[Sidebar] November 30 - December 7, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Mary's Italian Restaurant

Fancy looks, casual feeling

by Johnette Rodriguez

Route 1, Haversham Corners, Westerly, (401) 322-0444
Open Wed-Thurs, 4-10 p.m., Fri-Sat, 4-11 p.m., Sun, 3-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

Back in the days when Mary's Italian Restaurant still had the feel of an expanded diner, it was the blueberry pie that won my loyalty. In recent years, we've returned for the southern Italian home-cooking, dished up by cooks who aren't too shy to put hot peppers in the marinara and roasted garlic cloves in the scampi.

Located at the fork of Routes 1 and 1A, Mary's has the sprawling feel of a house with many additions (which, in fact, it used to be). One large dining room is often closed off in the winter (though packed in the summer), and guests are shown into the "Hunter Room," an intimate space with eight tables, where we recently ate dinner, or the wide-open front room, with its horseshoe bar (where smoking is allowed) and a glass-framed solarium (with a wood-fired brazier during the chilly months).

The warm feel of the Hunter Room is enhanced by strands of small white lights, rough wood paneling halfway up the walls, and framed family pictures, including the "founder of the feast," Mary Antoch herself. My sister, who joined us, noted that it was nice to come to a place that looked fancy but felt informal.

The menu is similar, with the "fancy" evident in the rack of lamb and the "informal" in the eggplant parmigiana. Our dinner choices fell somewhere in between. We began with Mary's traditional chicken soup ($3.50) and the polenta with marinara sauce ($5.95). The hefty portion of chicken soup (sometimes called "wedding soup") was thick with chicken, escarole and tiny meatballs, and it was quite delicious.

The polenta had been cooked with finely chopped carrots, celery and spinach, plus cannellini beans, all of which added great texture to what is usually a very smooth cornmeal porridge. The polenta was topped with a spicy marinara that packed quite a wallop.

The house salads ($2 with entrees, $3.50 individually) were a refreshing treat, with crisp mesclun and organic grape tomatoes. The bread basket was filled with warm garlic bread slices.

My sister's favorite vegetable is artichokes, and thus she was lured by the "quattro formaggi" agnolotti ($14.95), which were accompanied by sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus spears and artichokes. These large crescent-shaped raviolis (named after an Italian word that designates "priest's hats"), were filled with spinach, ricotta, asiago, parmesan, and romano cheeses, and were drenched with a terrific vodka sauce that tied everything together.

Bill's eye (and tingling taste buds) kept coming back to the shrimp scampi ($20.95), which he ordered with penne, and he couldn't have been more enthusiastic. Four jumbo shrimp were sauteed in garlic butter, with a dash of crushed red pepper, fresh shallots, basil and whole roasted garlic cloves. The sauce was finished with white wine, lemon juice and a splash of Pernod. His idea of heaven!

My manicotti a la Paula ($13.95) was more modest, but still unusually good, since the manicotti were hand-made crepes wrapped around ricotta and covered with Mary's trademark "spicy" marinara -- a great complement to the mild cheese.

And now, full circle to the desserts. The house specialties are the pies, and the spumoni, which octogenarian Mary herself comes in daily to make: chocolate, strawberry and pistachio ice creams layered with jellied candy, fresh strawberries and nuts. It's a winner, indeed. But so are the pies. I had my favorite blueberry, juicy and flavorful; my sister enjoyed the coconut cream, a light, high version with whipped cream on top (both are $4.25). Bill opted for Death by Chocolate cake ($4.95), but was disappointed by its "refrigerator taste."

Mary's has just extended its Wednesday all-you-can-eat pasta nights ($11.95) to Sunday nights as well. And on Sundays, a local jazz trio plays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Mary's son and daughter-in-law, Curly and Paula Antoch, run the restaurant and oversee the kitchen, along with Sandra Bliven. But they all take a much-needed sabbatical from the last week of January to mid-March.

So, head on down to Mary's for some holiday cheer. And don't miss the scampi or spumoni.

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