Confession is good for the soul, or so they say. So I will share that when the first dishes arrived at Mangia, I emitted a quiet sigh of relief.
After visiting so many Italian-American restaurants, the dominant strain of the area's "ethnic" eateries, I have developed red sauce fatigue. I've learned to expect average food in an average setting, made by a staff putting in an average effort. My operating theory is that we love dishes like spaghetti and meatballs as much as the principals in "Lady and the Tramp."
Places don't have to excel to remain in business, as long as they put in the hours, limit mistakes and stick to the script. So when beans and greens showed up gutsy with garlic and rich with good olive oil and pecorino romano cheese, a sautéed vegetable dish with beans instead of a soup, it promised to be a meal to remember, instead of a night to forget.
John Ricotta is an auspicious name for the owner of an Italian restaurant. Even more so when you know he's spent most of his life giving Orchard Park a taste of Italy. Ricotta's Pizza was a local staple before he and his wife, Frances, opened Mangia 14 years ago, transforming a corner in the village into a community mainstay.
It has event rooms and weekend entertainment on the second floor. There's 150 seats on the first level, with a veranda, a grotto and rooftop seating to allow customers to make the most of tolerable weather. Wood floors, exposed brick, a mural of a Venetian scene and statuary add atmosphere to the dining room.
The décor helps set upscale expectations, but a more important asset is Mangia's core of experienced servers. The fellow minding our table with help from assistants could have taught a course in his profession. (If only he would. Tossed-off verbal specials, interruptions and shallow product knowledge are commonplace in our dining rooms, even white-tablecloth ones.)
He articulately addressed each diner, steered our meal adeptly, and as the meal proceeded, exhibited a knack for approaching only during lulls in conversation.
After hustling drinks to the table he brought a basket containing pizza bread, covered with an engaging combination of tomatoes, onions, herbs and grated cheese. There were also of fresh focaccia-like rolls, good for soaking up olive oil flavored with more herbs, grated cheese and garlic.
Agnello modesto ($12), three herb-crusted lamb rib chops, seared to a crusty bronze while accurately pink inside, as requested, were a spot-on bite if looking for a little lamb. The bed of arugula, roasted beets and goat cheese was a snappy palate cleanser between bites, but I could have done without the canned oranges. Arancine ($10), fried risotto balls, turned out mushy inside their crumb jackets.
Mangia's pizzas ($8) are cracker-thin, barely thicker than a flour tortilla. The margherita's classic tomato, mozzarella, fresh basil combination were lightly applied, making it an apt accompaniment to a glass of pinot grigio. Those beans and greens ($9) were another one-dish satisfaction, a hearty vegetarian lunch with a bit of ciabatta, unless you're allergic to garlic.
Artichokes ($9) were three halves of small stemmed artichokes packed with buttery herbed crumbs and broiled, a tasty combination that could have been improved with more crumb-toasting time.
After our table was cleared and crumbed, entrees arrived. Veal Parmesan ($24) was one of those rare examples that balanced tomato sauce, crumbs and cheese to support the flavor of veal rather than overshadow it. Rigatoni pasta with broccoli and sausage ($19) carried plenty of goodies but was muted in flavor by a blanket of breadcrumbs turned pasty in the dish's liquid.
A special of duck breast ($29) on bacon mashed potatoes was a delightful off-speed pitch. The skin wasn't crispy – as our server had noted – but its rosy tenderness offered a welcome alternative to the typical meat-and-potatoes tableau. Brussels sprouts, halved and well-caramelized but retaining a nip of crunch, added earthy undertones.
The most impressive dish of the night came from the sea. A quartet of fat, seared scallops ($36) luxuriated in delicate beurre blanc, around a mound of creamy risotto flavored with lemon and topped with grilled asparagus. This was an exemplar of precise cooking, with firm-but-distinct rice grains, a gentle touch of lemon, and spears smoke-touched from the grill but retaining bite.
[Read about Mangia's limoncello salmon in Refresh's healthy approach to Local Restaurant Week]
My favorite, though, was dead simple: gnocchi alla Mangia ($16, featured image), dumplings in tomato sauce. These ricotta gnocchi were the size of marshmallows but somehow light as a breeze, sauced with brilliant, fruity tomato. A sprinkle of parsley and nothing else left me savoring the symphony of tomato and milk.
Housemade tiramisu ($7) was my dessert pick, an airy cube built of mascarpone, ladyfingers, espresso and cocoa. Crème brulee ($7) was a silky vanilla cream with a crackling top and vanilla speckles on the bottom. A round of complimentary limoncello arrived with our espressos.
With a menu of careful Italian cooking that transcends cliché, Mangia is among the best Italian experiences in the Southtowns. I left feeling not only well-fed, but especially well served.
Mangia – 8 plates (out of 10)
Location: 4262 N. Buffalo Road, Orchard Park (662-9467)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 to 11 p.m. Friday; 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: Salads and appetizers, $5-$16; pasta, $16-$26; entrees, $17-$39.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: pasta, many other choices.
*Read last week's dining review, on Camellia Garden in Depew: