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Much Mangia

Big food in Little Italy

Photo by Jessica CalkinsAs far as I can tell, there are three styles of Italian food—Northern, Southern and New York. The first two are ones you read about in Gourmet or Bon Appétit; the last one you'll find in neighborhood pizzerias and pasta slop houses. You know, the American version.

And all this started in New York City in a little south Manhattan neighborhood anchored by the famed Mulberry Street. During my first trip to the big town, I anxiously sprinted to Little Italy, where they call pasta sauce "gravy," wine is sold in jugs by the inch, and images of the holy trinity—the Pope, Virgin Mary and Sinatra—are prominently featured.

If the consumption of food could be pornographic, Little Italy is the San Fernando Valley of gustatory smut. Along with the garlicky sauces—er, gravy—my greatest Mulberry Street memory involves a spring-loaded Italian dry salami, which an enterprising restaurant owner rigged up to hump the crevice between two slabs of proscuitto ham hanging from the ceiling when he wanted to impress (or embarrass) an out-of-towner like me. I was touched by the gesture.

From these sacred grounds comes the Italian food we learned to love growing up: sloppy dishes of spaghetti; monster tomato sauces; and bubbling, oily cheese covering everything else. This is not food for the meek; portions, like the flavors, are as big as Italy's choke job in the recent World Cup, which explains why all aging wiseguys in Mafia flicks are packin' more than a piece. You can't help it.

This is the style of Italian food Maggiano's Little Italy seeks to re-create, albeit a more secular version without the Pope, Virgin Mary and carnal meats. But they get the food right, at least—heaping bowls of spaghetti come slathered with sweet marinara or spicy meat sauces; cheesy platters of ravioli and manicotti stuffed with even more cheese; chicken entrées loaded down with three flattened breasts. I'll bet that Maggiano's fills more doggie bags than any Orange County restaurant since the late, lamented Belisle's, home of the Elvis Presley pork chop dinner and slices of cake the size of ottomans.

Not that anyone's complaining. The Costa Mesa Maggiano's, set in the South Coast Plaza parking lot, is perpetually jam-packed. And for good reason. While the food here won't win any culinary prizes, it's real damn good and worthy of the gluttony it inspires.

I mean, just the appetizers and salads make for a big meal. The four-cheese ravioli fills a regular-sized plate and is filled with enough bubbling cheese and Alfredo sauce to knock your cholesterol over 250. And the excellent Maggiano's salad, with prosciutto, red onion and bleu cheese, can easily satisfy two diners. And that's just with a half order.

In fact, all of the 16 pasta dishes (heavy on the spaghetti and linguine) feature both full and half orders. If you are sane, you will choose a half order and still have a good lunch the next day with the leftovers.

You do not have this chance with the entrées, which only come in one size: gargantuan. The best of the specials is the chicken and spinach manicotti, which is also loaded with liberal amounts of ricotta and asiago cheeses and topped with a buttery Alfredo sauce. It's baked and comes to your table bubbling like Vesuvius. Show patience with this one, or you'll be scraping excess mucus membrane off the roof of your mouth.

The meat dishes run from chicken and veal to steaks and seafood. Again, massive volume is a constant. I ordered one of the specials, a chicken giardiniera, a honkin' platter with three lightly breaded breasts covered with a vinegary vegetable medley over a light wine sauce. Note: these leftover breasts make for great sandwiches later on.

Sad is the person who makes desserts at Maggiano's. With so much leftover food, most diners are either too full or too embarrassed to order dessert. Some people tell me they're good; I'll take their word for it.

Maggiano's Little Italy, located at 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11:15 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 11:15 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 546-9550. Full bar. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
 
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