Remember the days when the only places to eat in the Brady Arts District were Spaghetti Warehouse and Mexi-Cali Border Café? Don't mistake that statement for nostalgia, because the vibrant and beautiful transformation of this area delights me to no end. But it didn't happen overnight, and one restaurant in particular braved the waters before the area was established. Hey Mambo Italiano set up shop in 2011 and has held firm to its location on what was once a barren corner of downtown.
An "if you build it, they will come" scenario has played out nicely, as Hey Mambo's patio continues to be filled with people noshing on pizza and drinking vino. The patio is lovely, and the interior is a sleek, modern space with a robust bar. They have a great wine list, luscious beers on tap, and the bartenders know their way around a cocktail. In fact, they make one of the best Manhattans ($9) in the area.
But the focal point of the space is the wood-fire oven where a variety of pizzas are made. The most well-known 'za would have to be The Center of the Universe ($25 for 16") which includes mambo pesto cream, artichoke, spinach, pepper bacon, sliced prosciutto, roma tomatoes, and feta cheese. Pizza by the slice is available during lunch and can be paired with a salad for only $7. The crust is thin, yet still chewy and crunchy with a slight hint of parmesan cheese. Though I did not indulge my pizza addiction on this evening, I highly recommend their pizza.
Their menu has a hearty selection of entrees and apps, so on this evening, my dining companion and I explored the rest of their options. Hey Mambo has antipasti selections like Dattero Scialle ($12), which is goat cheese-stuffed medjoul dates wrapped in prosciutto and drizzled with warm local honey and balsamic glaze, or the classic Salumi and Cheese Platter ($10) with cheeses, olives and cured meats that pair perfectly with wine.
It was the Cozze Diavola ($14) that caught our attention. A large serving of Prince Edward Island mussels was served up hot and steamy, steeped in a spicy tomato brodetta sauce. The mussels themselves were plump, but very salty. The sauce was billed as being bold, but the heat level for me drowned out the flavor of the mussels themselves.
We didn't get too far into our appetizers before our entrees were being placed on our table. Typically, I order their Agnello alla Montanara ($18) which is a rosemary-braised lamb shank that is delectable and a great deal for only 18 bucks. But in the spirit of adventure, I decided to give their chicken marsala ($17) a whirl. Chicken marsala is maybe one of my favorite Italian dishes, and I love a good marsala sauce, with the slightly sweet kick of marsala wine and earthy mushrooms. Hey Mambo's version was different to say the least. So different, in fact, that it was more akin to chicken parmigiana than marsala.
A nice-sized breaded and sautéed chicken breast was topped with a red, chunky sauce and topped with mozzarella. Granted, the menu did refer to the sauce as a "marsala pomodoro sauce," but it is a huge departure from the burgundy-hued, subtle marsala sauce I adore so much. Mushrooms are another hallmark of a great marsala, but if there were mushrooms in this dish, they were hidden well within the pomodoro sauce. Most disappointingly, the chicken was placed atop a plateful of pasty plain spaghetti noodles that had no sauce and no flavor. The chicken was delicious and the sauce was decent; but chicken marsala this was not.
The second entrée of choice was the Pollo Bracciola ($17) which, on paper, is one of the most appealing-sounding entrées on the menu. A chicken breast stuffed with crimini mushrooms, baby spinach, basil, and prosciutto topped with Mambo's pesto cream sauce and served with the house ratatouille and creamy pecorino polenta. When the dish arrived, again, it didn't really match up to the description on the menu.
The plate had a very small portion of chicken that had been cut into about seven slices. This diminutive serving of protein didn't really cut it for my ravenous dinner date. There was no evidence of anything being "stuffed," and the cream sauce (which had a hint of cream cheesiness to it) was ladled heartily on top.
Instead of creamy polenta that was described on the menu, a heaping serving of brown rice with pecorino took up most of the plate. This was a huge disappointment, because the creamy polenta sounded heavenly. It would've been nice to have a heads-up from the server that this item had been 86ed. The flavor of the pecorino was strong in the rice, but overall, it was just bland filler. The Mambo ratatouille equated to little more than a few slices of overcooked zuchinni and squash with dried Italian seasoning mixed in.
Hey Mambo has a dedicated clutch of downtown dwellers and visitors because it is casual yet trendy, and the location is dynamite. It is also a favorite for the downtown lunch crowds who seek a delicious slice and a respite from their work day. Hey Mambo does very well with its pizzas, but when it comes to the more involved dishes, the ingredients are lacking and the execution could be better. Hey Mambo seems to ignore some of the most intrinsic characteristics that make Italian food great -- fresh ingredients, simple preparation and flavors that blend and don't overpower. Unfortunately, and especially for the price, you may be able to find more authentic Italian food in your own kitchen.
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