EGG HARBOR CITY - We could hardly tell if Mario's Uptown Grill & Pizzeria was open when we pulled into one of many on-street parking spots, right outside the front door. Inside, we quickly recognized the sunlight lengthening our spring days made the closed vertical blinds in the front window an absolute necessity.
A long ramp deposits you in front of the take-out counter where your order is taken or you are directed to a table of your own.
We slid into one of those laminated, one-piece construction restaurant booths with a vinyl tablecloth and paper placemats on top. Each tabletop held necessities such as salt and pepper shakers along with niceties including colorful faux Gerber daisies in glass holders. Walls were a sage green, offset by light wood paneling with pictures of ceramic oil bottles and the requisite oil paintings of rustic Italian scenery. Globe shaped lamps provided even more light. Some live plants resided near the front window.
We began our meal with some of the most thinly sliced Italian bread we have ever seen, thinner than bruschetta or crostini. An order of chicken wings ($5.50) arrived with a crispy, salty crust, and a blue cheese dipping sauce more mayonnaise than blue. An order of broccoli de rabe ($5.95) was piled high on a plate with some toasted crostini, loaded with garlic but in need of some fruity olive oil and seasoning in the form of salt or salty cheese. We sampled a cup of the pasta e fagioli ($1.95), the soup du jour. Mostly beans and ditalini pasta, as the name implies, with tiny bits of onion and tomato to finish, we somehow more tomato color and flavor in the base. Those Tuscans weren't called mangiafagioli for nothing.
House salads were cold, crisp and basic, with lettuce, onion, and sweet peppers. Our salad with the Caesar dressing arrived predressed; the one ordered with creamy Italian arrived with a brand-name packet of dressing for us to parcel out as we saw fit.
Chicken parmigiana ($15.25) was composed of several pieces of boneless chicken breast pounded thin, breaded and deep fried to a crisp, served with plenty of tasty tomato sauce, melted cheese, a side of spaghetti, and an offer of additional grated cheese and hot pepper flakes from our server. Old-style Italian food, and lots of it. There was no way we could have finished the plate. Shrimp scampi ($16.95) didn't fare as well. The same good pasta formed the base of the plate, and the many large shrimp on top were properly sauteed, but the sauce didn't do the other ingredients justice. It was flat tasting and desperately seeking a needed jolt of acid and seasoning to bring the dish together. We would stick with the red gravy items on the menu.
Our server confided to us that the only dessert on offer that day was homemade brownies ($1.75), made by her mother. Saying no would have been akin to blowing off a proud little Girl Scout selling a box of cookies at our door. They were moist and chewy with a whipped cream rosette on top. A fresh cup of coffee was the perfect ending to the meal. Plates, by the way, were an eclectic assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors.
Among the servers and hostess, only one wore what we could call a uniform, and that was a black monogrammed sport shirt from Mario's. Our two young servers were friendly and gregarious, happily handling our requests for missing silverware and extra plates. We wouldn't be surprised if the waitresses turned out to be sisters. Or maybe cousins.
The kitchen looked almost as long as the seating area in the restaurant. With the take-out counter and soda cases situated between dining room and kitchen we couldn't get a clear view of the action in what amounts to an open kitchen at Mario's. Part of the fun of dining out is watching the floor show that each restaurant provides. One of the cooks walked out of the kitchen wearing a white t-shirt and apron, that iconic uniform of the pizza-maker we remember from times past.
As in many small towns, attempts are being made to revitalize Egg Harbor City's downtown area. As some new businesses get settled in, some old businesses have closed up shop. We peeked in the window of a fancy cup cake store, stopped at a local bar where a regular walked in and bought a round for the entire bar, and discovered a buy-and-sell guitar store right next door to the restaurant. The owner, who also just happened to own Mario's, said he had a vacant property and he thought it would be a good idea to have one more operating store along the street. We hope that commitment to his two businesses and to his town will serve Mario's Uptown Grill and the downtown area well.