Once again, we are all excited about a little neighborhood restaurant in a Huntington Beach strip mall. This time, it's Sicilian and the chef/owner Joe Maiale has realized his longtime dream of opening his own ristorante, along with his wife-to-be, Laura. (They are getting married in September.)
A native Sicilian, Joe grew up in New York City and worked for many years in the pizza business. His new venture, Mazara Trattoria, has a full menu, and almost everything in the restaurant is made from scratch.
Laura says, "We are doing everything ourselves, except churning the butter."
Beware! Don't fill up on the rustic focaccia or garlic knots served with a knockout sun-dried tomato dip that is positively addictive. Hold on until the frittura mista arrives. This gigantic portion of golden fried calamari, shrimp and some slivers of zucchini is served with another fabulous tomato sauce for dipping. The tender seafood was cloaked in a very delicate batter that was super-crispy and delicious.
Joe makes a thin-crusted "pizzette," but it's the size of a medium one. What makes it unusual is a more refined dough with a lighter taste. We tasted a simple margherita as well as an alla campagnola (eggplant, fresh mushrooms and black olives) and asked for them extra crispy, and he was pleased to comply.
Let us take a moment here to declare that when Joe goes near a tomato, something magical happens. So the crushed fresh tomato sauce on the pizzas is wonderful, and every pizza is made with the very freshest mozzarella. They even offer one topped with garden salad drizzled with house-made Italian dressing.
We couldn't resist trying the tortellini en brodo because the chicken broth was house-made. The broth was very light and pleasant, but the cheese tortellini was a bit too dense and somewhat bland.
The evening's pasta special, "amore," was linguine and lobster with pencil-thin asparagus and slices of sun-dried tomato in a white wine saffron sauce with just a hint of cream. It had a subtle flavor that beautifully married with the crustacean. We were struck by the quantity of lobster in this elegant, reasonably priced dish.
Heartier and more rustic but equally delicious was the linguine alla diavolo. Shrimp, calamari and clams were all as fresh as could be and stood up to the amazing, slightly spicy, garlicky crushed tomato sauce. Both pastas were perfectly cooked and generously proportioned.
We favor pastas over the secondi, but you may choose from five preparations of chicken breast or veal scallop, including the Sorrentino, topped with prosciutto, eggplant, mozzarella and sherry sauce or pollo rollatini, chicken breast stuffed with sautéed spinach, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes.
As full as we were, we still made room for the house-made desserts, tiramisu and cannoli. Tiramisu is usually a dessert we avoid because it's often just a lot of whipped cream and soggy cake that's been lingering in the refrigerator much too long. But with just a little arm-twisting, we were persuaded to give it a try. It was so fresh and light, it practically floated off the plate. The cake was delicate and flavorful and had just a subtle taste of booze. Only the cannoli disappointed. The filling was bland, and the crust was too hard.
At lunchtime, there are panini, sandwiches and calzones with a selection of pastas and entrées.
The simple and tasteful décor features photographic images of Europe on the golden beige walls while avocado-colored banquettes line the room.
We think you will be delighted by the quality of the food, the size of the portions and the reasonable prices in this warm and friendly trattoria with a wait staff that makes you feel right at home. This is the kind of place where people end up sharing food with their neighbors, saying, "Here, try this!"
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Where: 18027 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach
Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday
Dinner: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday