Cafe Reviews


In honor of Columbus Day, a holiday that has been appropriated by Italian Americans, I thought I'd investigate a couple of spaghetti houses with strong word of mouth. One turns out to be good; one, not so good.

Way up in North Scottsdale, a group of thirtysomething couples enters Mamma Carmella's. The group has just finished bowling. Some wear tee shirts with slogans promoting Scottsdale as a great place to live. Others wear striped polo shirts and Dockers. They sit at a large table in the center of the small restaurant. The women laugh and joke about their bowling. The men tell stories about work.

They order beers and look at the menu. That's when it starts. "They have great pizza here," says a guy at the end of the table. He has eaten at Mamma C's before. No one seems to hear him. The bowlers study in earnest. The couples confer. "Gee, maybe I'll have the baked ziti," says one of the wives.

"Where's that?" her husband responds, his neck craned to look at her menu.
"The pizza here is great," says the guy at the end of the table.
"Is it?" Someone politely acknowledges what is quickly becoming this man's mantra.

He senses his opening. "Yeah, it's been great every time I've had it." The men at the table nod. They are using the "active listening" skills they employ in their corporate management positions.

The waitress arrives to take orders. "Well, I'm going to have the spaghetti and meatballs," says one of the men. "And shall we get one of the pizzas and share it?" he democratically asks the group.

"Sure," says one woman.
"If you want," says another. "The pizzas here are great," says you-know-who.

The truth is, Mamma Carmella's pizzas are good. I am sufficiently impressed by the unflagging enthusiasm of this bowler to want to try one during my second visit. Mamma C's makes pizza two ways: Deep-dish Sicilian-style or New York-style with a thin crust. My waitress urges me to order Mamma's special pizza New York-style with an added twist. She tells me to ask for it "spun thin and crispy." This request results in an even thinner crust than regular New York-style.

When the pie is served, I am glad I took her advice. Mamma's thin crust is lovely: golden brown and crispy, yet lacking that cardboard-matzo quality of some very thin crusts. The pizza sauce is sweet with the flavor of plum tomatoes, oregano and basil. And the toppings? Mamma's special is crowned with sweet ground sausage, rather ordinary pepperoni, black olives, canned mushrooms and chopped onions.

Aesthetically, there is too much gray here--the sausage and mushrooms dominate. A better-looking pizza would substitute fresh green pepper for the canned mushrooms. Fortunately, Mamma's special tastes pretty good, especially when it's hot. (Note: If you bring home leftover slices, zap 'em in the microwave.)

In general, most of what I sample here is great, to paraphrase our bowling friend. It is familiar, hearty, hot and homey. Even if you don't come from an Italian background, Mamma C's food will remind you of that favorite neighborhood joint you used to go to for dependable red sauce and Chianti. Prices may be a little higher, but they match the quality and quantity.

For instance, baked ziti sounds expensive at $8.25, but Mamma Carmella's is oversize and high-quality. Gooey with browned mozzarella on top, velvety with creamy ricotta under that, this tubular pasta dish is large enough for two meals. Again, the plummy tomato sauce sings through.

Eggplant parmesan falls into the same category. The version here features thick slices of breaded eggplant served hot with cheese and more of that good sauce. A side of spaghetti proves good enough to eat--a rarity these days.

For something completely different, we try Mamma's special Italian pie one night. The wedge of ricotta, sausage, black olives, mushroom and pepperoni delivered to us is a lot like quiche, but with a softer consistency. It is heavy on the black olives and hit-or-miss with the sausage and pepperoni. Frankly, it doesn't strike me as being nearly as ample as some of the other things we try.

The antipasto here is pleasing, but average. A large quantity of iceberg lettuce forms the foundation. Atop this sit slices of capocollo, salami, provolone and ham, sprinkled with canned mushrooms, chopped onions, grated mozzarella and those ubiquitous black olives. Some tomato quarters, a couple of pepperoncini and one hard-boiled egg, halved, serve as zesty garnish. The small antipasto is large enough to work as a salad-dinner for light eaters.

