EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP- We had to stop and think for a minute when we entered Mama Mia's Ristorante here. The entranceway looked so much like the one at Mama Mia's in Seaville we thought we had gone to the wrong place.
It was like walking down a tiny stone alleyway in an Italian seaside village, in search of some quaint little trattoria that only the locals know about. Entering through the pizzeria, past the brick oven, we discovered a tiny dining room, already filling up with chatty diners. It all seemed so familiar. Then it hit us; the formula worked so well in Seaville, it would make little sense to change it up in Egg Harbor Township.
A steady flow of customers through the take-out area also reminded us of the other Mama Mia's.
Slices of bread with chopped tomato, garlic and onions, called bruschetta, arrived for us to feast on while we looked over the menu, and a basket of warm bread included the pizza-shaped focaccia and slices of a crisp round Italian loaf. Serendipitously, a ceramic tray held flavored olive oils and a compound butter.
Calamari Sicilian style ($9.50) was served in an oval dish piled high with baby squid dipped in buttermilk, floured, then crisp fried and tossed with a white wine garlic sauce, roasted red pepper strips, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and Calamata olives. The portion, as with everything at Mama Mia's, was too large for one person and better shared with the table. The addition of salty and spicy ingredients added extra flair.
Lumache Ubriache ($8) or drunken-style escargot, were marinated in plenty of sweet-tasting liquor, along with chopped roasted almonds - for crunch - olive oil, garlic, herbs, tomato and a brown sauce that required plenty of bread to finish. But you must finish it. The oven baked dish, small but loaded with flavor, was rich enough that a half portion was just enough, so again sharing was in order.
Choice of house salad or Caesar salad arrived next, both composed of cold, crisp, ingredients and the right amount of dressing clinging to the leaves rather than puddling on the plate. As advertised, the hand-rolled potato dumplings ($22) were "as light as a cloud." A large portion of the gnocchi was served in a pesto cream sauce, again, our choice. It could also be served with Bava, a sauce of butter, sage, cream, Fontina cheese and broccoli, or Napoletana sauce, made with fresh plum tomatoes and basil. The kitchen at Mama Mia's has a special way with sauces, although my dining companion felt they were all on the sweet side.
From a long list of interesting daily specials, we chose a squid ink pasta with seafood ($26) served in a fiery fra diavolo sauce. A large portion of golden tilapia rested atop a bed of black fettuccine noodles with mussels, clams, shrimps, scallops and crabmeat in a red sauce with plenty of spice.
Even though we had to box up most of our entrees, we found a bit of room for dessert. A circle of white cake covered with chocolate ganache, whipped cream and loads of fresh berries was homemade but not great. A wedge of Jim Beam bourbon banana cake disappeared quickly.
In the dining room fabrics draped from the ceiling overhead with terra cotta-colored walls on two sides. A large mural depicts tiny fishing boats in the harbor of Portofino, Italy. We could see through the weathered looking windows across the room, into the "alleyway" outside, reinforcing the feeling of dining in a far-away place near the Mediterranean. The room was alternately awash with the sounds of Andrea Bocelli and the soundtrack from "The Godfather." With only eight or so small tables available, reservations are required.
Our server listed daily specials and each ingredient with great aplomb. Checking back frequently, refilling waters, and clearing plates, the server did most of the work, our bus boy making a few brief appearances. Conversations didn't carry from table to table, even though the room was so small.
We, like other diners, knew to bring several bottles of wine along.
On the back of the menu was a black and white photo of Massaglia sitting on a seawall somewhere in his hometown of Portofino at age 10. A more recent picture next to that has the chef sitting with his arm around son Joseph at age 10, sitting on a similar seawall, potentially priming the passion of the next generation of chefs from the same family.
While he may have left his heart in Portofino, as the menu suggests, the rest of Massaglia's culinary talents are on display at Mama Mia's in EHT.
6105 West Jersey Ave.
Egg Harbor Township
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to
9:30 p.m. daily
Liquor license: BYO
Credit Cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $8 to $12, entrees $20 to $32
Our bill for two: $87 plus tip