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Chic Simple Italian 


Wednesday, Jun 21 2000
Food, like every profession, has its dynasties. Raising and cultivating raw ingredients, turning them into foodstuffs, and proffering them to the public at large are civic exercises best embraced in a generational manner: wisdom begetting wisdom, strength propagating strength. A dynasty is, by its very nature, enduring and influential, with everything from political power to show biz handed down, father to daughter, as a family concern worth perpetuating. But whereas the Kennedys and the Barrymores are united by their bloodlines, some of the greatest restaurant dynasties are absolutely unfamilial, distributing their cumulative acumen via apprenticeship and professional parentage, rather than genetic encoding.

Take the Chez Panisse fiefdom, for instance. Alice Waters' trendsetting restaurant has inspired a generation of establishments in which the freshest ingredients, raised in small batches by local farmers, fishmongers, and dairymen, star in robust and imaginative culinary combinations ideal to California's plenteous ethos. But the restaurant's spawned a handful of venues closer to home and parentage as well, all founded on the same garden-fresh platform, all located in Berkeley. In addition to Chez Panisse's pizza-fragrant cafe, there are the three restaurants operated by Waters' brother-in-law Jim Maser and his wife, Laura: Cafe Fanny, a casual stand-up in which imaginative sandwiches, verdant salads, and a legendary house-made granola transcend the ordinary; Picante Cocina Mexicana, a destination eatery of grilled-to-order tortillas, homemade chorizo, and fresh salsas; and, for upward of a year now, Mazzini.

It's located along the wide stretch of Telegraph near Andronico's just before the road slims into the hipsterism of roasting coffee beans, Cody's Books, and alfresco artisans hawking their beadwork. The Masers conceived the restaurant (named for 19th-century patriot-revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini) along the classic lines of an Italian trattoria, simple yet cleanly elegant, with terra-cotta flooring, marble tabletops, and mahogany wainscoting setting the mood; memorabilia, gathered at galleries and flea markets during fact-finding missions to the old country, accentuates the décor.

When Jim Maser opened Picante he employed as a consultant Rick Bayless, chef at Chicago's Topolobampo, home of the most exquisite Mexican food I've ever tasted. Maser strove for an equally high level of quality in planning Mazzini, hiring Italian-cuisine maven Carol Field (author of Italy in Small Bites et al.) to consult on both menu and concept. Concentrating, per the Chez Panisse model, on what's freshest and most appropriate to the season, the bill of fare changes daily and never exceeds the simple boundaries of the true trattoria, offering eight antipasti, a pizza or two, a risotto, a couple of pasta dishes, six or eight entrees, and an equal number of desserts, none of them overly complicated in either style or execution.

The best food I've had in Italy -- the stuff that made me wonder why I bothered hanging out in Paris for a week when I could've been scarfing pasta and gelato -- was prepared and served under the same sorts of circumstances established at Mazzini. In Rome there was a little place up an alleyway where you could get a bowl of the freshest, most transcendent mozzarella di bufala dripping with milk, with a glass of wine and a platter of venison sausages on the side. Or there was the sunny Amalfi trattoria where the panini were soft and thickly layered with tiny, briny shrimp and a dollop of garlicky pesto direct from the mortar; or the place in Florence where earthenware bowls brimmed with steaming, freshly sculpted pasta that enriched the soul as it satisfied and delighted the belly. Despite its seeming simplicity, transferring the trattoria concept across the Atlantic is a challenging proposition; the food at Mazzini is often impressive, occasionally perfunctory.

The restaurant best captures the conceptual mood in its antipasti dishes. The fritto misto ($7.25) is not only seductive in appearance -- it looks like a towering platter of impeccably enclouded tempura -- its myriad of tastes and textures is a delight. Soft stalks of sweet-earthy fennel, meaty chunks of artichoke, the rich flavor of portabellini mushrooms, and -- best of all -- the surprising jolt of sliced lemon are wrapped into individual, crisp-light cumulonimbi. The crostini ($5) tops thick slices of whole-grain bread with creamy pine nuts, a pungent Gorgonzola, and a smidgen of chestnut honey, a surprisingly successful menage a trois. The insalata pazza ("crazy salad," $6.25) is a colorful bouquet of summer vegetables topped with chunks of dense sourdough perfect for sopping up the bowl's excellent, olive oil-rich marinade. And the asparagi e parmigiano ($7.25) exemplifies Mazzini's grace-through-simplicity sentiments: It's nothing but perfectly fresh, al dente asparagus, dressed with the salad's superlative extra-virgin olive oil and topped with shards of puckery parmigiano-reggiano: fantastico.

Some of the entrees are a bit too simple. The wood oven-baked lamb chops ($19), while juicy and tender, don't have any discernible taste, and the accompanying polenta is bland and cool. The petrale sole ($17) cries out for a caper or something to jazz up its perfectly pan-fried character, heavily braised escarole notwithstanding. The seafood stew ($15.25), on the other hand, is overwhelmingly briny and intermittently gritty, although its prawns, clams, and mussels are admirably sweet and tender. But the gnocchi ($12.45) are wonderful -- light in texture and creamier than the standard dumplings, they're rich with ricotta and fresh spinach and graced with a meaty, earthy sauce of chanterelle mushrooms.

The desserts are as good as the starters. The torta di lampone ($6.25) is a light, luscious pound cake touched with citrus and white wine, ribboned with raspberries and boysenberries and dolloped with a subtle zabaglione. The semifreddo ($6.25) is one of those chocolate concoctions that makes the Earth worth inhabiting: a rich frozen mousse chunky with dried sweet cherries, strewn with amaretto-cookie crumbs and submerged in a fudgy-bittersweet sauce, hallelujah. But the star of the evening was the panna cotta ($5.25), a heavenly version of crème brûlée (without the brûlée), silky, milky, and fresh, ascended to the stratosphere with the help of the semifreddo's chocolate sauce and slender shards of almond. Only the gelati selection ($4.25) is a disappointment: Airy, light, and indifferently flavored, they're closer to ice cream than to the thick, chewy, essentially tasty original model -- a prototype difficult to encounter on such foreign shores as these.

2826 Telegraph (at Oregon), Berkeley, (510) 848-5599. Lunch served daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner served daily 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: not difficult. AC Transit: 40. Noise level: above normal.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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