I confess I don't have much room to try out the full range of desserts at Mamma Carmella's. The one item I do find room for, a cherry tartufo, is commercial and reminds me of a ice-cream bonbon.

The restaurant is decorated in a low-key manner. Walls have dark wood wainscoting. Artwork is sparse. Booths are plain old brown vinyl, but the chairs and tables that run down the center of the narrow restaurant have a definite homey quality to them. They look like the kind you'd see in a neighbor's kitchen. The staff is friendly and informed. I am served by the same trim, middle-aged waitress both times I visit, and she is a gem. She likes what she's doing and is a sincere advocate of what comes out of Mamma C's kitchen. In fact, it is her admission that she and the other waiters try to sneak a Mamma's special pizza every night that convinces me to try that particular pie. And why not? The pizza here, as you know, is great. A Spice of Italy--yes, that is the correct name--seems confused about its mission. Is it trying to be a family-style spaghetti, pizza and baked pasta house? Or does it have pretensions to be something more?

Whatever its ambition, this South Scottsdale strip-mall restaurant lacks the warm and welcoming feeling of Mamma C's. Part of that is due to the cold and impersonal space itself. Formerly home to Taj Mahal, an ill-fated Indian restaurant, the place now sports forest-green carpeting, matching chairs and green silk plants. The only "Italian touch" is the arrangement of Chianti bottles hanging from latticework covering some of the walls. A back room sitting large and vacant adds little to warm up the place.

The night we visit, business is slow. Our waitress is nice enough, though oblivious to our problems with the quality of the food coming from the kitchen. The other waitresses, unoccupied with customers and bored, sit at the front and discuss cars they've owned. Even more annoying is a customer who loudly converses over a walkie-talkie device. Later, when he asks to use the restaurant telephone for a long-distance call, he continues to talk loud enough for everyone to know his business. My dining accomplice and I start our meal with a salad. The Caesar is composed of romaine lettuce sprinkled with cheese and croutons. To its credit, there is a hint of anchovy in the dressing, which is more vinaigrette than the eggy, lemony, cheesy Caesar dressing we all know and love. To its discredit, the salad contains--mercy!-- sliced tomatoes.

The "gourmet salad" is less successful. The ingredients sound good enough--green olives, hearts of palm, marinated artichoke hearts, chopped black olives, tomato, celery, mushrooms and bermuda onion--but the tomato is pale, the celery tough and the portions stingy.

Even the bread is puzzling. A cross between a soft pretzel and braided breadsticks, it has the consistency of stale marshmallows. I find it inedible.

The chicken Sicilian is just plain weird. Not a fillet, not a breast, not even a quarter-chicken, this dish is made of hacked-up pieces of bird-on-the-bone, resembling nothing so much as some primitive cave-man concoction. It would take a certified butcher to identify its parts. Even a liberal sprinkling of fresh sauteed mushrooms can't save it.

Finally, the "Tour of Italy platter" is an expensive disappointment--a rip-off in hippy parlance. For $11.85, I get a teeny-weeny sliver of lasagna lying on its side, four butterflied shrimp in a garlic-lemon sauce and two eggplant parmigiana patties so thin they are mostly breading. Like magic fairy dust, dried parsley has been shaken over the plate in a misguided attempt to improve things. It doesn't.

In the hopes of leaving A Spice of Italy with a pleasant taste in our mouths, we order dessert. The spumoni is sliced as thin as seafood terrine. The cannoli is impenetrable, the ricotta filling inside lumpy and seemingly unflavored. Foolish us.

Mamma Carmella's, 9393 North 90th Street, Scottsdale, 451-0787. Hours: Lunch, 11:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

A Spice of Italy, 8021 East Roosevelt, Scottsdale, 945-0198. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 4:30 to 9 p.m., Sunday. Mamma Carmella "They have great pizza here," says a guy at the end of the table. No one seems to hear him.

Mamma Carmella's makes pizza two ways: Deep-dish Sicilian-style or New York- style with a thin crust.

spice of italy

Even the bread is puzzling. A cross between a soft pretzel and braided breadsticks, it has the consistency of stale marshmallows.

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Penelope Corcoran