Old-fashioned Italian is comfort food
By JR Grant 06/14/2012
Mariann’s Italian Villa
301 W. Channel Islands Blvd.
$4.95 - $18.95
When I was a small child, and my family couldn’t decide where to go out for dinner, we would often go to a little family-run Italian restaurant where we were welcomed by the mother, the father was the chef, and the various children were the servers. It was family-style their way, and the food was always the same: tasty, fairly simple and unadorned, reasonably priced and filling. The menu never varied, and over the course of time one could become familiar with old-fashioned dishes like veal scaloppini, chicken tetrazzini, cannelloni and the always homemade little dumplings, gnocchi.
In 2012, much has changed in food awareness, food preparation and health consciousness. Restricted carbs are now frequently on many diners’ minds, and old-fashioned dining adventures are harder to discover in our new fusion food culture. That same old family Italian memory can still be experienced, however, in a small restaurant near the Navy base in Port Hueneme, Mariann’s Italian Villa.
First opened 30 years ago and operated by a Sicilian American family, Mariann’s sold five years ago to Mr. Kang and his Indian family, under the stipulation that all recipes would stay the same. So for those diners looking for the traditional old-style Italian menu, Mariann’s amply provides.
Of course, there is minestrone soup: a hearty, fresh, simple homemade concoction here with celery, carrots, garbanzos, green beans, red beans and some small pasta shells. This is exactly as minestrone is supposed to be, very fresh and a great starter for any meal here.
I will admit I am a little disappointed in the salads at Mariann’s. Just as the menu hasn’t changed in many years, neither has the basic green salad here. A bit of iceberg lettuce, a shred or two of carrot, a slice of cumber, one small tomato slice, and soaked in a basic oil and vinegar dressing, not herbed, balsamic nor interesting by any description. It is OK to keep old traditional main dish recipes the same, but given our proximity to really fresh and interesting salad ingredients, it might be time to update the salad creativity in the kitchen.
I quite like the gnocchi here: the tiny dumplings are full-flavored and hearty and a great complement to the basic tomato sauce. The sauce at Mariann’s is very much old school Italian: bits of puréed tomatoes with a dollop of sugar to bring our the fruit’s sweetness. There are those who insist that oregano and various other herbs always be present in Italian sauces; I will admit to being a fan of sauces redolent simply of the essence of their tomato base.
Depending on one’s hunger quotient, the size of the portions here can be a little overwhelming. When not particularly famished, I have been to Mariann’s and just had a cup of minestrone and a slice of Sicilian pizza: this style pizza is very bready/doughy and has only the marinara sauce and a small bit of cheese. I know some sailors from the base come here and order the more traditional pizzas, but for me the thick bready slice is a good, filling meal. The garlic bread with cheese here is also a good addition to any meal. Toasted perfectly and swimming in garlic and butter, it is almost a guarantee that you will order another basket of bread; it is that addicting.
The number of entrees available at Mariann’s is overwhelming. I recently ordered the ravioli and sausage, and although Mariann’s is no longer making its own pasta, whoever is the vendor is providing very fresh-tasting and simple ravioli, which brings back many happy memories of similar pasta from days of yore.
While I certainly think Mariann’s could use a little face lift on its appearance (dark brown banquettes and darkish, somewhat faded colors, spiced only so much by country glass lamps and fake greenery), the old-style menu does hark back to familiar and comfortable family dinner outings. Sometimes in our dining options, that comfortability in cuisine is just the right option.