Tribute in Tomato 

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Everyone seems to have compiled a list of what's in and what's out for 2008, so here's mine: Out is overpriced, mediocre fare served in minimalist surroundings; in is good food in pleasant surroundings at reasonable prices.

The in group includes such Richmond newcomers as Carena's Jamaican Grill, Café Rustica, Zed Cafe and LuLu's, and now you can add Maria's Café in Olde Towne Petersburg to the inventory.

Maria's also may be part of another heartening trend -- a customer base that reflects the area's racial mix.

Named for owner Vincenza "Enza" Crapa's late mother, who is pictured on the menu, Maria's is an old-fashioned Sicilian eatery dressed up in art deco finery. Enza, who's lived half of her 44 years in Sicily, returned to the States two years ago and settled in Colonial Heights, where her sister and brother moved after their mother's death. The restaurant carries on Maria's name and her culinary legacy.

It's a restaurant where you get what you pay for, which is meant as a compliment at a time when too many kitchens cater not to their diners, but to the egos and whims of the chef. In this instance the chef is Enza's husband, Giovanni, who gets help from his wife and recipes from her mother, which Enza began learning at age 5 in her native Palermo.

Many of the dishes are distinguished by Maria's tomato sauce, which differs from the ordinary in taste and color by cutting down on paste and sugar and increasing the plum tomatoes and other vegetables.

My test for authentic Italian — clams over linguine, sautéed with garlic and homemade marinara — rated a passing grade even though I'm suspicious when only a few of the clams are in the shell. Enza says they all were previously frozen.

The most expensive dish is about $15. Four styles of chicken — Marsala, piccata, parmigiana and Alfredo — cost $11.25. Shrimp, clams and a mix of those plus calamari and mussels are a few bucks more, and a dozen pastas barely hit double digits.

It's not easy to find quality veal at these prices, but Maria's succeeds. In addition to the usual veal with mushrooms, there's a Milanese, which features meat breaded, fried and served over Romaine lettuce, and in piatto quattro gusti (four plates of pasta) the veal is coupled with lasagna, manicotti, ravioli and stuffed shells.

Enza's mom surely would be pleased with pollo à la Maria, a chicken breast sautéed in onion and garlic, topped with red roasted peppers and smothered in Marsala wine sauce.

A seafood cannoli combines previously frozen lobster and shrimp topped with a pink sauce that results from mixing marinara and Alfredo sauces.

Of course, this being a Sicilian restaurant, there's also plenty of pizza, whose golden color, dough and Maria's sauce compensate for the lack of a wood or brick oven.

There also are lunch specials, a children's menu, salads and soup.

You might be surprised when your panini arrives on a hoagie roll instead of pressed bread. Panini, Enza will tell you, means "hot sub" in Italy, and those toasted sandwiches are an American invention.

Appetizers are ample for sharing with four, including antipasto rustico, bulging with roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, green and black olives, marinated mushrooms, prosciutto, salami, provolone and cherry tomatoes, and fried and lightly breaded calamari.

Desserts made in-house include a very rich layered tiramisu, sprinkled with cocoa.

Maria's is located in a one-story, gray brick building that began life about 60 years ago as a produce warehouse. The two large front windows were roll-up doors through which trucks delivered bananas and other fruits and vegetables. A massive double wooden door at the rear of the dining room was a walk-in refrigerator that now leads to the kitchen.

Seeing the historic area's renaissance approaching critical mass, the building's owners asked a neighboring architect, Gil Entzminger, to transform the space into a restaurant. Influenced by the structure's 1940s heritage, Entzminger chose an art deco theme, and when halfway through the design process he learned the tenant would be an Italian restaurant, he incorporated a contemporary Mediterranean flair.

The result is a noisy, 36-seat, smoke-free dining room, separated from the bar and smoking area by a curved wall. The tile floor is patterned in blue and gray waves emulating sea and sand. Neighborhood scenes were etched into glass panels by Petersburg artist Tom McCormack. S

Maria's Café and Italian Restaurant
$$ NSS
16 W. Old St., Petersburg
Lunch and dinner: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

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