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Will You Marris Me?

A find just off the 405

Photo by Jeanne RiceThe wife and I recently decided to dine before a show at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, but there were a couple of snags: neither of us had been to the Carpenter—on the campus of Cal State Long Beach—and we weren't able to ditch our kids until an hour before showtime.

So we played culinary craps, which is not what happens after you get bad fish, but rather that time-honored game in which you simply hit the eatery nearest your intended destination. Like regular craps, the odds are usually stacked against you.

As we pulled off the 405, my wife excitedly remarked, "Hey, I used to know a really good pizza place around here. Meone's."

At the first intersection, she pointed toward a drab strip center.

"Aw, it used to be right there," she said dejectedly.

"You mean where the sign says, 'Marri's Pizza'?" I asked.

"THAT'S IT!"

The first thing we noticed upon entering the parking lot was a sign for H. Salt Fish & Chips. "Wouldn't it be funny to eat there?" my wife asked. We laughed at the kitsch, the irony, the batter. Then I slammed down the gas pedal and quickly parked in front of Marri's. The inside looks like your typical neighborhood pizzeria, circa Frampton Comes Alive.

We were seated in a small room with Cinzano umbrellas—circa Breaking Away—suspended over each table. At that moment, my wife realized this was the place she had been to before: she was facing the same booth she sat in with her friend Andrew back in high school.

Our coats hadn't even hit the empty seats next to us when the waitress arrived to take our drink orders (the wife got Chianti; I went with Sam Adams). Seeing as how we were due at the Carpenter in less than an hour, we also ordered the food (the wife got ravioli; I went with the $19 chicken fra diavolo dinner special).

First came the dinner salad, served family-style in a large bowl. Besides crispy, dark-green leaf lettuce; quartered raw tomatoes; large rings of raw red onions; and carrot and radish slices, it was topped with a generous heap of fresh, grated mozzarella. My homemade Italian dressing and her vinegar and oil came in our own personal bottles.

Unfortunately, I'd scarfed nearly all of my salad by the time the garlic bread arrived. It looked like a pile of Wonder bread, de-crusted and buttered. Finally, something befitting these blue-collar environs. But veggie nubs bobbing in the Italian dressing were calling me, so I tore off a small piece of bread and dipped away.

BADA-BING!

This was the best freakin' garlic bread I've ever had in my life. Well, at least the best since the last time I had really good garlic bread. French rolls that are baked on the premises are sliced thin (thus the Wonder appearance) and topped with a spread made of fresh garlic and spices. Whip me 40 times with a wet linguine for my snobbery.

Perhaps the bread had me feeling so good I could have been served Elmer's Glue next and been giddy, but damn if the marinara sauce that drowned my chicken fra diavolo wasn't sublime, too. First the setup: two bird breasts were pounded flat, cooked in a zesty pesto and topped with melted Mozzarella (likely to temper that pesto's fiery kick). The whole shabang was then submerged in that sweet, veggie-riffic marinara. Truly awe-inspiring.

The same marinara topped my wife's ravioli, where large pasta pillows were filled with a spicy cheese mixture of . . . Okay, I didn't pay attention to her entrée because I was still having a moment with my own. All I know is she didn't complain. Well, not about the food, anyway.

Marri's Pizza was a surprise find. Sam Madain's family owns the 50-year-old restaurant and another of the same name that's been on Katella Avenue in Anaheim for about 20 years.

"We have guys who came here as kids with their fathers who are now bringing their grandchildren," Madain said.

Great! But I am left with two burning questions:

How the hell's the pizza? And where the hell's Meone's?

Marri's Pizza & Italian Restaurant, located at 6436 E. Stearns St., Long Beach, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (562) 596-5771. Also in Anaheim, (714) 533-1631. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $30, food only. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.
 
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