Mamma Zu's delectable Italian menu makes you forget about the restaurant's many maddening eccentricities. 

Worth the Wait

It is not surprising that Mamma Zu is recommended in the where-to-eat section of many travel articles on Richmond. Mamma Zu is a great place for foodie "discovery." Blending with the modest houses and other commercial structures in Oregon Hill near the city center, it is marked by the number of cars around it more than by its signs. You'll probably get an appetizing whiff from the kitchen as you near the door, and once inside, you know you're on to something.

There's been a line of people waiting for a table almost since the restaurant opened. Chef-owner Ed Vasaio and his staff opened the little eatery to a full house without a dress rehearsal. Early on, the stories of slow service, long waits for food, and surly servers merely fanned the flames of fame — or notoriety. The lines didn't diminish, and few denied that the food was worth the wait.

That was all several years ago, but the line for one of the dozen or so tables begins in early evening and almost always persists until the end of the night. The problem is that once you settle in to a table, a glass of wine and good food, you're reluctant to give up the contentment and your table. To the restaurant's credit, they don't rush the lingerers, but some do settle in rather thoughtlessly. We were told the wait would be 45 minutes to an hour and were seated in about 50 minutes. Some have the wait down to such a science that they get their name on the list and disappear until a few minutes before their table is ready.

While you wait, you have a good chance to study the extensive chalkboard menu and, if you wish, go to the counter and choose a bottle of wine. There are a half-dozen seats at the counter-bar where you can also eat — a choice of many regulars, including several of the town's restaurateurs on their nights off. Ample servings and family-style service of many of the dishes make sampling and sharing part of the experience, and you may still leave with a take-away container.

The list of appetizers ($3-$15) and entrees ($11-$30) contains several seasonal specials as well as the standards. Shad roe, asparagus, arugula and lamb — all harbingers of spring — will no doubt make way for other things as we slide toward summer. Veal marsala, osso bucco, eggplant parmigiano and a dozen pasta dishes ($9-$10) are usually there. Many dishes sell out for the evening, and it's disappointing to see your preselection struck from the board.

The chalkboard doesn't describe very much, but our server was knowledgeable about the preparations and explained patiently and in detail. Spicy red cabbage ($4.50), which had lost its redness, is an interesting complement but doesn't stand alone very well. Since we were not ordering pasta as an entree, we chose penne and peas in a creamy gorgonzola sauce ($9) as one of our starters. It was delicious and copious, so much so that it was difficult not to finish off hunger by eating it all.

Among the entrees are several dishes that aren't found often these days. Slow-cooking braised dishes such as lamb and veal shanks aren't much in favor among chefs who would rather sauté or grill, but osso bucco (veal shank) is a Mamma Zu standard and lamb shanks are on the menu now. I indulged in another rarity: sweetbreads, much maligned and misunderstood. These succulent and delicate nuggets, accompanied by mushrooms and pancetta in a gentle sauce, were sublime. Shad roe can be boringly dry, but the Mamma Zu version is as moist and flavorful as I have ever had. The accompanying simple mesclun salad was a perfect foil to the rich roe. A popular dish is zuppa di pesce, a shellfish-fish soup served in a bowl over spaghetti. Lamb chops, lamb with peas, duck breast, a New York strip, along with special pasta dishes, are among the current offerings.

Desserts are simple — tiramisu or cannoli — and coffee is not decaffeinated. Payment of choice is cash, but checks and American Express are accepted. These are among the eccentricities that make Mamma Zu a sometimes maddening but usually endearing place. Slip into your Type B personality, wait patiently, and eat and drink merrily once you get your table. It's worth the wait.


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