Pasta, pizza and a fun, funky decor

Restaurant: In addition to an interesting setting, Mangia Mangia delivers a lot of food, of varying quality, for the money.

Sunday Gourmet

January 06, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

This summer Mangia Mangia, only 3 years old, changed owners -- an event that made less difference than you might think. It was taken over by Mike Agudelo and John Stamatakos, who knew the Italian bar-restaurant wasn't broke and resisted any impulse to fix it.

The new owners have kept the original concept: a simple menu of pastas, pizzas and a few entrees. (I had heard that the new chef was going to add some non-Italian specials, but that hasn't happened yet.) The most unusual thing about the menu is still that you build your own pasta by choosing either linguine or the pasta of the day for $7.95 (this day it was gemelli) and then selecting one of 16 sauces, all under $10 and many under $5.

But pasta and pizza places are a dime a dozen. What sets Mangia Mangia apart is still its wonderfully shabby and colorful interior. It's basically a bar, with the bar on one side and the dining area on the other. The tables and chairs are vintage-store mismatches, but they work together. The room is strung with lights, both colored Christmas tree lights and bare light bulbs, and stars dangle from sconces. Old doors are hung for wall art, and the tables are set with tea towels for napkins. The room looks funky, fun and organic, not as though an interior designer has come in and created decor.

The food doesn't quite live up to the setting, and the service doesn't quite live up to the food.

That's not exactly fair: We liked our warm-hearted waitress a lot, but when your appetizers don't arrive after half an hour, you start to get cranky. And when the entrees come out from the kitchen before the appetizers and the waitress sends them back, it's time for her to say something to us.

On the other hand, mistakes happen. We did finally get our meal in its proper order, and at the end, one of the owners hand-delivered cannoli to make up for the mix-up.

What Mangia Mangia delivers is a lot of food for the money. Bruschetta, in this case four large slices of Italian bread toasted and covered with chopped tomato, pesto, goat cheese and caponata (eggplant relish), is a meal, not an appetizer in my book; Mangia Mangia's kitchen is generous that way.

In fact, any of our starters would have fed our table of four. The crusty gold calamari rings were the best, with both a marinara sauce and a potent garlic mayonnaise to dip them in. Mussels were a close second: fat and grit-free, with chopped tomatoes adding a fresh note to the usual garlic and butter sauce.

The award-winning (according to a clipping on the wall) "Mangia" turned out to be a soupy crab dip. It would have been better if it hadn't arrived stone cold. But it would still have tasted more like mayonnaise than the promised crab, spinach, artichokes, roasted peppers and fontina cheese.

Shrimp and scallops, a special that night, came with a dense, creamy risotto -- well worth the price of admission -- but the seafood itself was overcooked, heavily seasoned and much too salty. Chicken was treated with more respect in a traditional Marsala dish, with a light, winey sauce, lots of mushrooms and a pretty semicircle of jewel-green broccoli florets.

If you're coming to Mangia Mangia, you're likely to be ordering one of the pick-your-own-sauce pastas, simply because that's its gimmick and they are reasonably priced. Judging from the two we tried, it's hard to generalize about them.

A classic Bolognese with ground beef, sausage and portobellos delivered meaty satisfaction, the gemelli (short twists) cooked perfectly. But the Mediterranean sauce featured graying broccoli and not enough red and yellow peppers or artichoke hearts in proportion to the linguine. The oil and lemon sauce lacked zing.

If you get the pasta, you'll probably want to split a salad, perhaps the mesclun mix with tomatoes and cucumbers. The large is enough for two or three.

Desserts are something of an afterthought at Mangia Mangia. We were happy with our complimentary cannoli from Vaccaro's Bakery, but we also got a slice of cherry cheesecake with a graham cracker crust and cherry pie filling on top, the only dessert made in house. Not exactly dreadful, but I'd stick to the cannoli.


Food: ** 1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 834 S. Luzerne Ave.

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday for dinner only

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$8.95; main courses, $9.90-$16.95

Call: 410-534-8999

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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