Tuesday, July 19, 2005

That's Amore: Mazzarino's Italian Ristorante

An ex-coworker of mine, some Italian guy, used to swear by this place, an old school red-sauce Italian in Sherman Oaks. I had a conversation with him after he quit--a typical "keep in touch" conversation covering such topics as how the new job's going, how the kids are, etc.--and in giving me the lowdown on his new job, informed me that the company's run by a bunch of Italians. "Allright! A Paisan!" they said to him at his interview. I guess it was a shoe-in.

The first time I had even heard of Mazzarino's was through the
Anna Nicole Smith Show (yeah, THAT show) when Anna and her buddies were having an eating contest at the restaurant. I'm not sure if that was a good move or a bad move on Mazzarino's part, as seeing Anna Nicole making a pig of herself anywhere would make me lose my appetite. But I suppose that if my friend is recognizable by a bunch of Paisanos as a true Paisan, then he wouldn't mislead us about where to get good Italian food. He never took me to Mazzarino's himself, but instead, one of his cronies, a Japanese guy, took me there for the first time about two years ago, and it's been a part of the lunch restaurant rotation list for me and my crew ever since.

Mazzarino's, which had its beginnings sometime in the 40's, is old school red sauce Italian in every sense. The somewhat darkish dining area is divided into two parts: a small main dining room and an even smaller side room where Anna Nicole and her peeps got their grub on, and all the tables are covered with classic red and white checkered tablecloths. On each table, one of those red glass jar-looking votive holders. As expected of your typical southern-Italian American joint, alot of what's on the menu is red-sauce based and definitely heftier than Northern Italian-inspired dishes. Lasagna, mannicoti, spaghetti, baked ziti. Chicken, eggplant, and veal parmigiana. Pizzas and calzones. Italian hoagies. Get the picture?

A basket of the restaurant's famous garlic-cheese bread comes with every order. It comes out piping hot, your fingers nimbly grabbing the edges of a slice and quickly dropping it on your plate before burning yourself. As hard as it may be, I always wait impatiently for my slice to cool down for a few seconds before proceding. Each bite is a combination of crispy crust and edges, fluffy interior, and a wonderful topping of rich butter, chopped garlic, and grated parmesan cheese. It's one of those things that I could eat just by itself, it's so good.

The photo doesn't do the garlic-cheese bread justice

As sorry-ass corporate cogs in the wheel, we're always seeking a good value, and Mazzarino's lunch specials fit the bill. For only $8.95, you get a choice of pasta & sauce (marinara, meat, oil & garlic or arrabiata), lasagna, eggplant parmigiana with a side of pasta, chicken parmigiana with a side of pasta, ravioli, ricotta cheese manicotti, or meat and spinach canneloni, a choice of minestrone soup or salad, garlic-cheese bread, and a soda. *whew!* My fave is the chicken parmigiana with a side of oil & garlic angel hair. Topped with a nice layer of melted mozzarella cheese and marinara, the breaded chicken cutlet is pounded thin, allowing it to crisp around the edges but remain tender inside. The oil and garlic angel hair pasta literally has slices of lightly browned garlic cloves in it, which doesn't make for attractive breath after lunch, but who cares, it's delicious! I've tried the manicotti and canneloni as well: each baked pasta dish was made really well, although I don't think they're as much a bank for the buck as either the eggplant or the chicken parmigiana.

Lunch special salad (with garlic cheese bread in the background!)

Chicken parm w/ pasta lunch special

Recently, we decided to stray from the lunch menu to see what we'd been missing out on. Four of us split a medium cheese pizza, an Italian sub and a chopped salad with salami. The chopped salad was a disappointment as it came out untossed and piled high on a serving plate. That's right, not a bowl, but a plate. Adding to the frustration was the fact that the salami, mozzarella cheese and tomatoes sat atop the mound of chopped iceberg lettuce in sections, meaning they weren't tossed into the lettuce either. We coulda sent it back and had them toss it for us, but decided not to out of laziness. Instead we tried to make it more manageable by divying it out amongst the four of us first, then adding the dressing and tossing ourselves. A chopped salad is supposed to be a symphony of both textures and flavors--you're supposed to get some of the salty and chewy cheese and salami, some of the cool and crisp lettuce and some of the zesty and juicy tomatoes in every bite--and without being tossed correctly, this one just didn't work. Oh and sorry, no picture on this one!

Fortunately, our Italian sub and cheese pizza more than made up for the salad fiasco. I love the sort of spicy-salty smoothness that one gets from Italian cold cuts--mortadella, salami, ham, capicola--and Mazzarino's gives you just the right amount: not too little, not too much. Slices of mildly salty provolone cheese and the crusty submarine roll slathered with mustard and vinaigrette made it even better. Best of all, the sandwich stayed together pretty well: no slipping and sliding of meat and cheese against the tomatoes with stuff falling out the sides while we ate it.

Italian Sub

The pizza was, in one word, luscious. Slightly sweet marinara and bubbly mozzarella sat happily on a crust that was not too thick and not too thin, crisped just right on the bottom and unified in a chewy, but not too doughy meeting place at the edges. I haven't had good pizza in a long time, and this one was gooooood.

Now Thatza Pizza-Pie!

So with the exception of the "shoulda-been-tossed" chopped salad, everything I've had at Mazzarino's has been *air-kissing with fingers to lips* simply delicious. I think I'm going to give my Paisan friend a big mamma-style hug and thank him with hands waving in the air for telling me about this place. But then again I won't because that's stuff that they only do on TV and he'll think I'm crazy.

Mazzarino's Italian Ristorante
12920 1/2 Riverside Dr.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
(818) 788-5050

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