43 S. Broad St., Woodbury
The name rings wrong at first: Marlene Mangia Bene. It’s hard to think of an Italian restaurant with stranger nomenclature, unless anyone out there happens to know a place named Timothy Buon Giorno. But once this handsome Woodbury six-month-old’s backstory comes out, the name makes sense.
Marlene was the mother of Maria Fasulo, who owns M.M.B. with husband, Christopher, and longtime friend, Frank Filipek Jr. “Marlene passed away from brain cancer three years ago,” the restaurant’s website explains, “but many of her ‘mangia bene’ (good eats) will live on in our menu offerings.”
Literally and figuratively, this is a family restaurant. Above high-backed print banquettes, black-and-white photos blanket the soft gray walls, and the staff seems chummy with the dressed-up diners, who order from a well-edited Italian menu that has a warm, homespun feel about it. That said, Marlene Mangia Bene lives up to its word: “Everything we serve is just as we would for our own family.”
Inattentive service didn’t make me feel like family, though. Two servers, ours and another, worked the long, narrow room the night I dined, and my table actually received more TLC from the staffer not waiting on us. Dirty dishes sat. Water glasses went unfilled. While these might have been the duties of the food runner/busser working, it’s no excuse. When it’s family, everyone should pitch in. Our server seemed lethargic and bored. Perhaps executive chef Benny Taormina should consider caffeine pills for staff meal?
However, Taormina’s food is a different story. Especially the meatballs, served on sliders at lunch and in a pool of vivid crimson gravy at dinner, set off by a scoop of milky sweet ricotta and a flurry of fresh herbs. Molten mozzarella flowed from the core of an all-beef sphere, ground cherry peppers enflamed the pork version and roasted potatoes stood in for breadcrumbs binding the veal meatballs. How fitting that as the appetizer was served, the restaurant’s odd iPod Shuffle-like soundtrack kicked on “This is the Night” from Lady and the Tramp. I nosed a meatball over to my dinner guest.
Mussels were mostly plump and sweet—I came across one fishy rogue in the group—in a garlicky bowl both flavored with white wine and parsley. (The basket of crusty Italian bread did a good job sopping it up.) Chicken wings, Frank’s recipe, came lacquered in a sweet-and-spicy hot sauce/brown sugar glaze, dusted with grated Pecorino and showered with fresh parsley. I loved the salty pop of the cheese and the freshness of the parsley against the wing sauce, a truly unusual, addicting take on the American mainstay. I just wish I’d ordered a few extra dozen, froze and reheated them for the Super Bowl.
Entrees brought a misleading plate of “short ribs with pappardelle” that was more pappardelle with short ribs. It should be listed in the pasta section of Taromina’s menu, as the wide, flat noodles form the bulk of the dish. And what a bulk it is, wintry and thick in a beefy Chianti tomato sauce. As for the short ribs, I was expecting a meltingly tender slab and received shredded hunks tossed through the pasta. The flavor was on point, but not the overall experience of the dish, which was more akin to eating beef Stroganoff.
Crab cakes were a stronger effort, two softballs of jumbo-lump magically bound without any filler and served with roasted asparagus. Pesto-laced buttermilk dressing (like an Italian ranch!) and corn-and-tomato relish added extra dimensions of flavor.
For dessert, a cannoli-cream “blondie” was actually a tuffet of sweetened ricotta mined with chocolate chips and flanked by strawberry hearts. Tasty. It’s since been removed from the menu, but the chocolate lava cake is still available. I’d venture to guess you’ve had this spongy cake, with its lavaflow of chocolate ganache, elsewhere before; Marlene Mangia Bene’s is well-made and properly rich, but doesn’t exactly score any originality points.
In some areas, this lack of originality is what holds Marlene Mangia Bene back from achieving its full potential. Some restaurants are only capable of turning out the same roster of chicken parm and penne vodka, but this Woodbury kitchen clearly has the ambition and the talent to go way beyond that. The Fasulos and Filipek are already halfway there, but I bet their guardian angel is already very proud.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 12 (March, 2012).
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