Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday till 11 p.m., Sunday till 10 p.m. Reservations suggested. AE, MC, V. Prices: Most dinner entrees $6 to $8.50. Complete dinner with house wine, tax and tip about $14 to $22 per person.
In reporting on a restaurant, its context may be nearly as important as its kitchen. In other words, it's not just what you eat but where you eat it. Mama Stella's, for example, might not make much of a splash in an Italian neighborhood, but in Clinton, Md. -- hardly a hotbed of restaurant activity -- it's more than worthy of special attention. (For those city folks for whom traveling beyond the Beltway is an adventure equivalent to surveying the Louisiana Purchase, Clinton is between Camp Springs and Waldorf, east of Silesia and west of Rosaryville. Does that nail it down?)
Although the menu at Mama Stella's holds no surprises (pastas, veal scaloppine and chicken breast with several sauces, shellfish, the standard Italian restaurant desserts), and although the food can be uneven (on the same night, pasta dishes can range from beautiful to blah), much of what chef Demetre Goumis offers is reliably good and a few items are outstanding. To add to the blessings, the prices are low, the setting is cozy, and the easygoing, competent staff has a knack for making even first- time visitors feel at home.
Despite its location in a row of ordinary little stores, Mama Stella's looks warm and inviting even from the road. The inside doesn't let you down: a comfortable, countryish little dining room with candles, checkered tablecloths and plants on a big windowsill. (A bigger, brighter, charmless room in back is used for banquets, private parties and to accommodate the overflow on weekend nights.)
The best way to begin is with mussels, a heaping platter at $4.50, fresh and sweet, in either of two marvelous sauces: a nicely tart white wine blend that's sensibly easy on the garlic and oil and whose lemony taste is reminiscent of some Thai soups; and a sweeter, less acidic version with chunks of tomato that work their way deliciously inside the mussel shells. (Both of these sauces, as well as many other dishes here, contain caraway seed, an odd but very pleasant touch.) Sop up all that ambrosial liquid with the outstanding Italian bread, fresh and thick-crusted, sip some of the inexpensive house wine (Principato, a pleasant Italian jug white), and you'll swear by life's simpler pleasures. Those who suffer from mussel addiction in its advanced stages will find them among the entrees, too.
The minestrone was a satisfying soup, crammed with vegetables and rice. But one night the cream of spinach soup was so butter-rich it dulled rather than sharpened the appetite. The antipasto is pleasant, but redundant in view of the good salads that accompany the entrees. Stuffed mushrooms and clams casino are acceptable, too, but no match for those mussels, or for some of the homemade pastas that can be shared as appetizers -- the commendably light gnocchi, for example, topped with a good tomato sauce (better than the optional meat sauce in this case).
Among the other pasta dishess, the fettucine alla Bologna was nicely chewy, with a good, slightly nutmegged meat sauce. Fettucine alfredo, though, suffered from excess: too much butter in the sauce, too much sauce on the pasta. The manicotti and cannelloni were very good: firm-textured, nicely flavored, and with some bite left in the pasta. Even better -- perhaps the best pasta we tried at Mama Stella's -- were the florentine rolls, a special one night in which swirls of thick, nicely chewy homemade pasta were interwoven with a delicious mixture of good, rough-ground veal, cheese and spinach and served with a light cream sauce. A delight. In contrast, on the table that same night were a mushy, oversauced, pedestrian lasagna and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs that tasted as though Chef Boy-ar-dee had sneaked into the kitchen and prepared it.
Among the meat dishes, one of the simplest and best is sweet and hot Italian sausage with green peppers. The sausage is nicely lean, the sweet version aromatic with fennel, the hot one properly zippy; the green pepper and onion are a bit crisp; and the tomato sauce has a tartness that plays off neatly against the meat. To fully understand the meaning of the term "a marriage made in heaven," eat this dish with a wedge of that good Italian bread. Just as delightful is chicken cacciatore, with moist meat and a sweeter, gentler, more fruity tomato sauce. (Again, caraway seeds, and again they perk things up.) The rest of the chicken dishes are made with breast fillets, and judging from our experience with the chicken parmigiana -- dry, flavorless meat pounded to texturelessness -- you'd do well to avoid them. An even bigger disappointment was the fresh fish, in this case a little croaker hopelessly overcooked and hopelessly overcome by garlic.
The veal appears to be of the pounded variety, but it's lean and tender, and at $8.50 for a big portion there's no complaint warranted. A pleasant way to have it is alla Mama Stella, with a mild-flavored sauce of tomatoes, onions, peas, mushrooms and a touch of marsala wine. The shrimp is reasonably good, too. Look for the version with the excellent lemony sauce that also graces the mussels, or for scampi fiorentine, with a light cream-spinach-lemon sauce.
Desserts are the Italian standards, including a couple of decent but unremarkable cakes from Vaccaro's bakery in Baltimore. The best choice is cannoli, with a good, generous, cinnamon-laced filling.
Mama Stella's isn't worth a long trek around the Beltway. But if you live or work within a reasonable distance, it's definitely one to put on your list.