I didn't think I'd fall so hard and so easily, but after only two meals, I'm in love with Mamma Mia. I think my quick surrender is due to the fact that I'd basically given up hope of finding an Italian restaurant in this town that I could devote myself to. I am crazy for Italian food, but I want something beyond the same four heavily red-sauced pasta standards and red-checkered tablecloth decor found at affordable but boringly basic places. Most restaurants with more creative options aren't budget-friendly enough to be a weekly stop. Although I have yet to eat my way through Mamma Mia's entire menu, the sizeable dent I've made has so far been proof positive that this kind of honest, delicious food does exist.
Barely a month old, Mamma Mia, located in a little orange house on a busy P.B. drag, already has a loyal following. Some patrons followed the owners, a young Italian couple named Francesco and Cinzia, from their previous restaurant in La Mesa, where they were serving a similar style of home cooking. Others have discovered it by word-of-mouth from excited newcomers like me.
Francesco, seemingly on a constant espresso-high, buzzes around the tiny restaurant, greeting guests with infectious and hilarious enthusiasm. Cinzia, a former member of the Italian national skydiving team with more than 500 jumps under her belt, now gives others a thrill with every bite of her homemade treats from the kitchen.
Panzerotti, deep fried pockets of savory dough stuffed with mozzarella and ham, are a new-to-me delight. They're served with Mamma Mia's fresh homemade marinara sauce. Sometimes cooked spinach can leave a funny taste in the mouth, but in the Antipasto Ortolano, a garlicky sauté of seasonal vegetables, spinach is at its sweet and tender best, in a mix with eggplant and mushrooms.
Several homemade pastas are available daily, and if any variety is offered with the gorgonzola walnut sauce, don't pass it up. The light cream sauce, enriched with tangy gorgonzola and toasted walnuts, is equally good on the homemade cheese ravioli or fresh strands of tagliatelle noodles. The tomato sauce, tinged pink with a bit of cream, adds lusciousness to two great gnocchi dishes, one topped with arugula and mozzarella and the other combined with bits of sautéed shrimp.
Other pastas I've sampled or intend to try in the very near future include penne with smoked salmon, farfalle in homemade pesto and spaghetti al cartoccio-a baked dish with shrimp and clams in a spicy garlic wine sauce. The risotto with porcini mushrooms or with seafood in a saffron sauce will be the first place I start next time.
At our first dinner, we didn't save room for one of Mamma Mia's pizzas, so on our return trip, my group made sure to order a pizza to share as an appetizer, The 16-inch pie was thin but not unsubstantial and a deal at only $9.95. They also serve 12-inch pizzas starting at $4.95.
Cinzia's homemade delights extend all the way to the dessert menu, which features a number of gelatos, including lemon and pistachio, and an airy, not-too-sweet tiramisu. The cake of the day is also a tasty option. One night it was a warm amaretto cake and on another a version made with strawberries. The only disappointing sweet was the dessert crepes, whose texture suggested that they might have been pre-made and then quickly nuked in the microwave. Not even a slathering of Nutella could save them.
While the owners wait for a liquor license, they have a BYOB policy. Virtually every seat in the house is charming, from the sidewalk patio to the cozy interior and the covered back patio decked out with colored lights. All guests are treated like family, and when someone emerges from the kitchen to present you with your food, enthusiastically wishing you “buon appetito,” it's hard not to feel a little warm and fuzzy. Everything that comes out of Mamma Mia's cucina is unpretentious yet sophisticated-even some friends of mine who aren't big fans of Italian fare were impressed and satisfied. Take a date, take your kids-take anyone who just likes to eat well.
Mamma Mia (1932 Balboa Ave. in Pacific Beach) is open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, closed Monday. 858-272-2702
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