Sunday, January 8, 2012

What Might Have Been

Mandola's Italian Market
4700 West Guadalupe
(near where Guadalupe joins Lamar)

There was a time when I would have gone to Austin for no reason, just to hang out there. Now, though, I have to have a reason. The reason I had this time was about as flimsy as they come, but it was good enough. The day promised to be just barely warm enough (eventually) to drop the top on the ol' roller skate, so I collected my sidekick from his house out in Loopland and we scooted up the road to the Big City.

Before going, though, I made a survey of the relevant pages on Urbanspoon, to pick a restaurant for lunch in that  increasingly unfamiliar land of New Age trend-whores. Mandola's was one of six I chose, and in the end it was the one we opted to sample, largely because its description reminded me of the Central Grocery, in New Orleans, an old Italian market on Decatur Street, in the Vieux CarrĂ©, that I used to visit in ancient times. I recalled the fantastic atmosphere of that place: the sounds of people speaking in French, Italian, English and Spanish, often within the same sentence; the exotic goods stacked high on tables and crammed into shelves; and most importantly the aromas. There is probably no finer memory for a prepubescent New Orleans boy than the spicy aromas of the Central Grocery. 

But I think there must be something wrong with me.

It's ironic, because my friend Rick has been complaining for weeks now about his sinus condition, what with the belated advent of our Mountain Cedar Allergy Season: but he walked into Mandola's Italian Market and was positively wrapped up in the jumble of smells. I, whose sinuses refuse to acknowledge mountain cedar or any other pollen, could smell ... nothing. Nothing at all. No oregano, no rosemary, no comino, no yeasty bread smells, no spaghetti sauce bubbling in the kitchen, no scent of onions and peppers and beef and sausage and cheese. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Mandola is located in one of those brand-spankin'-new mixed-use developments, combining ground-level commercial space with residential space above; the kind of development meant to evoke a time when there really weren't any isolated commercial areas, where whole cities were flats above shops. It's an attractive enough development in a sterile, out-of-the-catalogue way. Very nearly the same development, in different brick, was built across the road from the Quarry in San Antonio, and another permutation of it slouches along 281 near the big new golf resort. This one in Austin seems to be on a different scale, though; kind of like that reproduction of the Oval Office down at the LBJ Library, done ninety percent of actual size. The parking spaces seem tight, the roadways narrow, the doorways not quite as wide as in the Real World. In actuality, they're just as wide as anywhere else, so it must be something about the air in Austin that makes me feel so confined. Odd, that.

The place consists, essentially, of two rooms: a glass-walled dining room of distressed tables with no-frills (but comfortable) chairs, a drinks station and a wait-station; and a shop room, with a small bakery, gelateria, deli and market, and a counter where one orders to dine in. It all looks very nice. The shelves are stocked with things Italian; the breads are fresh, the gelato is home-made, the pastries are ... utterly, utterly gorgeous. There are a few tables in there, too, with no crowding. 

But no smells. Nothing.

I chose a small salad and lasagna, a good dish to evaluate an Italian restaurant on. I'm intimately familiar with lasagna through a lifetime's consumption, and I know what a good lasagna tastes like, and looks like, and feels like, and smells like. Rick ordered an appetizer of calamari and zucchini, and a chopped antipasto salad.

It was warm enough, by then, to have been a good day to dine al fresco, but all the outside tables were taken, and the people there had that look that says it would take heavy ordnance to dislodge them. Not wanting to make such a scene, we found a table in the main dining room and compared my sensory deprivation to Rick's overload. Before long, a waiter brought my salad and a basket of foccacia.

The salad, I will say, was good. The ingredients were perhaps as fresh as any can be, short of chowing down on them in the field. The dressing, a traditional oil-and-vinegar Italian, was tangy, and applied with a deft hand. There was enough of it to flavour every bite, but not so much that it pooled in the bowl or dribbled onto clothing and table. The bread, on the other hand, was a disappointment. It was barely adequately baked, and while light and spongy, as it should be, it seemed to lack any flavour at all. I suspect, though, that if I had invested the necessary time to assemble a plate of oil and spices for dipping, it would have been an altogether more pleasant accompaniment; as it was, it was just bread.

The other dishes we ordered arrived all at once. We shared the calamari and zucchini, which filled a dinner sized plate. The calamari was expertly done, avoiding that rubbery texture that is so often the fate of fried squid, and the zucchini was coated in the same lightly seasoned batter. The marinara sauce that accompanied the dish, though, was a letdown, being entirely too bland to be of use except as (unnecessary) moisturizer.

What's that mean?
Sadly, that same bland marinara sauce covered my lasagna. Because of my seeming insensitivity to aroma, I had Rick confirm that it had, essentially, no aroma. It was tomato sauce with a little parsley in it; I could taste no other seasoning. This was particularly sad because, otherwise, the lasagna would have been excellent: a good-sized portion, with plenty of tasty meat and cheese in layers with perfectly cooked pasta.

Rick's salad was the best of the dishes we ordered. It had plenty of that same crispy Romaine lettuce, with two meats, two kinds of cheese, three kinds of beans, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, pickled onions and peppers, and diced heart of palm, all covered with an excellent creamy dressing. If I were rating only that, Mandola's Italian Market would qualify for a bold-faced listing in my index. As it is, though, it gets the equivalent of a C.
Mandola's Italian Market on Urbanspoon

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