Friday, January 29, 2010

Marino's Italian Cafe

Long before the economic crunch hit, my husband Jack and I have been big proponents of eating-out discount programs like the Entertainment Book and Although having to shell out meals at less than regular price probably makes them far less popular with the restaurants than with consumers, I speak from experience when I say they do help bring in customers who otherwise might not come. For us, such was the case at Marino's Italian Cafe in Austintown.

Yes, we've noticed the sign before -- the restaurant is across Mahoning Avenue from the Skate Zone, where we've taken our grandkids to roll around every once in a while -- but for whatever reason, we've never stopped in. All that changed about a year ago, when we were returning from one of our photo-seeking forays in Mill Creek Park and decided we were hungry but didn't want to spend a fortune. Oh wait, I said -- let me flip through the Entertainment Book coupons I keep at the ready in my purse. Spotting one that would give us $5 off if we spent $20 at Marino's, we said what the heck, let's give it a try -- it's right on our way home. That visit, I hasten to add, may have been our first but certainly was not our last.

At first glance, the restaurant doesn't look very imposing, and even with the big sign, it's easy to miss tucked away in a small plaza amid huge gas stations and big-chain eateries that crowd the corner of Mahoning Avenue and State Route 46. Inside, though, the atmosphere is very cozy, decorated with what I'd call "typical" Italian decor -- wine bottles, paintings of beautiful scenes from Italy and such. It's the food, though, that keeps us coming back.

I should mention for those like us who enjoy a glass of wine, beer or other libation with their meals, Marino's has a full bar. Also, carry-out is available in small quantities or to feed a crowd; how about a two-foot pepperoni, sausage or spinach roll for $14.95 or a quart of wedding soup for $7.99? Or a full spectrum of penne pasta, meatballs, chicken, potatoes and green beans for $6.99 per person? In addition, there's an on-site banquet room and hall for both formal, fixed-menu and buffet-style dinners, and if you want, they'll come catering at your place as well.

Ah, but back to that eat-in food. On our most recent visit, we weren't in the mood for pizza, although the six listed on the menu, especially the Brier Hill topped with tomato sauce, green peppers and Romano cheese, were tempting (they're priced from $5.99 to $7.99 for the small size). We did, however, pay special attention to the appetizers (in no small part because we needed to spend $20 to get that $5 off). Several were appealing, including sauteed greens -- spinach with olive oil, garlic and white wine for $1.99 (add hot peppers for another buck). Another one I plan to try next time we're here is the roasted red peppers and fresh mozzarella dressed in Italian vinaigrette at $5.99.

This time, though, it was no contest: I admit to going bananas over hot peppers in oil, the hotter the better. Here, they were going for $3.99 as an appetizer; yes, our server assured me, they really are hot. Then, it was time to choose our entrees. This was a late lunch for us, so it would serve as our "big" meal of the day. As such, we ignored the tasty-sounding sandwiches (perhaps an Italian sausage link with green peppers and Mozzarella cheese for $6.49) and went straight to the meat of the matter.

As expected, there are several pasta dishes here, from spaghetti to manicotti to tortellini to ravioli, all with sauces that sounded quite delicious. Neither my husband nor I are big on veal, so we ignored that section -- and we can get steaks and chops just about anywhere. No, we said, we're here to satisfy our taste buds, which at that moment were demanding Italian. For Jack, the choice was a no-brainer; one of his favorite dishes is linguini with red clam sauce (more correctly Linguini con Vongola). With red or white sauce, it's priced at $11.99. It took me longer to make up my mind, but in the end I zeroed in on Spinach Ravioli, or ravioli filled with spinach and Italian cheeses with marinara sauce ($10.99). Both of us ordered a cup of wedding soup with our entrees as well.

Soon after we ordered, though, came a real treat: A basket of two fresh-baked, delicious warm rolls. They're a bit on the large side, so we figured one would be plenty. In fact, they were so delicious (butter is baked in) that we gobbled them up in very short order and yes, we told our server when she asked, please bring us two more! According to the Web site (the URL is at the end of this article), they're baked each morning by "Mama Marino." Well, Mama, you do yourself proud with these babies!

As we devoured the rolls, I found another good use for them -- dipping small chunks in the light but very garlicky oil of my dish of hot peppers. Now I'm here to say that no, as hot peppers go, these aren't what I call hot; that's substantiated by the fact that Jack was able to put a tiny piece of one on a bread chunk and eat it without grabbing for a glass of water. Still, they pack a fair amount of zing; they're slightly crisp without tasting raw. The flavor, though, is to die for (hence sopping up every last drop with the bread once I'd polished off all the peppers).

The wedding soup is filled with greens, shredded chicken and lots of other good stuff in a very flavorful broth. I didn't run across any of those tiny meatballs, and I don't think Jack did either -- but we sure didn't miss them when it came to taste or filling us up. On our list of favorite wedding soups, this would be close to the top.

Then came our entrees; Jack's linguini with red clam sauce arrived on a lovely oval plate with a raised rim -- I'm told by a friend who knows about such things that the raised rim eliminates the need for twirling pasta on a spoon; instead, he says, "real" Italians use a fork to push it up against the rim and twirl it there. Nice theory, but neither of us is a "twirler" -- in our view, way too much of that good sauce is lost that way -- so it's a moot issue.

But I digress. The linguini was punctuated with a few tiny clams still in their shells, and there were lots more swimming in the tasty sauce. I, however, was both surprised and impressed with my Spinach Ravioli. Instead of the expected eight or 10 small rounds, there were just four, each at least 5 inches in diameter -- the biggest I've ever seen. They were smothered in tomato sauce filled with diced tomatoes and wonderful Italian spices. The filling, too, was delicious -- melted cheeses that oozed out with every bite (mostly Ricotta, I'd guess) -- and chopped spinach. Thanks to all those rolls, hot peppers and soup, I managed to finish only one before I had to call it quits. Jack finished a little more than half of his linguine, so in the end we had plenty to bring home and enjoy later!

If you go:

Marino's Italian Cafe
5423 Mahoning Ave.
Austintown, Ohio
(330) 799-8326