My biggest problem with the Mess Hall is the name. It smacks of slop-on-a-shingle and surly men slinging pallid chicken a la king from steam-table vats, when the reality is much better. That is compounded by a smaller problem, its address. For years, the place was a neighborhood restaurant where nothing was a sawbuck, and Lackawannans have long memories. The place has new owners, who’ve installed a moderately adventurous menu and spiffed up the place, adding a garage door façade that opens to allow the summer breeze. Unfortunately, the viewshed is entirely occupied by the faded ’70s-orange bulk of Lackawanna City Hall on stilts. Which is a shame, because otherwise the well-built food would have you saying, “We’re in Lackawanna?”
This is not a criticism of the good people of Lackawanna or their willingness to pay for food fancier than fish fries. The success of Curly’s just down the street is proof of that. My point is that the Mess Hall is turning out a well-edited slate of dishes that would make it hard to get a table if this place was in the Elmwood Village. Yet when I had dinner there, the place was half empty.
The owners, who run proven hits Mulberry Italian Ristorante and Brick Oven Bistro, knew what expectations they faced in the shadow of the basilica. This is not a pity party for them, either. My motive for wishing for a name and address transplant is more base and selfish than mere money: I want ’nduja pizza to survive.
Mess Hall owner Joe Jerge was the first pizzamaker in town to decide that people who dig pepperoni would thrill to the spreadable Calabrian pork salami, so packed with chile that its savory grease runs luminous orange. Sure, it’s not on par with inventing penicillin, but it’s the most significant Buffalo pizza topping advancement since chicken fingers. It’s won wows from every person I’ve seen encounter it for the first time. The Mess Hall’s 12-inch thin-crust “En-Doo-Ya” pie, with sliced fresh jalapenos, can light up a few faces for $12.99. If the restaurant went away, I would mourn that pizza.
It certainly helps the restaurant’s case that there are plenty of other things worth praising. Traces of the ownership family tree show up as the softball-sized Mulberry meatball (“It has its own Facebook page”). Napped in tomato sauce with a sprig of basil, the thing costs $5.99 but will serve four as a meatball snack of tender, moist beef, pork and veal. The arancini ($5.99), a fried crumb-coated risotto ball stuffed with seasoned beef and peas, was well-executed as well, with a golden crust and firm rice grains.
A surprise vegetarian satisfier had roots in the Brick Oven Bistro menu. A large plate of sautéed spaghetti squash and yellow squash with ribbons of carrot and light tomato, more of a broth, really, than a sauce ($12.99). It was fresh-tasting, with vegetables cooked long enough to tenderize them, not turn them mushy. It served well as a vegetable side for four.
Another unexpected joy were fish tacos ($3.99 each). They started with a flour tortilla, but I had no complaints after that, as crisply fried cod fillets were piled onto black beans, fresh-cut tomatoes and red onions, and anointed with chipotle mayonnaise. Salads ($10.99) were hearty and well-appointed, the Rosario offering crumbled blue cheese, tasty but leathery chicken, crisped prosciutto and a chipotle dressing that had a guest asking if they sold bottles.
Gnocchi were light and ungluey in two settings, with creamy chicken stew ($11.99) hearty with chunks of carrot and celery, and covered in tomato sauce and a ragu of pork and beef ($13.99).
Short rib tots ($8.99) and ravioletti in French onion broth ($13.99) were both striking subversions of midmarket menu stereotypes. Housemade Tater-Tot-like bites of jacked-up mashed potatoes are a popular idea, but the Mess Hall trumps them by subtracting potatoes and offering mouthfuls of tender short rib tucked into a tidy golden crumb jacket ($8.99), with a thin blue cheese dipping sauce. You get five. If you need more, you need help.
Ravioletti ($13.99) are little ravioli, housemade, filled with Gruyere-mascarpone cream, which makes it a pasta dish. Except that it arrived in a pool of concentrated French onion soup and a drift of seasoned breadcrumbs. It wasn’t until the second ravioletti that I realized I was eating French onion soup, inside out.
I wasn’t crazy about the shrimp fra diavolo linguine pasta ($17). It had plenty of pinkie-sized shrimp, but the cherry tomatoes needed a longer saute to melt properly and offer more flavor to the sauce. An open-faced Reuben ($14.99) was an ample pile of corned beef and sauerkraut snowed in with melted Swiss. It hit the Reuben spot but created a new one, because I wanted it all bubbled and brown, because who wouldn’t want a Reuben parm? It was so. Close.
Desserts are made in-house ($4). The chocolate chips in the chocolate cake chilled out the chocolatephiles at the table. The baked N.Y.-style cheesecake was excellent, but I don’t like canned cherry topping, so I’d ask the kitchen to leave it off next time.
With lots of dishes to like, the Mess Hall offers a sweet spot between fish fry and Curly’s. I hope that despite the challenges it faces, Lackawannans will take a swing.
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