STAFFORD TOWNSHIP - Why would anyone wait in line at the airport and suffer the abuse of removing shoes and belt just to fly to Italy to visit a trattoria? Our slowing economy has helped to spawn a plethora of busy bistros, trattorias, and diners, those family-style restaurants offering good food at reasonable prices, all around us. Who could ask for anything more?

One of these is Mangone's Trattoria, located off a busy section of Main Street here.

From our table we could peer through the window cut outs on the divider wall to take a look down a column lined trompe l'oeil walkway through a verdant garden setting.

Industrial looking overhead lights hung on bare wires from a ceiling painted black gave little illumination to our attempts to read the menu. Maybe it is advanced age creeping up on us but we prefer an atmosphere more conducive to seeing than not seeing. Tables were set with white cloths, black napkins, and live candles on each table. If there was music, we never heard them singing.

A plate of winter tomato bruschetta served as soon as we sat down was a nice touch but it needed something in the way of seasoning. A drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt perked up the colorless, tasteless diced tomatoes.

Fortunately for us, Mangone's excelled in the red sauce department and we had several versions of their basic marinara made from the better canned tomatoes picked at the peak of ripeness. Zuppa d'clams ($9.99) was a big white pasta bowl filled with little neck clams in a tomato sauce that benefited from the clam liquor contributed by a dozen steamers. Fresh, flavorful and good enough to clean the plate with plenty of crusty Italian bread. We did. Fried calamari ($10.99) was a large plate of nicely floured, seasoned, and deep-fried squid rings and tentacles served with a spicier version of tomato sauce for dipping. Entrees began with the Pollo Sorrentino ($19.99), a boneless chicken breast pounded thin, topped with a slice each of prosciutto and eggplant, topped with a layer of melted mozzarella cheese then finished with a tomato demi-glaze. Simple, straight forward, trattoria cooking. A side of rigatoni was slightly overcooked but tossed with yet another slightly different tasting version of tomato sauce. A dish called Rigatoni Jeffrey ($15.99) and listed under specialty items was macaroni finished with artichoke hearts and a sauce made with plum tomatoes, garlic, and white wine. It sounded good but the tinny taste of canned artichoke hearts added little to the dish. We would have proclaimed the Pollo Sorrentino as special rather than the Rigatoni Jeffrey.

Entrees at Mangone's are served with an endless house salad in a large bowl you can serve family style at the table. Composed of all the usual suspects like iceberg lettuce, we were surprised when we asked about the dressing to hear it was one of those dry national packaged brands with the addition of some grated cheese from the kitchen. Ask and you shall receive.

Our server offered to bring the dessert tray to our table and we gladly accepted even though nothing was house made. A sturdy cannoli ($5) had a crisp but slightly tough shell and a wonderful sweet ricotta filling while a tower of chocolate called a Cappuccino mocha ($6.50) arrived on a chocolate cake base, with layers of light and dark mousse and finished with a thick ganache layer on top. We thought it too sugary sweet even for dessert.

The menu offers plenty of options with multiple selections for veal, chicken and seafood. Pizza from the brick oven is available and Italian choices for the kids include ravioli marinara and rigatoni vodka. Hopefully the alcohol is all cooked off.

Servers looked professional in black with men's dress shirts and ties, and while our server was friendly we waited too long between courses, too long for refills of water and bread and our busperson barely cracked a smile lending little to what should have felt like the comfortable atmosphere we associate with a family run trattoria. An empty bread basket, stacks of plates and dirty silverware remained on the table through the dessert course, in a room that was steady but not particularly busy. Those used plates should have been the bussers purview, too.

Mangone's Trattoria

399 North Main Street

Manahawkin

Phone: 609-597-7070

Hours: Wednesday and Thursday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., Monday 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday

Rating:

Liquor license: BYO

Credit cards: Most major

Disabled access: Yes

Price range: Appetizers, $6.99 to $9.99; entrees $12.99 to $26.99

Our bill for two: $82, plus tip