R5 From Okay to Really Good

Have you ever had the experience of going to a restaurant and just loving it? The food, the service, the ambience—they’re all terrific, so you make a date with friends to show off your new find…and instead, it’s an evening of mediocre food, slapdash service, and a noisy, overcrowded mess.

Few of you will experience the reverse. After all, if you don’t like it the first time, why return? In our case, though, we have to go back; it’s our job. It’s not fair to judge a restaurant based on just one night: in fact, if our budget and available time were limitless, perhaps we’d visit every eatery a half-dozen times before putting pen to paper.

But what conclusion can one draw when the difference from one visit to the next is not as dramatic? Our first visit to Hostaria Mazzei in Port Chester was not unpleasant—there were no egregious mistakes, no inedible dishes—but there was little about the experience that beckoned us back. Lucky us, then, that duty called and back we went.

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While service was affable on both visits, it was quite slow on the first. Was it the private party we could see through the glass doors, or perhaps the large group seated just behind us? Our waiter was friendly and apologetic about the delays between courses and about forgetting to fulfill requests (drink refills, cheese for our pasta, etc.), but, after a while, the apologies wore thin. At the end of the evening, however, we saw just how sincere they were: our drinks and desserts were removed from the bill.

Perhaps whatever caused these service delays also explained why our lobster veloute was served lukewarm and with an unpleasant skin from sitting too long. Three grilled sardines served over a bed of greens would have been far more pleasant had they been properly scaled. While nothing was wrong with it, a generous serving of unadorned tuna Carpaccio could have used a squeeze of lemon to heighten the flavor of the fish. On the other hand, a salad of sweet roasted beets, crisp green beans, and crumbled Gorgonzola benefitted from being left to its own devices: a sprinkling of extra-virgin olive oil united the ingredients while allowing their clean, pure characteristics to speak for themselves.

The visual focus of Hostaria Mazzei’s dining room is a tiled area around a wood oven; it (along with the oven master, who used to make pizza for Pavarotti) gives the restaurant its distinctively Italian look. It is also the area from which our favorite dish of that first visit, the Mazzei pizza, was produced. A hint of the woodsy char from the oven added depth to the crisp crust topped with creamy mozzarella, prosciutto, and mildly peppery arugula leaves.

A special of lobster linguine also may have spent time in the oven: the half lobster in the shell that topped the pasta had a lovely grilled flavor that hinted at a past with that oven. Either way, the lobster was as tasty as the rich pasta sauce made from grape tomatoes, seafood stock, and a touch of cream.

We didn’t fare as well with another pasta dish, spaghetti San Giovanelli. All we could taste was the acid of the grape tomatoes. Roasted branzino was also oddly lacking in seasoning; the fish was sweet, but could have used at least a sprinkling of salt. We wondered if somehow it was an oversight, or if this is the way the restaurant always serves it.

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A dish described as sautéed rabbit was really a stew, and a muddled one at that. Dried bits of the rabbit meat varied in texture but not flavor from the lobster mushrooms, and even the grape tomatoes (they were everywhere that night!) and calamata olives seemed to abandon their character to the lackluster sauce.

Desserts, in general, were mediocre. The chocolate cake, served warm with a vanilla sauce, was nice enough, though nothing special. A warm apple cake was also decent. We enjoyed the faintly herbaceous quality of the chamomile panna cotta, though it was virtually unsweetened. Our favorite sweets were the anisette almond biscotti served with coffee at the end of the meal.

We walked away from the first visit forgiving of the service delays—it can happen anywhere, and the restaurant went to lengths to let us know this isn’t the norm—but still thinking that, while we’d had a
couple of decent dishes, the food had been a mixed bag.

Imagine our surprise on our second visit when the first dish we were served—and promptly, at that—was perfectly crisp fried baby artichokes. The distinctive fresh artichoke flavor rang clearly through the light crisp coating. This is a dish not to miss: a standard setter when you order fried artichokes elsewhere.

The calamari-and-cannellini salad, on the other hand, didn’t sing to us. The calamari was tender (though not properly trimmed), but nothing pulled this salad together: it tasted simply like beans, calamari, and tomatoes on a plate. Tender grilled fennel, sweet peppers, and eggplant, on the other hand, were united under a blanket of melted pecorino and topped with a drizzle of golden-green extra-virgin olive oil on a dish one might modestly call a grilled vegetable plate.

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We didn’t wait long for our entrées, though we would have been willing to. Grape tomatoes showed up yet again in the lustily seasoned tomato-based broth of the bountiful zuppa de pesce. Several kinds of shellfish—a piece of lobster tail, clams, and shrimp—topped a generous amount of salmon and tilapia which managed to arrive at the table moist and tender.

And another dish—which couldn’t be more different from the zuppa de pesce in so many ways—was similarly robust and well balanced. Veal osso buco, with its tender, falling-off-the-bone meat and rich, earthy veal-tomato sauce, was perfectly executed. This veal was served with a mound of creamy, rich, golden saffron risotto.

Was it just that we ordered better on our second visit? Was the kitchen, like the service staff, off its game on that first visit, or did we happen to order a combination of some of their less well-executed dishes?

It boils down to this: after our first visit, we thought the restaurant was ordinary. But after our second, we’d be more than happy to return again. Especially if those fried artichokes are on the menu.

Hostaria Mazzei                  ★★ ½

25 S Regent St, Port Chester
(914) 939-2727; hostariamazzei.com

Hours: Lunch Mon to Fri noon – 2:30 pm;

dinner Sun to Thurs 5 pm – 9:30 pm,

Fri and Sat 5 pm – 10 pm.

Appetizers: $9 – $15; entrées: $26 – $34; desserts: $8

   ★★★★—Outstanding      ★★★—Very Good  
   ★★—Good                       ★—Fair


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