Mama Mia!

An unexpected growth spurt has left Amereno's in an awkward stage.

Recently I visited a friend whose son just entered that first swift spurt of adolescence where he surged up six inches seemingly overnight. The once chipper, engaging boy has been replaced with a glowering Cro-Magnon swollen with raging hormones.

As he passed through the room, I greeted him. In response, he swiped a bag of chips and a sixpack of Cokes, and grunted.

His embarrassed mother apologized.

Oh, I assured her, I understood. It's just a stage, just a rough transition. Too bad they can't inoculate against it.

We didn't bring him to dinner when we went out that night, seeing as he needed to drain the refrigerator and watch Babe Watch or Survivor or some safely simulated reality.

Lucky him.

We, however, went out to dine at what once used to be a homey little Italian restaurant, now caught up in its own voracious growth pattern.

About three years ago, Amereno's Little Italy popped up on the far east side. At the time, the secret was closely guarded among a zealous few. This tiny restaurant boasted it served "Mama's recipes." The venue was small, intimate and cheerful in its offerings of "Mama's" cheesecakes, soups and pastas.

Friends raved. They swore one another to secrecy. They all agreed that Tucson finally had an honest-to-god Italian restaurant.

Well, apparently the word leaked out.

Recently, we were tucked into one of the last available booths on what looked to be a brisk weeknight. After an erratic and harried greeting, we waited quite a while for someone to initiate contact. One waiter popped in to give us a rushed litany of specials, while another kept assuring us that she would return to take our order. When finally yet another server stepped in, we rapidly placed our order.

To start, we tried Fried Artichoke Hearts ($6.95), Clams Oreganate ($7.95) and Antipasto ($7.95). The artichoke hearts sounded novel, but they were canned and their tinny and briny flavor ruined any kind of delicacy the dish might have offered. The clams were mostly oil-drenched bread crumbs with a morsel of chopped clam buried at the bottom of the shell. Only the antipasto stepped forward as a viable appetizer; lightly dressed, studded with cheeses and meats, this was a solid choice. A little concerned that the food felt hastily prepared, and not prepared with quality ingredients, we ventured forth to entrées with a bit of trepidation.

House specialties usually showcase a restaurant's strengths, so we asked our server to make some recommendations. At her urging, we tried the Penne alla Vodka ($13.95), normally a voluptuous and enticing sauce that blends cream, tomato and vodka. But on this night we were served an innocuous plate of slightly overcooked penne that had been barely sauced with an unappealing dry tomato paste.

The Pollo Scarpariello ($13.95) didn't improve matters. It featured chunks of chicken sautéed with hot and sweet cherry peppers served on a huge nest of linguini, but again, the dominant flavor of vinegar (the jarred peppers) overpowered the rest of the dish.

The Gamberi Pinoli ($16.95) was a solid choice and the only successful plate of the evening. Served over angel hair pasta, the plump shrimp, tender spinach and mushrooms had been sautéed with a light touch, was deftly sauced, and retained some integrity.

Still hungry and a bit disappointed, we decided to revisit one of our favorite touches at Amereno's, the imported sorbets ($4.95). Frozen and served in the scooped fruit of choice, these usually make a lovely, light dessert. We ordered a peach, demure, deeply blushed and mounded with sorbet. We find these sorbets to be a delicate treat, but on this occasion, as the sorbet disappeared the fruit itself looked as if it had been eaten into. As if (no!) it might have been served before, scooped clean, then re-filled. We declined to finish this.

At this point a rather hefty bill arrived and a rather disgruntled and hungry party departed Amereno's Little Italy.

Disappointed, and convinced we had hit an off night, we revisited, this time with a reservation. Sadly, this experience was even worse than the first. On this visit, our reserved table ended up being in an overflow section, inches from another wedged-in table, right next to a drafty door. When we mentioned to the hostess we had a reservation, and we didn't care to sit in such an uncomfortable location, she shrugged and said to come back in a half hour or so. Given the incredible din, the waiters moving at a frenzied pitch, one could see a long, slow trainwreck was already in motion. A half-hour wait wasn't going to make anything more bearable. Since we had made a reservation (which should have been honored), we opted to go ahead and be seated. We sat in the icy blast and ordered pizza.

Which was another mistake. To be fair, we ordered two different pies, the Stallone (roasted pepper, onion, spinach and sausage) and the Salad Pizza (fresh salad pressed into a hot crust), both $14.95. Not surprisingly, the wait was substantial. When the pizzas were finally served, they looked inviting. After all, the ingredients should have yielded a fair pizza, but in this case the dough for the pie resembled matzo, thin and cardboard dry, the kind of crust that wicks any possible moisture right out of your mouth. Both pizzas had been cooked too long at too high a heat, and tasted faintly scorched.

Plates loaded with uneaten pizza, we decided to give Mama's "homemade" cheesecake a try. Nothing like a consolation for a dreary, drafty meal. We ordered Amaretto and New York cheesecake ($4.95). The mealy, slightly frozen texture, piped whipped cream and maraschino cherry didn't do much to assure us of a homemade endeavor. Perhaps Mama was too busy to be able to prepare enough cheesecake for the night; these cakes tasted like they'd just been whisked from the freezer at, say ... uhm ... Safeway. If this was Mama's homemade cheesecake, then we all placed bets her first name was Sara Lee.

Sometimes these things happen--a swift and rapid growth spurt, a rocky transition that swells a venue beyond its own capacity and measure. In time, these things tend to correct themselves. Either the staff will become more savvy at handling its burgeoning clientele, or those who simply tire of the flustered service, the unbearable din, the hastily prepared food, will stop coming back.

We hope not. We hope that Mama gets to find a bigger kitchen and get back to doing what she does best--cooking up simple, homestyle Italian food.

Amereno's Little Italy. 8240 E. 22nd St. 721-1210. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner nightly 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wine & Beer. MC, Visa, AmEx, Disc, checks. Menu items: $3.95-$38.95. Reservations: for four or more recommended on weekends.
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