[Sidebar] June 15 - 22, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Mamma Luisa

A gem to discover with friends

by Johnette Rodriguez

673 Thames St., Newport, 848-5257
Open Tues-Sat, 5-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
No handicapped access

Although Italian restaurants in Rhode Island are as plentiful as coffee shops in Seattle, there are few with as impressive a pedigree as Mamma Luisa's. Co-owner Marco Trazzi comes from a family where his grandmother, his mother and each of his five aunts have been chef-restaurateurs. His mother, the actual Mamma Luisa, is only now, after 40 years, thinking of selling her restaurant in Bologna. His father is a sommelier.

The menu is accordingly dominated by family recipes and an extensive wine selection. And the converted house, with dining rooms on three levels, has a homey feel, with lace curtains, butter-yellow walls, wine-red carpets and banquettes and walls laden with Italian memorabilia: decorative plates, pen-and-ink drawings of Italian scenes, two Italian marionettes and a portrait of Mamma Luisa. It's not overdone, just comfortable.

Trazzi, himself a vegetarian, makes note of the vegetarian and vegan dishes throughout his offerings, from antipasti through entrees, but many of his customers hang in on the traditional Bolognese meat sauce, which he serves on tagliatelle. Our group of four, with two mostly-vegetarian eaters among them, took our time studying the menu. The veggie diners had many choices among the pasta dishes as well as a seitan (wheat gluten) stew with onions, peas, bell peppers and tomatoes, served with rosemary potatoes. This meat substitute has been around for at least 100 years in this country and my enthusiastically carnivorous partner loves the stew I make from seitan.

But, with the aromas of garlic and basil wafting around us, we quite naturally drifted back to the pastas: ricotta and spinach gnocchi for me ($12.95) and butternut squash ravioli for our friend across the table ($12.95). The latter were in a very light and yummy sauce of butter, sage, pine nuts and roasted pepper.

After the meal, I learned that Gourmet magazine once asked for the recipe for the gnocchi I ordered, and I can understand why. They're like cloud-puffs of cheese and spinach, delicately sautéed for a slightly brown coating and then covered with a delicious marinara sauce and fresh arugula leaves. Trazzi explained that the sauce, a family favorite, uses the best-flavored canned tomatoes he can find -- there was no bitter, acidic taste -- and he adds basil, but no oregano. "Keep it simple, with just a few ingredients" is his philosophy, which Trazzi and chef Alex Ancarani carry through in the other entrees.

My partner Bill attested to the success of that maxim with his selection, chicken breast cooked in white wine and topped with grilled eggplant and roasted peppers ($15.95). The chicken was served with delicious baby carrots, as was the veal scaloppine ($16.95) chosen by our second friend, who comes from an Italian-American family. Her veal was fork-tender, pan-simmered with white wine, fresh lemon juice, artichokes and capers.

Our entrees were preceded by exceptional appetizers. The "insalata esotica" ($6.50), which had a base of radicchio and arugula, was dressed with a honey-mustard vinaigrette, and filled with wonderful surprises of chopped dates, walnuts, seedless red grapes and dollops of goat cheese. We also shared a bruschetta heavy with sautéed porcini mushrooms ($6.50), which everyone loved.

Desserts that evening included a tiramisu, a mascarpone mousse, an amaretto-tinged mousse, a fruit tart, imported sorbets and an imported tartufo, a chocolate-coated ice cream ball. Despite my affinity for the two major ingredients in the last item, I followed the waitress's recommendation for the tiramisu, and our friends went for the mascarpone. Both were terrific.

Trazzi is pleased with the response of his customers, who have filled the place since 1991. He enjoys introducing them to new wines, and he's constantly changing the wine-by-the-glass offerings. Bottles range from $14 to $150, the latter for a rare Tuscan wine, with several selections from other regions in Italy, as well as a few California and other non-Italian wines (and a half-dozen half-bottle possibilities).

Mamma Luisa is one of those gems that you want to discover with all your friends. The food and atmosphere may not be quite as showy as at other places, but the subtle herbs and fresh flavors that weave their way through the food are unforgettable. Mamma Luisa is tucked away at the very bottom of Thames Street, where parking is as difficult to find as everywhere else in Newport; ask about customer parking behind the building when you call for your reservation.

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