My friend Leslie had an errand to run in Saratoga, which was enough of an excuse for us to check out Mama Mia’s. “It’s the place the locals in Saratoga go for Italian food,” Leslie had told me.
Mama Mia’s is in a strip mall on Ballston Avenue (Route 50) on the left just as one enters the city. What could be more convenient?
Mama Mia’s Pizza and Café
WHERE: 185 Ballston Ave., Saratoga Springs. 583-7783, www.mamamiassaratoga.com or Facebook
WHEN: 3-9 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; noon-10 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $63.40 without tax and tip
MORE INFO: accessible, large strip mall parking lot, all major credit cards accepted. Take-out, eat-in catering, parties. Noise level permits conversation.
Strip mall restaurants are a crap-shoot. Often, they are mere conveniences where one can grab a soda or coffee and an adequate sandwich. Sometimes they are deceptive — looking like a hole in the wall, but a real restaurant once explored.
Mama Mia’s is reminiscent of every good Italian restaurant you have been to: great sauce, good service, extensive menu, comfortable atmosphere, maroon linen tablecloths topped with fresh white-angled smaller cloths.
One needs to be suspicious if the warm smell of garlic doesn’t greet you as you walk in the door of an Italian restaurant. At Mama Mia’s, we were greeted by garlic, a smiling face and a huge urn of forced yellow forsythia opposite the counter.
We had been warned we would need a reservations even on a Monday night, but we encountered no interference at 1:30 p.m. on a recent Friday. We were immediately escorted to a booth, ordered beverages. (Mama Mia’s stocks a full bar in an adjacent room, where there is also a small bakery. A soda cooler sits near the restaurant’s main entrance.)
The menu reads like a Tolstoy novel. Many of the Italian dishes are listed in Italian, like “Penne Broccoli E Spinaci” ($14.95) with descriptions in English.
Server Danielle delivered a basket of bread, which wound up being the only mild disappointment of the afternoon. Even warming cannot make stale bread fresh.
Leslie’s Sliced Pears and Prosciutto Salad with crispy Fried Shallots ($9.95) came with mixed greens, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, and was dressed with a white balsamic vinaigrette. What impressed me was that the pears had obviously been just sliced. Not a hint of brown oxidation.
Heroes of many varieties, including Eggplant and Fried Chicken Cutlet are in the $8.95 range. There are pasta dishes galore, ranging in price from $6.95-$18.95. There are eggplant, fish, chicken and veal dishes by the dozens, plus two dozen varieties of pizza, including gluten-free and whole-wheat pizza.
We could have had Antipasti or Zuppe, but worried the additions might be overload in the middle of the day.
Savor of the lamb
I nibbled some of Leslie’s salad before settling down to my Lamb Osso Bucco ($25.95). I enjoy pork and veal osso bucco (“hole in the bone,” which is a marrow bone) as well, but lamb is my favorite and I rarely find it on a menu. The three large pieces of bone-in meat were served with gnocchi topped by a tiny mountain of ricotta with a basil leaf flag erected in the middle. The osso bucco was smothered in a thick flavorful marina and garnished with thin curls of lemon peel. The entrée was flavorful, but not quite hot enough for this reviewer.
Leslie’s Salmon Oreganata ($17.95) featured grilled salmon “perfectly cooked” encrusted with Mama Mia’s special blend of herbs and spices, and served over fresh spinach on a large white fish-shaped dish. She also ordered a side of rigatoni ($2.50) with the same splendid marinara as I had enjoyed with my osso bucco.
We always have room for coffee and dessert. I ordered an espresso, while Leslie requested regular coffee. Dessert required an exploratory trip to the pastry counter located next to the bar in an adjoining room.
From a tempting assortment, I ordered a napoleon and Leslie ordered what she described as a “rich and sinful” slice of chocolate ganache cake — four layers of deep dark chocolate cake with lighter chocolate ganache layered in between. After a full meal, the cake was too large to finish, so she had it wrapped to go.
My napoleon was just right, however. The quarter inch of white icing caused the vanilla filling to squoosh out from between the layers of phyllo. The result was a mix of multi-textured not too sweet pastry heaven.
I ate it all.
Chocolate ganache is made from heated heavy cream poured over chopped bittersweet chocolate and stirred until smooth and satiny. For lighter ganache, this mixture can be whipped. Either way, it’s addictive!