Restaurant Review - Still learning Italian

Mangia 101 promisingly fluent, but needs to do a little more homework

The good news is that the menu at Mangia 101 is changing by the minute. The bad news is that it needs to. Nevertheless, one has high hopes for this new Italian restaurant, if only because its location in Brookhaven Station elevates the culinary expectations at a site dominated by a Mellow Mushroom and a Jocks & Jills.The interior of what was formerly a Thai restaurant has been transformed by burnished siennas; pale, washed bronze- colored walls, richly mottled tile floors and sleek decoupaged table tops. Perusing the menu while devouring the excellent bread — thick, crisp crust surrounding a marvelously chewy interior — seems like the prelude to a satisfying meal. And with a little more care in the kitchen, that may yet become the case.One thing Mangia 101 does extremely well is its wine list, which thoughtfully offers virtually all of its many wines by the glass. Equally thoughtful, although more usual, is pricing pastas as both appetizers and main dishes. (Curiously, though, a note under the pasta section announces that "all pastas are served al dente." How depressing to think that Mangia 101's owners felt the need to point that out.)

The food that arrives at the table, however, has been either hopelessly overdone or abandoned altogether.

Beef carpaccio ($7), for example, is ideally nothing more than exquisitely fresh, thinly sliced raw beef very lightly adorned with parmesan shavings and capers. Mangia 101's version sits on a bed of baby arugula under a mountain of marinated mushrooms. Any of the participants in this oddity are fine on their own. Together, they're a mess.

The tomato and mozzarella salad ($8) does not fare quite as well. The night we ordered it, the red tomatoes were flat and mealy, which made the absence of the advertised yellow tomatoes a mixed blessing. The utterly flavorless mozzarella could not be disguised by grilled onions, baby arugula and a heavier than necessary balsamic honey dressing. After that, the flabby parmesan crisps on the overdressed, unorthodox red-tipped romaine Caesar salad ($6) didn't seem quite so bad.

By far the greatest disappointment, however, is the watery osso buco ($24). Clearly, the kitchen is giving short shrift to the braising process. The veal shank is tender enough, but it hasn't spent nearly enough time in the company of the carrots, celery and onions alongside it.

Better to stick with the pastas, which are, happily, beautifully cooked. (Just stay away from ordering either $5 side of flavorless sausage or heavy meatballs.) Ravioli Bolognese ($9 and $14) features the classic Italian meat sauce, while the tomato sauce on the cheese ravioli with ricotta and fresh spinach ($9 and $15) incorporates chunks of eggplant and mushrooms.

As I mentioned, though, Mangia 101's menu is evolving. Surely, the kitchen will become more deft as well, no?

In the meantime, consider what has been showcased recently: such typical appetizers as mussels with garlic in white wine ($8) and fried calamari Fra Diavolo ($6); such dressed-up pastas as rigatoni gorgonzola ($8 and $12) — a pistachio-gorgonzola sauce does a disservice to both flavors; and shrimp alla vodka ($11 and $17), jumbo shrimp on linguine.

Main courses, all of which might benefit from some editing, include chicken saltimbocca ($14), chicken breast medallions topped with sage and prosciutto sauteed in marsala sauce and served with mashed potatoes and fagiolini (for carb overloading?); veal Milanese ($20), a pan-fried 12-ounce veal chop served with baby arugula, roma tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and shaved parmesan; grilled pepper-encrusted tuna ($19) decorated with crawfish and shallots and served with seasonal vegetables, tomato basil coulis; and halibut Genovese ($18), pan-roasted halibut topped with bread crumbs, basil, pine nuts, garlic, white wine and lemon sauce, then served with fagiolini and oven-roasted potatoes. Whew!

Have these prices caught your eye? By way of comparison, a recent dinner for two at Joel — a stellar production with gorgeous ingredients, silky sauces and perfect seasoning — cost precisely the same as our first dinner at Mangia 101, an amazing thought. Frankly, when presented with Mangia's bill, the first thing that came to mind was that for the same money, we could have had the same dishes, flawlessly executed, at the justifiably famed La Grotta a few miles south on Peachtree. But, as I said, Mangia 101 is changing by the minute. Perhaps when the execution matches the vision here, the prices will be justified.