2 1/2 out of 5 stars
5802 28th Avenue S., Gulfport. Appetizers: $6-$12; entrees: $12-$28; desserts: $5-$7; beer/wine: $3-$11.
As we’re shown to our seats on the patio of Mano’s Italian Grill, I close my eyes. The sounds of burbling water fill my head.
Then, without warning, the plucky romantic tones of a mandolin are instantly identifiable; they ring in your ears in a unique way. Next comes the legato bowing of the violin followed by the transporting melody of an accordion.
Can it really be a charming trio of Italian musicians playing behind me? I unconsciously burst into sotto voce song: “hark, how the sailor’s cry joyously echoes nigh: Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!” From somewhere deep in my subconscious, the lyrics flow effortlessly from a source long forgotten. For a nanosecond, I envision a beach resort on Lake Como.
But the bubble bursts as I open my eyes. The gurgling is from a man-made fountain issuing forth from Gulfport’s Wood Park Pond. The trio of musicians vanishes in a “poof.” The ongoing background music originates from an overhead speaker. The cliched score for our meal highlights Italian stalwarts from “O sole mio” — "my own sun shines from your face" — to “Come Back to Sorrento” with memories of the great Luciano Pavarotti.
Despite being 5,000 miles from the shores of Lake Como, the fruity, herb-filled olive oil just encourages you to get into a dipping mood with the soft crumb and crisp crust of the bread basket. We dive in with Arancini di Rosa, jumbo rice balls filled with meat, peas, and mozzarella ladled with Nonna’s tomato sauce topped with ricotta and melted mozzarella. I miss the crispness that comes with smaller spheres, but my tasters are largely positive.
The caprese features huge but not-quite-ripe tomatoes layered with thick slices of fresh mozzarella, plenty of fresh basil and a balanced EVOO-balsamic reduction drizzle. Given that we’re not in prime tomato season, you can’t really expect more.
Pasta e Fagioli, cannelloni bean soup simmered with parmesan, a touch of marinara and pasta shells instead of the traditional small tubular ditalini pasta on the menu, is bland and one-dimensional. It needs more seasoning and cries out for a hit of acidity to enliven the creamy broth.
As is my standard practice ever since my 2015 Pizza Marathon, we order Margherita, the traditional Neapolitan style pizza where there’s nowhere to hide. Our server promises that everything is made from scratch, but the pizza disappoints. The sauce is thick and cloying like something from a jar and the cheese sure looks and tastes like a thin, square cello-wrapped product. Only the generous sprinkling of fresh basil saves this from epic failure.
The Gamberoni & Scaloppini features pan-seared jumbo shrimp and sea scallops in a lemon butter sauce over soft, bland risotto and grilled asparagus. Risotto requires attention to retain the proper resistance, lest it turns mushy. And especially with a lemon-butter sauce, the liveliness of fresh lemon zest would perk this one up. The proteins are cooked well, but arrive at the table smelling fishy, which is never a good sign. A dish that could soar just suffers from unforced technical errors.
Our most successful dish of the night is the pasta bolognese. It’s listed as pacheri (sic) and then, strangely, described as penne. I just don’t get why the menu isn’t straightforward — especially since the pasta listed is missing a “c”; while homemade tagliatelle or pappardelle are traditional, penne is perfectly acceptable. Mano’s sauce combines ground veal, pork, and beef slowly simmered with red wine and San Marzano tomato sauce. It’s a fine effort.
They offer both a Montepulciano and a Chianti Classico by the glass that matches well with the cuisine and, if you’re looking for a glass of white wine, the Markham Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley is indeed a smart choice.
The desserts are disappointing. The house specialty tiramisu is a deconstructed affair with two ladyfingers boasting assertive espresso flavor, but they’re soggy. And they’re buried in a blob of cream. Tiramisu is best when it’s layered and balanced. I’m not sure what happened to the mascarpone and the chocolate, but this just feels slapdash.
The individual round ricotta and mascarpone cheesecake is dry. It’s served next to a sweet cannoli cream squiggle on the side flavored with orange and berries, but the cream can’t salvage the overall effort.
What Mano’s has going for it is ample portions and the fact that it’s within spitting distance of the Town Shores Condominiums. Sometimes all you need is a fair price just outside your door. The staff is friendly, and while the service is relaxed, it gives you plenty of time to close your eyes, revel in the music, and imagine Lake Como.
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