If you're going to Mama's, make it tonight -- or any Thursday night -- and take advantage of the pizza served with the soup and salad bar for $6.95.
The chewy pizza crust tastes homemade and is top-it-yourself from a selection of onion, green pepper, black olives, sausage and pepperoni. The all-you-can-eat Thursday night trio of salad, soup and pizza, while not the best you've ever eaten, is a filling, well-rounded meal.
Indeed, filling is perhaps the best description of the food at this Fairfax offshoot of Mama's home base in Rosslyn. The rating meter tips to the high end for quantity, but hovers at the midway mark for quality. After a representative sampling of the items on the menu, the Thursday night pizza and salad bar special would be the winner of the Best Value Award.
The salad bar starts with the usual large bin of mostly head lettuce, but then adds an equally large bin of well-washed spinach. Avoid the pale, hard tomato wedges and take your choice from among the 14 or more salad additions. Move on to the marinated and fresh versions of vegetable antipasto -- a nice Italian touch -- with marinated mushrooms and two kinds of olives.
On other nights, in place of pizza, a pan of pasta was offered, such as the densely textured gnocchi in tomato sauce.
The two soups, variations on chicken noodle and vegetable minestrone, are pleasant enough but, like any food left on a steam table, the vegetables and noodles become soggy after awhile.
Because the soup and salad bar with either pizza or pasta is included with all the dinners at Mama's, there is little need to order an appetizer, a fact that the waiters are quick to point out. Even a casual interest in the fried provolone appetizer, speidini, was discouraged by our waiter, who declared it "very heavy." Facing a menu filled with substantial dishes, we pressed on.
Having passed up the opportunity to sample speidini, "a Mama's specialty," we searched out other dishes with the same designation. However, the addition of "a Mama's specialty" to the description seemed arbitrary. None of the specialties ordered was significantly better than other choices on the menu, and one took a dip below average for the restaurant.
A "specialty" from the fish entrees, the scampi, contained fresh-tasting sweet shrimp and clams on a tangle of al dente linguine. So far, so good. The sauce, however, liberally doused with sherry, overpowered the delicate pasta and shellfish.
A better choice would be the mollusco fritti. The fried scallops were tender with a zesty splash of lemon juice.
On the other hand, a standard, familiar tomato sauce showed up frequently, most often in the company of pasta. A moderate success here is the pairing of tomato sauce and cannelloni, with its delicately spiced filling of ground veal, beef and chicken.
The hearty chicken parmigiana also fared pretty well with this sauce. Other pasta entrees, such as manicotti, ravioli, lasagna and cannelloni, as well as eggplant parmigiana, were adequate, middle-of-the-road Italian restaurant fare.
The most disappointing were two veal dishes done in by sauces other than tomato. In the veal marsala, another specialty, the veal had surrendered its delicate flavor to the strong taste of the marsala wine. The other entree, vitello fiorentina, found the veal adrift in a sea of overly salty creamed spinach.
Like any mother worth her apron strings, Mama's won't allow you to leave hungry. So, besides the all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar with pizza or pasta, all entrees other than pasta also include a side dish of spaghetti with tomato or meat sauce.
The dining atmosphere at Mama's spacious restaurant, with white and brown table linens and flickering votive candles on each table, is relaxed and welcoming. Ditto for the large bar area at the back with big-screen television, dart board and a wood-burning fireplace. If you come for the salad bar and several of the more successful entrees, Mama's can be a good value in comfortable surroundings.