Quick, think of a place in OC to get cheesecake, but don't tell me what it is yet. I'm psychic, and I can probably guess.
Does it end in "actory"? I bet it does for most of you. So successful is the branding of the Cheesecake Factory that many people would be hard-pressed to name another restaurant that serves cheesecake.
Now, my uncles ran a cheesecake shop and deli in central New Jersey. I know what good cheesecake is, and I am going to lose some food snob points here by saying that the Cheesecake Factory actually makes pretty decent cheesecake. Junior's of Brooklyn it ain't, but you could do far, far worse. The enormous menu leading up to the cheesecake, however, all tastes vaguely similar and sugar seems to make its way into unexpected dishes.
The biggest problem, however, is the wait: 90 minutes is not unheard of at the Cheesecake Factory in the GardenWalk, and it can be even worse on weekends at the one in Newport Beach. It can take forty minutes to get cheesecake to go, and that's not worth it.
Fortunately, hidden on Katella between Five Guys and Ricardo's in the city of Orange is wonderful cheesecake that comes with much better food, better service and a much, much shorter wait--and, for those busy weekend evenings, they take reservations.
Mascarpone's is the date-night Italian restaurant of my New Jersey youth, transplanted to a nondescript professional building in Orange County. Dim lights, garlic bread, salad or soup to start and good old fashioned Italian-American cooking brought up a couple of notches. Some of the pasta is homemade; the tomato sauce smells exactly like its components (tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and wine). In New Jersey it would be a BYOB with no corkage fee; in OC it's got a pretty credible wine list with a good Chianti by the glass.
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Once you get past the salad or minestrone and your main course, you'll find that the cheesecake isn't quite like Cheesecake Factory: it's slightly softer and slightly taller than its chain-restaurant counterpart. The crust is just right, though, obviously made with graham crackers. It doesn't come in the thirty flavors that the Factory has on hand; you're likely to get three or four choices. Any of them will do, but the plain cheesecake is the gold standard.
Once you've sat, relaxed and been ministered to by waitstaff who have the time to be genuinely friendly, you won't want to face the thundering hordes at the Cheesecake Factory again anytime soon.
Mascarpone's, 1448 E. Katella Ave., Orange; (714) 633-0101; no website.
The Cheesecake Factory, OC locations in Anaheim, Brea, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Mission Viejo and Newport Beach; cheesecakefactory.com.