On a street lined with stores selling dunes paraphernalia and an old fish and chips house, a small upscale Italian restaurant has found a home.
Mama’s Meatball recently opened its second location in the county just steps from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area entrance and the beach.
The elegant and inviting restaurant almost seems out of place, as if it should be in cozy downtown Arroyo Grande or part of Paso Robles’ ever-growing chic restaurant district.
But owners Nicola Allegretta and Jose Arceo quickly outgrew their San Luis Obispo location and wanted to cater to their South County patrons.
The restaurant’s ambiance is inviting, clean and filled with Italian touches from the faux-aged walls to the cool beige floor tiles. Paintings of scenery and children making Italian food hand on the walls, and vast windows provide some of the prime tables with views of the ocean and sand. Diners can also catch a glimpse into the kitchen and watch the chefs at work.
The menu is extensive, longer than the San Luis Obispo restaurant’s, with some dishes created for its beachside location. One pizza, the Dune, tops a thin, crisp crust with creamy Alfredo sauce, mozzarella cheese, grilled chicken, artichoke hearts, sliced olives, prosciutto, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.
The pizza is unlike American pizzas with their thick, doughy crusts and massive layers of melted cheese. This pizza is large but skinny with cheese lightly sprinkled around an array of fresh toppings. Pizzas are offered in personal sizes ($6 to $8) or regular ($10 to $14).
The salads at Mama’s Meatball are highly recommended—the choices vary from pickled beet salad with goat cheese to the classic grilled vegetable salad tossed with house balsamic vinaigrette.
The beet salad is a colorful tangle of mixed greens, bright pickled beets, candied walnuts, shaved red onion, and tomatoes. Fresh goat cheese on top adds a pungent, creamy bite to the mild beets.
The antipasto misto ($8) is an ample pile of mixed greens topped with favorite Italian meats and cheeses including salami, prosciutto, capicollo, mortadella and provolone cheese. Served with a side of tangy balsamic, the appetizer can be shared or could convert into a meaty salad.
An eclectic appetizer is the fagioli con rapini ($9), a classic Sardinian dish of steamed white beans, rapini (a leafy green) and sautéed sausage. This dish is packed with flavors of garlic and olive oil, and the sausage adds a salty and spicy finish.
Pasta is king here and includes classics from Italian meatball and spaghetti to rich seafood risottos. There are two varieties of gnocchi —simple potato or pumpkin—and both are enticing. The classic potato gnocchi ($10) comes smothered in marinara sauce with fresh basil and Parmesan. The dumplings are soft and light — exactly as gnocchi should be. I’ve yet to try the pumpkin variety that’s paired with a four-cheese sauce, but I plan to.
The mare e monte ($14) mixes house-made fusilli avellinesi pasta with wild Mexican shrimp, white wine, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, celery and peas. Light and flavorful, the pasta had nearly no sauce but ample essences of garlic, celery and seafood.
The ravioli di pollo alla vodka ($11) is house-made, filled with chicken and herbs and buried under a vodka sauce. The sauce is tomato-based but slightly creamy and a nice compliment to the thick ravioli. Some could consider the pasta shell a bit thick, but it’s a matter of preference because I found it ideal compared to some of the thin-skinned ravioli at other restaurants.
A filling Italian meal could make anyone think they don’t need dessert, but those who indulge will be pleasantly surprised. The tiramisu is an excellent cake topped with cocoa and filled with creamy mascarpone cheese, lady fingers and espresso.
Other desserts include cannolis, fruit tarts, Italian cheesecake and profiteroles.