In Italy, restaurant-goers often are greeted by a table spread with serving dishes of various kinds of antipasti, alluring-looking creations designed to set the stomach a-growling. It's not a buffet; the diner instructs the waiter about just what to fetch. At Mazara, instead of a buffet table, the menu begins with 11 different choices of antipasti, each priced from $1 to $3, so that a diner may pick his favorites. We tried marinated artichokes, roasted garlic, prosciutto from both Parma and Volpi, marinated peppers, shards of Parmigiano cheese and marinated olives. Yummy, all, and a good match with the rosemary-scented foccacia that starts each meal and is accompanied by tasty seasoned oil.
Continuing through first courses, we tried an involtini of eggplant, the grilled vegetable rolled with ricotta cheese that was studded with pine nuts and golden raisins, ingredients that talk about the Moorish influence on Sicilian cuisine. Its marinara sauce, described as having grilled vegetables, didn't show any noticeable smokiness, but was a chunky, vivid red with considerable sweetness. One visit's soup was a gazpacho, our first of the season, and very satisfying. Tart and with a pleasant zing of pepper, it showed more olive oil flavor than most of its kinfolk,
A particular shout-out to the fried calamari, an excellent version of this now-standard menu item. As promised on the menu, they were indeed just dusted with semolina flour, and arrived hot-hot-hot, tossed with a few leaves of greenery, paper-thin shreds of chili pepper, and shallots that had been marinated in balsamic vinegar. The red pepper aioli alongside was superfluous, but everyother part of the dish disappeared rapidly.
Canneloni at Mazara are filled with shredded veal shank, or osso bucco, rather than ground veal or beef, and that means it's another example of above-and-beyond. Sauced with the marinara used on the eggplant, as well as a mornay sauce just lightly cheesed rather than the gooey mess one sometimes finds, it was outstanding. The pasta tutto mare was spaghettini with scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams in a red sauce. Neither the seafood nor the pasta were overdone, and the sauce was well-seasoned, though there was far too much of it in proportion to the pasta. We know Americans expect our pasta to arrive heavy on the sauce, but large amounts in the bottom of the dish are a sign of excess.
Veal Marsala provides another twist. No sauce on the tender breaded veal cutlets. Rather, mushrooms and onions are cooked in the marsala and piled on top and alongside, giving the marsala flavor more to the vegetables than to the meat. That allowed the veal to retain its light, lovely flavor without the influence of the sauce, and the effect was delightful. Too often the sauce just sogs up the meat. It's just a little startling to those expecting the same old-same old. The side dish is a first-rate risotto with garlic and just a light punch of truffle oil. A nightly special of shrimp and scallops, each seared perfectly, came with a fascinating relish of pineapple, cucumber and a little green pepper. Savory rather than sweet, it was amazing, exciting to the palate and a fine example of what chef Todd Bale can do. A native St. Louisan, he studied and worked in New England for a number of years, thus his fine hand with seafood.
The wine list is on the small side, to be expected in a restaurant that opened in the fall of 2008, just as the markets were going south. Survival for almost two years is its own success story. Some pleasing values by the glass among both reds and whites.
Desserts are made in-house by Renee Gandara and, stuffed as we were, we had to try the goat cheese cheesecake, which arrived as two squares, one dipped in dark chocolate and the other in white. A little strawberry coulis could be used for even more spark, but we enjoyed how the slight tang of the “goatiness” went with the chocolates. Different and very good.
A worthwhile spot in a location that deserves a winner.
7923 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good