Jazz and Italian

Photo by Joy BastOur infrequent visits to New York and its jazz clubs always include a pilgrimage to Little Italy's Mulberry Street. The narrow, restaurant-lined lane has fueled several trips over three decades with reasonably priced meals of sausage, peppers, pasta, table wine and espresso.

Most Mulberry restaurants serve modest red-sauce fare, though my lovely and critical Italian girlfriend and I had a memorable northern Italian meal at the spacious and not-so-reasonable Il Cortile just a few years back. Seafood is big on Mulberry, and we admit to splurging on an oyster or two at the infamous Umberto's Clam House.

Then there's Luna, a bare-bones institution of home cooking and bargain prices. It's a dusky old place where once on a rainy Sunday in November not so many years ago, my satisfying meal of veal stew in a thin tomato gravy was accompanied by first-rate eavesdropping. In a neighboring booth, a priest and a tall, handsome, uniformed cop talked family, marriage, career and sports. With tumblers of wine, the conversation took on confessional tones as the two consumed plates of pasta, veal, spinanci and—hey!—on-the-house-for-you-father meatballs. The experience left me feeling truly nourished.

We still frequent a jazz club down the way from Mulberry Street, but it's in Fullerton, not New York, the jazz club is Steamers Café rather than the Village Vanguard, and the Mulberry Street isn't a street at all but a New York-themed Italian ristorante on one of downtown's more invigorated blocks. With its brick and dark wood, welcoming bar, and mirror-lined wainscoting, this Mulberry seems more Upper West Side than Little Italy. Photos of New York, including one of a Mulberry Street sign, hang along the walls. By further contrast, the eavesdropping, in our experience, is of the bland sort, all relationship and career babble.

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But the food here is good. Looking around reveals that most folks come here for the seafood specials, the linguine and clams, and the grilled fish. We'll vouch for oysters Mulberry, which are grilled on the half-shell with spinach, cheese and bread crumbs. But in the spirit of our tourist forays on New York's Mulberry, we usually order more traditional dishes.

Veal Marsala was a hearty choice, the veal tender, the sauce flavorful with Marsala but not overly sweet. Meatballs, the true test of the southern Italian kitchen, were cue-ball-sized affairs of wonderful texture, not terribly spicy but flavorful with, we would guess, ground beef and pork. The tomato sauce over them was thick from long cooking and a touch sweet, something my girlfriend sees as a sin against good acidic tomatoes.

Her mother's sauce is the standard by which all others are judged. The same goes for Mom's eggplant, a spare, melt in-your-mouth casserole that's never bitter. Thinking of her, I ordered eggplant parmigiana and found it lost under melted cheese much like the veal parmigiana I'd seen delivered to the table next to me. Still, the eggplant had been nicely fried, there was a bit of crunch to the breading on the toothsome slices, and the tomato sauce was characteristically rich. But the total effect was on the salty side (salt is used to leach the bitterness from eggplant, explains my girlfriend's mother, and besides, good eggplant is hard to come by this time of year).

It was served, oddly we thought, with fettuccine Alfredo, and suddenly any connection between the homemade and not, the white sauce and red, Manhattan and Southern California, was lost. This Mulberry Street makes its own impressions.

Mulberry Street Ristorante & Bar, located at 114 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton, is open for lunch Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and dinner daily, 5-10 p.m.; bar open between lunch and dinner. (714) 525-1056. Dinner for two, $19-$40, food only. Full bar. AmEx, Discover, MC and Visa accepted

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Mulberry St. Ristorante

114 W. Wilshire Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92832



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