Autumn is a great season for sports, but not so great for women who try to drag their husbands away from the TV for a night out. Think of it as the war between Football Man and Dine-out Woman.
Dine-out Woman wants the Rainbow Room in New York with its Fred Astaire dance floor and Cole Porter swing band. Football Man wants a wall-sized TV at home with his La-Z-Boy recliner and Surround Sound.
Is compromise possible for such a couple? The Mangia Italian Grill and Sports Cafe tries to find that middle ground, and largely succeeds.
On a recent Sunday evening visit to Mangia, we found the happy, relaxed atmosphere typical of sports bars and at the same time enjoyed a nice meal in sophisticated surroundings. And with Mangia's calendar crammed with special dining nights and live music nights, we were also treated to a wonderful live performance.
The main dining room has an upscale hunt-country look, with dark green walls and woods. Through the doors of the dining room, a large covered patio seats guests in warm weather.
High on the walls in the dining room, TVs in various spots showed sports programming, so that no matter where you sat - what a relief! - you could see the game. That's no small accomplishment. The TVs are there if you want to watch, but they're out of the direct line of sight, so you can also avoid them.
Overall, the food was well-prepared and fresh, but unimaginative and much less ambitious than it was on previous visits. Ingredients were high quality, and there's a good mix of choices on the menu. This is an Italian restaurant, so you'll find plenty of classic Italian dishes: calamari, minestrone, lasagna and shrimp scampi. But the eclectic menu also includes favorites such as coconut shrimp, chicken Chesapeake and a grilled pork chop.
Our best appetizer was my husband's calamari fritta with marinara sauce - a huge plateful of fresh, tender squid in light, crisp breading. My minestrone was a little thin and lacked the rich flavors typical of homemade.
Throughout the meal, the service was enthusiastic but spotty. Forks swept up after the first course weren't replaced - despite several reminders - until hot entrees had chilled. And one glass of wine did not appear - despite several reminders - until the meal was halfway over.
Of our entrees, my son's traditional meat lasagna, stood out as the favorite. There was nothing fancy or clever about it, and with lasagna that's usually what works best. This one was a large, firm square with good, hearty flavors and top-quality ingredients that complemented each other.
Grilled salmon, on the other hand, disappointed. Served with a coating of pesto and bruschetta-style chopped tomatoes, it reached for intense flavors but was stunningly dull. The pesto was green and had the right texture, but there was not even a hint of the taste of basil, garlic or parmesan. The pale, chopped tomatoes tasted watery. But when I scraped off the blah topping, I found a fresh, tender salmon and ate it unadorned.
Our out-of-town guest raved about the crabcakes she ordered, particularly their size and lack of filler. And my husband's veal parmigiana was crisply breaded and tender, though it was served over pasta with a sauce that was, again, dull.
Desserts were all pretty good. Mangia's carrot cake is a hearty slice, slightly chunky in texture and nicely moist. The cannoli could have been a little thinner and a little crisper, but the filling was smooth and just-right sweet. Only the red velvet cake failed to satisfy. It was a large slice of dry, flavorless cake with a bare skim of icing.
Midway through our meal, we noticed a band setting up on one side of the fairly small dining room.
Led by a local barber, Sophisticated Swing is a group of "mature" gentlemen who have plenty of swing left. They were terrific musicians, and they brightened what already was a happy place. Be warned, though: The room is small for a band with a big sound, and once they start playing conversation is impossible.
But the night we were there, we didn't mind. My husband was able to watch the NFL game in peace at last, while I sat back and imagined myself at the Rainbow Room. Out on the small dance floor, several elderly couples swayed sweetly and seemed still very much in love.
Mangia Italian Grill and Sports Cafe
Waverly Woods Village Center, 10795 Birmingham Way, Woodstock
all major. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Appetizers, $5.95-$8.95; entrees, $9.95-$21.95
[Rating system: Outstanding:**** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]