Clayton Rustic: Mazara succeeds by getting the little things right 

Parking in Clayton is a chore for the modern-day Sisyphus. How often have I pulled into an open metered space only to spot a "Reserved for Valet" sign? There aren't enough variations of the F-word to count.

These days I usually circle my intended destination's block a few times — I'm too cheap, and my car is too much of a wreck, to bother with the valet — before parking somewhere within the city limits and then trudging back to the restaurant, grumbling all the way. I never visit Clayton just to wander, hoping for a serendipitous discovery.

I doubt I'm the only one.

In the case of Mazara, which opened this past summer west of the intersection of Forsyth Boulevard and Central Avenue, that's a shame. Mazara is the kind of restaurant you're more likely to stumble upon than to seek out, another Italian restaurant in an area that's already lousy with them. Its storefront is narrow and unobtrusive; you might mistake it for part of its next-door neighbor, Bistro Alexander.

Those who remember the space's previous incarnations as the Indian restaurant Rasoi, and, most recently, the short-lived Best Chinese, will be struck by its transformation into a higher-end establishment. The décor is pleasant, if not especially distinctive. The most striking feature is the handsome bar that dominates the front half of the single room. The tables and booths in the back half offer a peek into the kitchen. In general, the ambiance suits both a casual dinner and a more intimate meal, with low lighting and satellite-radio jazz.

The menu is more difficult to describe. Even in St. Louis, with its fondness for red-sauce/white-sauce joints smothered in Provel, there is such a proliferation of Italian restaurants that it would be impossible to categorize them all. Mazara might best be termed "elegant rustic" cuisine: straightforward, richly flavored dishes that offer the attention to detail you would expect from a $20 entrée — as well as the humble pleasure of a $4 bowl of really good soup.

That soup varies daily. On my visit it was butternut squash, the orange of autumn leaves and aggressively seasoned to the very brink of being too salty. Maybe the kitchen needs a lighter hand with salt shaker, but to my palate the soup burst with the essence of butternut squash, with nothing fussy — no oils or creams or unexpected, exotic ingredients — to get in the way.

Likewise, the carpaccio tradizionale wasn't buried in greens (as I've seen at too many restaurants), and its accompaniments — capers, olive oil, garlic, Pecorino-Romano and black pepper — were there only to add bite and depth of flavor to tissue paper-thin slices of blush-red raw beef. Even something as familiar as fried calamari was a success, the meat tender, the batter light and crisp and the red-pepper aioli on the side not merely flavorful, but also possessed of a definite heat.

Butternut-squash soup, carpaccio, fried calamari. Even the most complex appetizer I had was essentially cremini mushrooms stuffed with veal and served in a Mornay sauce. This isn't avant-garde cuisine. Nor is it trying to be. It's just good — in the case of the stuffed mushrooms, thanks to properly seasoned veal, the buttery mushrooms and a welcome acid note from the balsamic vinegar swirled into the sauce.

Listed separately from the appetizers and the entrées, but suitable as either, are a selection of pizzas. I sampled the salsiccia: sausage, cremini mushrooms, caramelized onions and mozzarella and Fontina cheeses atop a very thin yet surprisingly sturdy crust. Despite the exceptionally thin crust, the thick layer of toppings was more reminiscent of a deep-dish pie.

We chose the salsiccia on our server's recommendation. You might find a few of the other selections more intriguing. One pie includes goat cheese, potato, prosciutto and pear; another is topped with goat cheese, mixed greens and grilled vegetables.

Of course, there is pasta. As the name suggests, gnocchetti look like miniature gnocchi. Here the pasta is served in a very light tomato-cream sauce — emphasis thankfully more on the tomato than on the cream — with chopped prosciutto and pancetta. This is as close to spaghetti and meatballs as you can get at Mazara, and its appeal is much the same: comfort food for the Food Network generation.

I'm utterly tired of shrimp in just about every possible form, but while the spaghetti al gambretti certainly wasn't a revelation, it did manage to slip past my jadedness. Small, plump shrimp and spaghetti in a basil-pesto sauce are topped with roasted pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes for a dish that manages to be light yet satisfying.

Entrées are the menu's weak point, the dishes not quite compelling enough to justify the price tag. A $24 beef tenderloin comes with a predictable Chianti glaze and Gorgonzola cheese; the same price gets you breaded veal cutlets, greens and pesto gnocchi. I opted for filetto di maiale, which struck me as the most interesting plate: roasted pork tenderloin with cannellini beans and rosemary polenta.

A sign that St. Louis diners might finally be loosening up: Our server asked how I wanted my pork cooked (medium — those who fear trichinosis might as well become vegetarians). The tenderloin arrived a shade paler than true medium but still tender and juicy. It was served atop the beans, which were presented as a sort of mash and lacked the seasoning necessary to complement or contrast the pork's flavor. The polenta did have a pleasant rosemary flavor, but its texture was dry.

Seafood entrées include cioppino and yellowfin tuna with eggplant caponata. I was tempted by the tuna — unlike bluefin tuna, which I (reluctantly) swore off a few weeks ago, you can still find sustainable yellowfin — but I went with one of the two fish specials, mahi mahi over a sweet-potato mash. The fish was perfectly cooked, the surface golden brown, the flesh meaty and tender, and the sweet potato added just the right accent of sweetness. A very good meal.

The wine list is brief and highlights Italian varietals. Bottle prices are reasonable, but the by-the-glass selection struck me as inflated. Service on my visits was excellent; professional but unobtrusive. I especially liked how the staff managed a multicourse meal where three of us had an appetizer, a soup or salad and then a main course while the fourth person had just a salad for his entrée — all of which was juggled around a very small table.

That service only adds to the impression Mazara presents as a slightly upscale neighborhood joint — the sort of place you drop by on a whim or discover by accident. Should you discover it through this article — well, don't be a tightwad like me. Mazara does valet.

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