“People think Chef Boyardee is a great man. I think he’s nothing but a pasta hater.
What true lover of pasta could turn it into mush and shove it in a can? That’s not pasta. That’s just plain wrong.”
~ Author Unknown
Chef Boyardee and I go way back. As mentioned (hopefully not ad-nauseam) on this blog, my arcadian upbringing in Northern New Mexico did not include a lot of Italian food–or at least the real stuff. The first pizza my brothers and sisters ever had was way back in the dinosaur days before there was a Pizza Hut around every corner and a Tombstone pizza in every freezer. It was courtesy of Chef Boyardee and it came in a box with pizza flour mix in a hermetically sealed bag, a can of grated cheese and a can of “true Italian sauce from chef’s own recipe.”
Chef Boyardee pizza didn’t “make our faces light up” when we saw “America’s favorite pizza–Chef Boyardee pizza“–slide out of the oven as it did the family depicted on the commercials. It looked like a strange, oversized tortilla slathered with tomato sauce. If possible, it actually tasted worse than it looked. Perhaps because of the altitude (8,000 feet), the pizza didn’t exactly have the “crunchy crust outside” and wasn’t “so tender inside” as commercials depicted it. Rather the crust was cracker-like and the sauce akin to a thick, overly-seasoned tomato sauce.
Chef Boyardee’s culinary creations next crossed my lips in 1984 while living in Swindon, England. Often too lazy to cook for myself during my last carefree year of bachelorhood, I indulged on a diet of breakfast cereal (Jerry Seinfeld would be proud) and Chef Boyardee canned pastas. That is until I told Kim, then my fiancee who made me promise to “give up that crap.” Though it took considerably more effort, I began over-compensating by preparing such dishes as paella.
But, I digress. In 1977 I moved to Bedford, Massachusetts, a town incorporated in 1729 and about fifteen miles northwest of Boston. A world of new and different culinary delights began the education of my virginal taste buds. Instead of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, I was dining on lobster and fried clams. The enticing aromas and exotic flavors of Chinese food and the malodorous emanation of fermented kimchi were practically extraterrestrial to me, but like the proverbial kid in a candy store, I tried everything. Perhaps more surprisingly, I liked everything.
Italian food–real Italian food–was my favorite and no one in the Bedford area did it better than Mario’s Italian Restaurant in Lexington, Massachusetts. Walking into Mario’s was like walking into heaven. The olfactory arousing bouquet of pastas simmering in a perfect marriage of tomato sauce, garlic, basil and oregano greeted you before the door like a sumptuous siren’s call. Mario’s was but five or six years old at the time, but a very popular dining destination for incomparable lasagna and a unique twist on baked ziti. Many of the entrees were served in casserole dishes, something else this culinary virgin had never before experienced.
If love means never having to say you’re sorry, Mario’s meant not having to navigate the maddening cavalcades of traffic all the way to Boston’s North End for terrific Italian food. Mario’s was a welcome respite from the rigors of the work day. It was a relaxing milieu in which the service was exquisite and food was served hot and in family-sized portions.
During our 2009 vacation to the Boston area, we were determined to eat nothing but Italian food and seafood. That meant a trip to Mario’s was an absolute must. Despite a thirty year span between visits, our rental car hastened through traffic as if on auto-pilot and speed. We would pay tourist tribute to the famous Lexington Minuteman statue later; nothing would deter us from Mario’s.
One step in the door and was as if nothing had changed in thirty years. Mario’s familiar brick facade gave way to a narrow corridor which leads to the hostess station from which a friendly attendant will escort you to your table, complete with red and white checkerboard table cloth. Perusing the menu was a futile exercise in familiarity because we knew what we were going to have. It’s what just about everybody who visits Mario’s has.
But first, a basket of thinly sliced Italian bread with foil-wrapped butter was delivered to our table. It’s always best to save a slice or three to use for sopping up the surplus tomato sauces for which Mario’s is known, but a slice or two with butter will abate your hunger.
The first “must have” entree is lasagna with sausage. The lasagna is a thick, brick-sized slab of noodles and ricotta cheese topped with a meaty marinara sauce. The sausage is actually served on the side and, like the lasagna, is drenched in the meaty marinara sauce. It is a wonderful sausage with a discernible hint of fennel and other Italian seasonings.
There are several things that make this lasagna special. First of all, it’s served steaming hot, but not at the expense of “rubberizing” the lasagna noodles. The ricotta is rich, but not overly so. The sauce has a rich, tomatoey flavor that accentuates the sweetness of tomatoes, not the acidity. It is Italian comfort food at its best.
Commonly known as Greek Lasagna, Baked Ziti is a base layer of pasta seasoned ground beef with tomato sauce, topped with a creamy cheese Béchamel Sauce all cooked to a golden brown. It is the most popular entree at Mario’s, but unlike ziti at other restaurants, it’s served slab-style similar to traditional lasagna. Instead of traditional ziti pasta, it is made with lasagna noodles. Top it with Mario’s magnificent meat sauce and you’ve got maybe the best ziti around.
Mario’s makes returning to the Bedford-Concord-Lexington area feel like coming home. It won’t take me another thirty years to make that return trip home to the restaurant which introduced me to real Italian food.
Mario’s Italian Restaurant
1733 Massachusetts Ave
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Lasagna with Sausage, Baked Ziti