Sacramento, CA 95819
There’s something endearing, almost Norman Rockwell-esque about a neighborhood restaurant that is most commonly referred to by its patrons as the neighborhood restaurant. Places that embody the Cheers theme song, “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” It’s hard to visualize any place other than Mamma Susanna’s Ristorante Italiano being River Park’s neighborhood restaurant; both by longevity—it’s now in its eighth year—and temperament. Wedged into a strip mall, Mamma Susanna’s interior is welcoming and comfortable with booths topped with latticework festooned with plastic bunches of grapes and, naturally, red-and-white checkered tablecloths. There’s even a strand or two of festive holiday lights. Far more egalitarian than elegant. The wall to the left of the open kitchen—from which any number of tantalizing smells emanate—has shelves stacked with wicker-wrapped wine jugs and, presumably empty Birra Peroni bottles.
But there is no shortage of options on the menu. “Foreboding,” daughter Katie says of its breadth. There are nearly a dozen or so pastas, even more types of pizzas, a smattering of salads and various entrees, including the piccata chicken or veal dish that Mamma Susanna’s counts as one of its specialties. Included among the chicken or veal entree options are parmiggiano, gorgonzola and marsala. The piccata sauce, while perfectly lemony and studded with capers, is heavy and gloppy. The veal beneath the thick exterior, however, is tender. And there’s plenty of it. Accompanying broccoli and carrot coins are well lubricated with butter, bearing a kiss of oregano and, it seems, the licorice lilt of tarragon. Even this longtime broccoli belittler wolfs down a few florets, although more carrots vanish more rapidly.
Mamma says her spread is traditional Northern Italian fare, which might be why there’s some unfamiliarity with a couple of other ways to enjoy chicken or veal: boscaiola and valdostana. Turns out they are mushrooms, olives, roasted red peppers and marinara sauce (which seems kinda Sicilian or Neapolitan—tasty, though) and ham, provolone and wine sauce, respectively. The waiter recommends the piccata over the valdostana.
Of the pastas and pizzas, the norcina tastes like and looks like an orangey vodka sauce with roasted red-pepper slices and sausage rounds tossed in a bed of penne. While the menu claims spicy, some red chili flakes do the trick. Daughter Katie, a gnocchi-holic, opts for the potato kind with a gorgonzola sauce that begins to congeal even before it coats the sides of her arteries. The ravioli marsala, a special one evening, are large but a bit overpowered by the sweet wine sauce.
Mamma doesn’t want anyone to leave hungry. In fact, most diners appear to leave gorged, laden with stacks of Styrofoam boxes stuffed with the sizable amount of the meal that simply could not be eaten without bursting.
For example, the pastas are served in heaping 8-inch diameter bowls that, when following a Caesar or pear-tomato heavy house salad and a basket of bread served with olive oil and balsamic, prove to be simply too much to finish, no matter how passionate the desire. A half-portion is $4 less. Similarly, a medium pizza seems large. Of them, the Mamma Susanna has the works and the chef is happy to subtract undesirable elements or add extra—in this case, onions. On one Saturday, no take-out order is taken until 7:30 p.m. The crusts are thin and the pie itself is far less greasy than many other pizzas. Like the salad of the same name, the caprese pizza tastes as though it should be the refreshing centerpiece of a summer picnic. There’s but three soups: the required minestrone, tortellini in broth and a stracciatella—egg, spinach and chicken broth—that needs a sodium infusion.
Service is proficient and punctual, although it’s disappointing that no one can translate “Vive meglio!” at the bottom of the receipt since it’s a sage admonition: “Live well!”