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Molte Bene

Mangia Bene pulls off low-key miracles with cost-effective style

By Christina Waters

With its sunny wall treatment in fashionably Tuscan gold tones, braids of garlic punctuating the two facing dining rooms, and its attractive young wait staff powering gorgeous dishes from kitchen to patron, Mangia Bene knows what it's up to. It succeeds brilliantly in two key areas: boldly flavored, well-made dishes and a menu that keeps things short and sweet. In other words, Mangia Bene doesn't try to offer everything under the sun, Tuscan or otherwise. It does what it knows and does it well.

Uncomplicatedly pretty--stylish banquettes lining the walls, oversized dried floral arrangements, olive oil on the tables, big heavy flatware--Mangia Bene specializes in freshly made individual pizzas, pastas, and salads, all of which are served in full-figured portions.

One recent rainy afternoon, I fell in love with a gooey, Romano pizza ($6.75), slathered with lots of fontina and mozzarella cheese and dotted with chunks of sun-dried tomatoes and coarsely chopped basil. Kalamata olives, very tangy Kalamata olives, poked through all the creamy cheeses. The pleasant crust--a bit unchallenging for someone looking for a seriously chewy pizza experience--was light with just a hint of fresh yeasty flavor. A house salad offered an overly aggressive tarragon balsamic vinaigrette on pretty mixed lettuces and radicchio ($4.25).

Another meal showed off the full range of Mangia Bene's culinary charms, starting with a Caesar salad ($5.50) packed with intense anchovy flavor, plenty of garlic and a lemony mayonnaise-fortified dressing.

My companion meanwhile was so taken with his bowl of excellent Tuscan style minestrone ($3.50) that he was reluctant to share. One taste of the Caesar salad persuaded him to trade. Which was fine, since the minestrone turned out to be a spectacular dish. An undertone of herbs balanced all the ingredients, and echoed the excellent herb-laced house focaccia.

Glasses of red wines from the MG listing--long on Italian varietals and locally made vintages--kept us company during our meal. A glass of Geyser Peak Merlot Alexander Valley 1994 ($5.25) started off well enough--lots of smokiness, a hint of cherries--but failed to unfold much further. A Sangiovese-Cabernet Col-Di-Sasso Tuscany 1994 ($4.50) proved more interesting, long on velvet and plum, the perfect foil for our entrées.

An asparagus and seafood pasta ($7.50) made the biggest hit of the day, and a shared order of poached salmon salad ($6.95) wasn't far behind. Huge quantities of sweet prawns, fresh mahi mahi, and salmon studded the central tangle of perfectly cooked angel hair pasta. The entire dish had been bathed--but not drowned--with a light sauce of fresh tomatoes. Sounds simple, but this irresistible dish showed off the kitchen's expertise. The pasta was simply the way you want pasta to be: laced with a few morsels of something wonderful--in this case fresh seafood and young, spring asparagus--and then slathered with the comforting essence of tomatoes. Destination pasta, without question.

Finishing things off with a slab of streusel-topped sour cream apple pie that tasted quite homemade, we headed happily out to walk off our meal by foraging through the Plaza's many antique emporia.


Mangia Bene:
241 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 433-2340 Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; limited menu, 3-5 p.m. Dinner, 5-10 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; till 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday
Food: Generously Italian
Wine list: Mostly Italian varietals and local wines
Service: Helpful, attentive
Ambiance: Contempo bistro
Price: Inexpensive to moderate

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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