
While dinner may be both pleasing to the eye and filling, one cannot say the same thing about the dessert. The fruit tart looks haphazardly assembled, as if the pastry chef had just thrown some preserved fruit on top of a custard base. Additionally, the cannoli is a cylindrical pastry filled with some white stuff, and tasted strongly of cigarettes. No thanks.