Mama Regina has been hidden away in the Silver Spring Sheraton for so many years it's easy to overlook it. Don't. It's still an excellent Italian restaurant, a place where the drawbacks -- moderately steep prices and a few sub-par items -- are more than compensated by generally excellent food.
The environment is a cut above the average, too, with a spacious, good-looking dining room made intimate with dividing walls and arches. The service is prompt, solicitous, pleasant.
Pastas here are first class, and they can be split as appetizers. Penne alla vodka, nicely chewy pasta tubes in a tomato-cream base, the alcohol all but imperceptible, is a subtle delight. Just as good is gnocchi alla matriciana, the potato-pasta dumplings wonderfully tender, the sauce faintly smoky with bacon flavor.
Mama Regina's sauces are beautifully executed across the board. Tortellini in cream sauce, basically a rich dish, is intelligently restrained here -- light on the serving ladle, light on the cheese, light on the nutmeg -- so it's a joy to eat, rather than a chore. Note that there's a combination of three pasta varieties that makes a particularly good appetizer to share.
The veal is exceptional, pale, juicy, and -- increasingly unusual these days -- with real flavor. That flavor is best captured in scaloppini primavera, the veal medallions served in a light, herbed sauce with fresh tomato and zucchini.
The lean and meaty sausage, too, is excellent: The sweet kind is nicely flavored with fennel; the hot variety has zing. Have it with tomato sauce and linguine. At $8.45, it's a good buy.
Sadly, there's a trend in the restaurant business to take the easy way out when it comes to preparing chicken dishes and just use boneless chicken breasts, because there's no muss, fuss, bones or waste. Mama Regina is no exception, and the result is no surprise: chewy, flavorless meat that can't be resuscitated, even by Mama Regina's excellent sauces.
If it's hard to find a flavorful chicken in a restaurant these days, it's even harder to find good shrimp, the kind that's plump, tender, succulent and sweet-tasting. And so it's not unexpected that the shrimp at Mama Regina's is on a par with the chicken. It's not awful, by any means, but just not worth ordering.
But the mussels -- ah, the mussels. Two dozen of them for $9.95, piled proudly on an immense platter, big, fresh and briny, in a lovely, subtle sauce with green pepper and tomato. A standout.
The fish has been just as outstanding. On a recent visit we had a perfectly fresh sea bass filet, perfectly cooked, in an excellent wine-lemon-herb sauce.
The only real bummers we found at Mama Regina's were among the secondary items: very poor, overcooked vegetable side orders, and what tasted like brown-and-serve bread.
Dessert? Don't pass up the cannoli, one of the best around, with a light, crackly wrapper and an airy filling laced with plenty of cinnamon.