Oh Mama!

by Susan Hamilton & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's a picture that's easy to conjure up -- a large Italian family, with everyone from grandparents to bambini gathered around a big table laden with food and wine. The talk is animated and lively, the food is abundant and fragrant, the wine dark and delicious. Oh, if only we could share in that picture of familial conviviality!

Here in Spokane, Mamma Mia's Ristorante and Pizzeria offers home-style Italian fare and atmosphere. "Preparing and sharing great food has always been an expression of love and pride for Italians," states Mamma Mia's menu.

Mamma Mia's has been around for more than 20 years. The Naccarato family owned and operated the restaurant until almost two years ago when their cousins, Jerry and Ginny Amicarella, took over the business after it moved to West Francis Avenue. The Amicarellas feature pasta, meats and bread made from scratch daily at Mamma Mia's.

When my family and I decided to partake of Mamma Mia's southern Italian cuisine recently, we found the comfortable dining room just like nonne e nonni's during a big Sunday dinner. Traditional Italian music plays over the speaker system, latticework strewn with vines adorns a wall, and tables are covered with red and wine colored tablecloths. But it's the atmosphere that oozes Italian festivity. Diners here are clearly enjoying themselves and the food.

Antipasto? Insalada? No, we went straight for the entrees, once we saw that they include soup, dinner salad and roll. Yes, the stuffed mushrooms, mozzarella sticks and calamari beckoned, but we were saving ourselves for the pasta.

My husband and daughter almost got sidetracked by the pizza and calzone menu, offering a make-your-own extravaganza with fresh-made, herbed dough and a dizzying array of sauces (marinara, alfredo, pesto or Jerry's spicy sauce), meats (Italian sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, salami or Canadian bacon), veggies or fruit (olives, mushrooms, green peppers, onion, tomato, spinach or pineapple) from $5-$17 for pizzas and $6-$9 for calzones.

The pasta and sauce menu was rife with choices. I'd heard that Papa Joe's fresh homemade pasta was a hearty fettuccine-type noodle. Jerry's sauce includes Italian sausage, garlic and cheese. The puttanesca sauce is made with anchovies, capers and garlic.

While my daughter settled on cheese ravioli with pesto sauce ($13), my husband decided to try the eggplant parmigiana ($12). I opted for the chicken cacciatore ($14), curious to try Mamma Mia's hunter's-style chicken.

First came cups of minestrone soup, a likeable blend of vegetables, homemade meatballs and pastina (tiny balls of pasta) in a light tomato base. Before we could finish, our server brought a basket of rolls and our salads. The salad was disappointing, with only romaine and iceberg lettuce topped off with two black olives. The house creamy Italian dressing was tasty, though. The dinner rolls, which I'd heard were homemade, were serviceable at best. And why serve Promise margarine instead of butter? Nonne wouldn't approve of that.

All of this was forgotten when our entrees were served. The ravioli swam in an aromatic, bright green pesto sauce, topped off with pine nuts. Soft, homemade pasta squares held flavorful cheese, complimented perfectly with the earthy basil and garlic pesto sauce. Mamma Mia's eggplant parmigiana was slightly heavy on the breading, but the eggplant was prepared well, without its usual bitterness. The marinara sauce was not the least bit acidic and favored the eggplant and its accompanying spaghetti.

I was a bit taken aback when our waitress brought my plate filled with a large, dark brown half chicken. Overlooking the unappealing presentation, I cut into the meat. It was a succulent, tender piece of poultry with a very savory wine sauce. The al dente rigatoni and tasty marinara sauce complimented the chicken well.

Of course, we couldn't finish all that Mamma dished on our plates, but we also couldn't leave without trying the gelato and spumoni ($3 each). The ices were delish and fun, served in tiny retro silver bowls. My daughter's pistachio was rich and creamy, while my tiramisu offered that perfect bit of chocolate and coffee you sometimes crave after a meal. My husband enjoyed his spumoni with flavors of chocolate, pistachio and strawberry.

As we left Mamma Mia's laden with leftovers for the next day, we vowed to return. After all, what's not to like about home-style Italian food, not to mention a convivial atmosphere?

Mamma Mia's Ristorante and Pizzeria, 420 W. Francis Ave., Mon-Thurs 11 am-9 pm, Fri 11 am-10 pm, Sat noon-10 pm, Sun noon-9 pm. Call 467-7786.