Mangi Con Amore Is a Fellini Fantasy Come True
Mangi Con Amore looks, feels and sounds as though it's an imposter. A checkercloth-style Italian restaurant in Laguna Niguel. Owner Stella Jahandin has a husky voice straight out of a wedding scene in a Fellini film. Dino and other Italian-American crooners play on the stereo. Ravioli, paninis and subs are on the menu. Wine and sausages and freshly baked cookies and dips to go. In a Laguna Niguel office park? With a website featuring trilling Italian mandolins on the homepage? Either a fantasy, or the ultimate poseur.
It's all true, though. Mangi Con Amore first made its mark at farmers' markets, at which Stella's pastas and sauces quickly became cult items among OC's foodie set. And while the vibrancy of a farmers' market (which she still frequents—Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach on Saturday, Laguna Niguel and San Clemente on Sunday) allowed her to be as effusive and generous with freebies as possible, she was destined for the confines of a chummy restaurant, even if the storefront is stuck in a sea of sports therapists and other small businesses. It doesn't matter, as the crowds come, whether it's families, office drones or people from across South County looking for tweaked Italian favorites—with fabulous results. A simple tuna sandwich, for instance, transforms into a tart beauty via a judicious application of capers, olive oil and Kalamata—not too soggy, but perfectly moist. The five-cheese ravioli shines with a marinara sauce heavy on the carrots (which add a surprising spice) and musky sage leaves. The homemade sausage is nearly electric thanks to fennel, the pasta e fagiolie is rescued from Olive Garden mundaneness with so much cheese you might think there was a wheel stuffed in it. Every meal begins with a slice of bread covered with pesto, marinara and cheese; while shameless advertising for Stella's products, damn it if it doesn't work and you don't leave Mangi with a couple of jars or containers of each ingredient. And this is one of the few Italian restaurants that go beyond the tiramisù/cannoli/biscotti stranglehold on Italian dessert in this county to offer such gems as cucidati, fig cookies that are fleshy and crunchy, and other delights whose names I don't know, as I'm not a paisano.
The only problem I have with Mangi is its hours—only Monday through Friday, and only open for breakfast and lunch. Whatever: just means I'm learning more about Laguna Niguel, a city that just might be the next Seal Beach in terms of culinary treasures.
This column appeared in print as "A Fellini Fantasy Come True."
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