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With Mamma Gina's Menu, Difference Is Night and Day


NEWPORT BEACH — That handsome newcomer with the splendid Newport Harbor view is Ristorante Mamma Gina, sister to a restaurant of the same name in Palm Desert (there is also a branch in Florence, Italy) and already a hot spot with the Newport-Balboa crowd.

The owners have spent a pretty penny remodeling the former Reuben's in the Tuscan style. The ceiling now sports wrought-iron chandeliers and enormous wooden crossbeams. Dozens of hand-painted Italian serving platters are displayed on the walls like grand objets d'art. Of course, the star of the show is still the panoramic harbor view.

This is a comfortable room. The plush booths and well-padded chairs left over from Reuben's have been reupholstered in peacock blue. In short, if you want to watch the boat parade from here next month, you'd better make reservations now.

The restaurant has distinct lunch and dinner personalities. During the day, the menu emphasizes salads, pizzas, appetizers and Italian sandwiches (panini). Dinner is more formal, with antipasti served from a rolling cart and a large menu of pastas and meat dishes.

Ristorante Mamma Gina has a much easier time bringing off the more casual lunch dishes. The excellent pizzas are wafer-thin, crisp-crusted pies with simple toppings including fresh tomato and basil (Caprese) or tomato, roasted bell pepper and sweet Italian sausage (contadino).

The portabello salad, ample for two, is bite-sized wedges of this meaty mushroom arranged around a pile of mixed baby greens tossed with a subtle balsamic vinaigrette. You might try the delicious vegetarian panino melanzane, a sandwich of eggplant and tomato slices, mozzarella and onions in vinaigrette dressing on homemade pizza bread. One nice lunch pasta is angel hair with tomato and basil (cappellini pomo), for once cooked al dente.

Things may not go so smoothly in the evening. The antipasto cart is a thing of beauty, stocked with whole mushrooms, thin ribbons of cooked eggplant and zucchini, mussels marinara style and two or three types of roasted peppers, but the appetizers from the cart are short on flavor--slightly chilled, in bland, thin marinades.

Bruschetta classica is better. It's squares of toasted Tuscan bread topped with diced fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and salt. If the kitchen would drain the tomatoes, the bread wouldn't get so soggy and this dish would be a rave.

One engaging dinner salad is insalata Empolese: fresh sliced artichoke hearts and shaved Parmesan cheese. The hard texture of the barely cooked artichokes takes a little getting used to, especially if you were expecting the usual oily canned artichoke hearts, but the salty, pungent cheese contrasts nicely with the acidity of the vegetable. The dish comes off like a vegetarian carpaccio.

The menu offers dozens of pastas, risottos and appetizers, and they are Mamma Gina's strength. And at dinner, the pastas are available in half portions, making it more reasonable to order both a pasta and a secondo (meat course).

The risotto porcini, full of mushroom flavor, has the smooth, grainy texture that's the result of long, attentive stirring. Carnivores like me will love pappardelle contadina--wide, flat ticker-tape noodles in a deliciously meaty sauce of veal and sweet sausage.

The only pasta I've been disappointed in is linguine Portovenere, named for a town in the Italian province of Liguria. One of the managers told us about this dish with pride and excitement in his voice. But what we got was noodles in a thick, dry pesto, and the potatoes and green beans he promised must have thoroughly disintegrated by the time the dish was put together.

The list of secondi is also extensive, numbering about two dozen. Pesce bianco griglia is a nice chunk of plainly broiled Lake Superior whitefish, but for $19.90 I want something more. The bistecca Fiorentina is a good bet--dry-aged marinated T-bone, tender and nicely charred, served with roasted potatoes and spinach instead of the more traditional white beans. (In Florence, your steak might come with rock salt and a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil. Here, it's bare.)

The list includes various veal dishes (scaloppine, broiled chops) and a few based on pounded chicken breast. Perhaps I was foolish to order pollo cacciatora. I'd hoped for the classic stew of chicken slowly cooked with peppers and onions, but this was just the usual chicken cacciatore, chicken sauteed in tomato sauce. Oh well, the polenta on the side was properly creamy, and if that's a northern Italian side dish with an entree in the southern Italian style, so what?

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