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[whitespace] Daniel Gonzalez Fisherman's Delight: Head chef Daniel Gonzalez savors a plate of cioppino. Though it's not always on the menu, he can produce the dish on demand.

Family Value

Mama Mia's serves straightforward, modestly priced Italian dishes-- not that new stuff with truffles from Piedmont

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

WHEN I FIRST saw the sign on coffee-shop row along Hamilton Avenue, I dismissed the place completely. Mama Mia's--give me a break! Italian food in a coffee shop with a handle like this didn't conjure favorable images. I'd rather grab a plate at a hospital cafeteria than eat soggy noodles under the guise of Italian food. But I was wrong--and I am sorry.

Mama Mia is a bona fide Italian restaurant, but with an unacclaimed kitchen. At the stoves are hard-working cooks adept at interpreting family recipes, making straightforward Italian food--not that new stuff with truffles from Piedmont, or veal so creamy it evaporates to the touch, so white it glows in the dark. Here one drinks rugged table reds that cost about $3 a glass, not rare wines that need decanting and cost more than the entire meal.

We're talking about Southern Italian style food--and there's a difference. It's not the kind served on special occasions when money is no object, but the kind that graces the Sunday table with the family circled around--waiting, hungry--still dressed from church. The kind where the sauces have been simmering all night and their fragrances fill the house; where pasta is served by gentle hands in the midst of illogical but loving dialogue that might run something like this: "What's the matter with this guy? He's all skin and bone ... I don't know what to do with him ..." And this after you've eaten two helpings of rigatoni with meatballs, and plenty of salad, the kind doused with good burgundy vinegar.

I've been to Mama Mia's several times now, mostly with friends who became instantaneous loyal customers, who come back day in, day out, bring wives, children, parents, eating nowhere else. On my last visit, there were four of us and we ate up a storm.

I could go into decor, but there's nothing special about it. It's the food people are talking about--the pasta dishes, the pizza, the warm, personal service. The owner is usually on station--he's a tall guy with a mustache--patrolling the rooms and telling stories about those aforementioned Sunday dinners. His favorite is the one about the homemade spumoni, the recipe he procured from his grandmother when the family lived on the wrong side of the tracks in Ohio. But we'll get to that.

This visit, we opened with a small cheese pizza ($7.95) and a plate of calamari fritti ($8.95).The pizza rested on a good bread dough crust, baked with a non-acidic tomato sauce and a liberal coating of mozzarella; unfortunately, the undercrust lacked the golden hue that tells when a pizza is truly cooked. It was good, though--just a little underdone. The calamari holds its own with some of the better recipes I've sampled in town. An ample portion of tender squid was deep-fried crisp, not greasy, in a light, seasoned coating.

All dinners come with soup or salad, both of which were quite pedestrian, neither good nor bad, something one is glad to get, but nothing to remember when telling friends about this place.

My favorite pasta dish here is the linguine with clams Bianca-style (13.95), a brisk, engaging recipe with plenty of flavor that did not paralyze the palate with heavy garlic. So far, the linguine has been cooked tender (to the tooth, the way it should be), then finished in the pan with chopped and whole clams in shell, virgin olive oil, light garlic, lemon, and clam broth. I like to add extra lemon, but it's not necessary.

Second favorite is the cioppino ($16.95). This lusty fisherman's stew was loaded with available shellfish and fresh fish in a sauce thick with tomato and minced vegetables. After finishing the fish, my guests and I spooned the sauce like a nutritious soup full of shellfish liquors. We've had it twice and both times went home satisfied, toting takeout containers.

On special that night was osso buco, a Milanese specialty of braised lamb shanks--an often-seen departure from the customary veal shank. It arrived in a savory gravy with just subtle hints of the lamb, a meat that can dominate with a muttony aftertaste when not absolutely fresh. One of my guests and I tackled this one until all the meat was gone, the marrow sucked from the shank bone, the gravy sopped clean.

Now for dessert. This is when the owner tells patrons about the spumoni, his grandmother's recipe, made by Marianne's in Santa Cruz, allegedly only for Mama Mia's. This is the best I've had in the South Bay----so rich, I meditated on every spoonful, closing my eyes at times, while it melted slowly against the tongue.

Mama Mia's
Address: 200 E. Hamilton Ave., Campbell
Phone: 408/379-3333
Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30am-9:30pm (until 10pm Fri), Sat 4-10pm, Sun 11:30am-9pm
Dinner entrees: $9.95-$16.95
Cuisine: Family-style Italian
Extras: A sister restaurant in the Santa Cruz Mountains, owner Frank Leamy's original Mama Mia's in Felton

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From the September 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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