Mississippi's blessed with great Italian restaurants, including Hattiesburg's Mario's
By Kara Kimbrough
Mississippi is famous world-wide for Southern comfort food – fried chicken, homemade biscuits, vegetables and sky-high meringue pies and banana pudding are just a few of the delicacies tourists list as some of their favorite dishes when they visit our state. Further south on the Gulf Coast, fresh seafood beckons those who crave fresh-from-the-gulf shrimp, oysters and fish. Despite these well-known items, less commonly discussed is the plethora of ethnic restaurants representing a multitude of cuisines. Italian restaurants are at the top of my list and finding a good one is not that hard, even in the Deep South. Last week, I enjoyed Italian food in a location that conjured up memories of a bygone era. It’s worth a detour if you’re near the area.
But first, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my first Italian love. I’ve written about Amerigo on more than one occasion. It’s a place at which I’ve dined since it opened over three decades on Old Canton Road in Jackson. There’s now a location in Flowood, making dining at one of my favorite restaurants even more convenient.
There are also a plethora of above-average Italian restaurants in north Mississippi and even a few on the Gulf Coast. But I was Hattiesburg last week, so I decided to try the much-heralded Mario’s Italian Restaurant. Friends and even readers have gently chastised me for not getting around to dining there – in fact, as one friend put it: “How can you NOT have gone to Mario’s?”
With that rebuke ringing in my ears, I pulled into the parking lot of a former Pizza Hut on U.S. 49 just north of the city. Memories of high school and college forays to Pizza Hut for a fun night out with friends came flooding back. It’s always fun to visit a place from one’s past, especially since so many buildings and restaurants of yesteryear are razed to make room for urban development.
Once I entered the restaurant, I recalled features of the pizza chain, albeit ones that have been renovated, repainted and refurbished to create a soothing Italian eatery. Nostalgia was soon obliterated as I perused the lengthy menu filled with almost every form of pasta and pizzas, steak, chicken and veal dishes, appetizers plenty of soup and salad choices.
The list of specialty pasta dishes was almost mesmerizing, filled as it was with dishes like tortellini alla pana, fettuccine carbonara, ziti pomodore, spaghetti with choice of sauce or meatballs and sausage arrabiata, to name a few. Chicken-based parmigiana, cacciatore, Romano and piccata all sounded appealing, as did shrimp-centric dishes like scampi alla palermo, fettuccine Alfredo and diavolo.
Since I visited at lunch and had a busy afternoon ahead, I decided to forgo an appetizer, even though I’d been told Mario’s spinach dip is heavenly. And, I selected a dish from the lunch menu. Dishes ($10.99 like chicken alfredo and cacciatore, lasagna, manicotti, ravioli and chicken parmiagiana made it hard to choose just one. I settled on spaghetti and meatballs. It’s my personal belief that an Italian restaurant is only as good as its meatballs.
I wasn’t disappointed in my choice. Perfectly-cooked pasta was topped with a thick layer of rich sauce highlighted with an ample supply of thick, juicy meatballs. The meal was preceded by a green salad with homemade dressing and the star of the meal, a basket of Mario’s famous homemade garlic rolls.
The fact that the salad and bread are part of the lunch special instead of being sold separately made me add Mario’s to the list of restaurants to which I will return.
Mario’s is located at 1410 N. 31st Ave. and 122 Carlisle Dr. in Hattiesburg. The restaurant is closed on Monday. Hours are 11 a.m. – p.m., Tuesday-Saturday and until 3 p.m. on Sunday. Check their website for more information: marioshattiesburg.com.
I encourage you to try any of the Italian restaurants I’ve mentioned (email me if you’d like a more detailed list) but in the event you’re dining at home with a penchant for Italian, here are two quick and easy dishes that can be stirred up in a hurry. Better yet, they include ingredients most of us have on hand. Bon appetit!
8-ounce package dry pasta of your choice
1-ounce package Italian salad dressing mix
½ cup whipping cream
½ stick butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Cook pasta according to package directions; drain and keep warm. Cut butter into chunks so it will blend easily. Add remaining ingredients and toss together to blend. Serve hot; warm a couple of minutes in the microwave before serving if ingredients don’t mix well. Recipe doubles easily.
8 ounces spinach linguini
2 cups whipping cream
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup frozen English peas, defrosted until soft and slightly warm (can substitute another favorite vegetable)
Cook linguine according to package director, drain, cover and keep warm. Combine whipping cream and broth in a pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer on low for 15-20 minutes, being careful not to scorch. Remove from heat and add cheese and peas until cheese melts. Use microwave to reheat linguini if it has cooled. Toss with linguine and serve.