Make These Chickens Sing
If you've sworn off beef and pork but still eat birds, Huntington Beach's venerable Mangia Mangia is your kinda place. For nearly 20 years, Sicilian-born brothers Giuseppe and Pietro Cefalu have served herds of veal, poured vats of meat sauce over their homemade pasta, and earned a solid rep for fresh seafood, calamari fritti and outta-this-world eggplant dishes. But the house specialty remains their chicken "Mangia Mangia," and when a fowl lover finds a house specialty with duck, turkey or chicken in the title, the ordering has been done for them.
It's the right choice. An ample chicken breast beaten flat is sautéed with ginger, shallots, asparagus and red bell peppers in white wine to produce a near-breaded, scaloppini effect. The veggies, spice and vino are then spooned over the bird. It's a sophisticated, satisfying taste, and not as overly filling as I remember those (now long-ago) dinners that began with cow or hog.
Of course, if you order the chicken Mangia Mangia as I do—with a side of pasta ribbons drenched in the restaurant's amazingly zesty pasta sauce—all skinny bets are off. And if you begin your sit-down with repeated visits to the bread basket, you may as well loosen your belt a notch before you even walk in the door. And if you assign a piece of said garlic bread to sopping-up duty for what little is left at the bottom of your bowl of stracciatella soup—a winning mix of eggs, potato, spinach and Parmesan in chicken broth that you should really just have alone as a $3.50 meal—just throw your goddamn belt in the garbage before you leave home.
Mangia Mangia's homey feel, casual but attentive service and endless loop of Italy travel videos on the south wall's flat-screen television, combined with a signature dish that never lets you down, make every return visit a special dining occasion.
But there is trouble in paradise. Due to more frequent visits than usual, my eyes wandered when scanning the menu recently. To clarify, though I always know what I'm going to order before I sit down, for shits and giggles I still check out the daily specials chalkboard and give the menu the once-over twice. And it was during this second half of my back-to-back dinners that I discovered the item right below chicken Mangia Mangia on the menu.
The description of chicken pappagallo is similar to its predecessor: "chicken breast sautéed with artichoke hearts, red bell peppers, mushrooms, Marsala wine and a touch of cream." A sucker for artichoke hearts—and feeling a tad saucy—I barked out an audible at the ordering line of scrimmage and went with this upstart. And, oh, what a sublimely superior taste sensation it is. Something about the nuttiness of the 'chokes and the tanginess of the Marsala and the richness of the cream makes this thing sing. Nobody's made me king—the Orange County registrar is still counting the flippin' votes—but as one who eats more chicken than any man ever seen, I hereby decree chicken pappagallo Mangia Mangia's reigning poultry champeen.
It's a terrible fix I've put myself in. From now on, every time I automatically order the chicken pappagallo, I'll be wondering about my first love, the one I let get away, the chicken Mangia Mangia. How you doing, baby? Did everything work itself out for you when I split? Are you seeing someone else? Is it that fat guy at table four?
Then again, were I to go back to Mangia Mangia, I'd have pappagallo on the brain. Decisions, decisions.
There can be but one solution: there's this other sweet bird, the chicken Calabrese—a chunky chicken breast, sausages, black olives, onions, and green and red bell peppers sautéed in a tomato sauce with fresh basil that must be absolutely . . . uh . . . ohhhh, that swordfish special on the chalkboard looks tempting.
Damn you, Giuseppe and Pietro Cefalu!
MANGIA MANGIA, 16079 GOLDENWEST ST., HUNTINGTON BEACH, (714) 841-8887; WWW.MANGIAMANGIARESTAURANT.COM. OPEN MON.-FRI., 11 A.M.-10 P.M.; SAT., 3-10 P.M.; SUN., 3-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $16-$32, FOOD ONLY. BEER AND WINE.
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