Munch goes to Mia Madre Trattoria

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In as much as the seminal HBO series "The Sopranos" was about family, whacking, and sometimes whacking family, it was about food.

From Tony Soprano's panic attack at a cookout, to the first hit job at Satriale's butcher shop and the incineration of Artie Bucco's restaurant to the still hotly debated final scene in an iconic New Jersey diner, food was as much a character on "The Sopranos" as the Garden State itself: Pro-zhoot. Mooz-a-dell. Gabba-gool. Fa-zool. Shfoo-ya-dell. Rah-gott pie.

Sopranos Sundays were an event with my family, a pack of Pittsburgh Paisan-poseurs. My mother made lasagna. I made carbonara. We bought Penn Mac cheese from the Dear Heart lady, drank Sangiovese and tried to keep a straight face when my octogenarian grandmother made innocent mention of Vincent Pastore's character's nickname.

It was a coincidence that when James Gandolfini died last week I'd already made reservations at a classic red sauce Italian place, Mia Madre Trattoria in Avalon, after food writer nonpareil Gretchen McKay vehemently vouched for the joint. But it seemed like an oddly fitting "tribute," so here goes another: a review framed by memorable (and printable) culinary observations of one Anthony Soprano, played into immortality by Mr. Gandolfini.

"He eats his Sunday gravy out of a jar."

Tony questioned the Italian bona fides of his neighbor, Dr. Cusimano, but no questions exist of Mia Madre, which oozes enough cozy homestyle Italian that it could be called Salone di mia madre -- my mother's living room.

From the antique tin ceiling to the old family pictures on the wall, you feel like you've been invited over for dinner by Al Nicholas and his family, who opened the restaurant in 2010.

Our gregarious waitress, Al's daughter Allyse, and her deadpan bartender brother Alex kept customers in stitches while Al periodically popped out from the kitchen to ask diners how their meals were. When you're there, you really are family.

And their "Sunday gravy" recipe comes from Mr. Nicholas's deceased Calabrese mother, Mary Molinaro, who got it from her Abruzzese mother so it's got more than a century's worth of southern Italian soul going into it.

"I went ahead and ordered some for the table."

The last words of the entire series referenced appetizers. We indulged in some Calamari ($8.95) although no goon in a Members Only jacket loomed ominously nearby.

The squid was of good quality and properly cooked -- not too tough -- and in a spicy sauce with banana peppers but unfortunately with enough garlic to fell the vampire cast of another HBO show, "True Blood."

"Do you eat steak? ... If you were in India, you would go to Hell for that."

Tony indelicately offered Paulie Walnuts perspective regarding his immortal soul, but while there's no steak at Mia Madre, there's veal aplenty: Parmigiana, Marsala and Picatta to name a few. My girlfriend enjoyed a nice plate of lightly breaded Veal Romano cutlets ($20.95).

All of the same styles are also available in chicken and there are more than half a dozen fish dishes.

But I came for pasta, specifically a Baked Ziti ($15.95) jones, and I wasn't disappointed. The pasta was perfectly cooked into a little casserole dish with melted cheese atop the Molinaro/Nicholas sauce recipe, which was exactly what I'd craved: not too acidic, not too sweet, good consistency, just salty enough. Very good. The side of house meatballs ($3.95) were perfection.

"You know what they say: Revenge is like serving cold cuts."

Other than the garlicky calamari that stuck with me for two days, my lone complaint was that there was no antipasto on the menu. My favorite thing at any Italian place is to leisurely gorge on a huge plate of meats, cheeses, peppers, olives and artichokes, with a glass of red in hand.

But otherwise we had a blast. The food was good. And who needs agita from a complainer, as when Anthony Junior suggested that "food may not be the answer to every problem" and Tony retorted, "well, neither is actin' like a whiny little ..."

You get the idea.

Mia Madre Trattoria is at 649 California Ave., Avalon. Call 412-766-6662 or visit miamadretrattoria.com.

munch@post-gazette.com or Twitter @ PGMunch. Become a Facebook Friend of Munch at www.facebook.com/munchPG.

munch

Dan Gigler: dgigler@post-gazette.com, Twitter @gigs412.


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