By Bill Gerdes
Every new Italian restaurant that opens up in the Riverside area inevitably confronts the Mario’s Place question—namely patrons on their first night eating at said new Italian joint ask themselves the question, not always out loud, “Is this place as good as, or better than, Mario’s?” The veritable institution downtown that, while it may never have been as great as locals hoped, still is in a sense Riverside’s restaurant. I was pleased during a recent visit to Magnone Trattoria on Spruce Street to answer both yes, maybe and it depends on what one is looking for to the Mario’s question.
When I first went to Magnone four months ago near its opening it felt as if it were a wine bar masquerading as a restaurant, with three times the number of people at the bar than eating in the dining room. It was a wine bar that had decided to serve food. This has changed. The space itself is light and airy, with every seat offering a chance to watch the proceedings in the open-air kitchen. The staff is pleasant and attentive. The wine list is varied and extensive.
Even the menu has seemingly expanded since the opening. My son and I started off with the Olive Miste, basically a nice olive plate sprinkled in olive oil. It’s fine, with the little ones being the stars of the plate. Then it was on to the Calamari Fritta. It’s rather easy to make terrible calamari, get bad squid, soak it in grease and then add spicy dippy sauce and you’ve nailed the calamari plate in half the restaurants in southern California—but not here. Calamari gets respect at Magnone. Light, airy and delicately seasoned these are amongst the best calamari I’ve ever had, and while this being the age of the dipping sauce there simply must be one, at least here their sauce is a subtly sweet tomato one that compliments the squid perfectly.
And it may be worth noting that by this point, seven on a Saturday night, there was a bit of a buzz at Magnone, a sense amongst diners that owners Deanna and Doug Magnone might be on to something here. That’s a comforting notion seeing that the site has been through several iterations over the years, with the last attempt being Ciao Bella, which closed its doors in 2011.
I ordered the Mussels that were on special that night as an entrée; they were basically an expended version of the appetizer. However these mussels were amazing little numbers, fresh, chewy, tasting of the ocean and residing in a tomato broth that had a real heat to it; peppery and hearty. My son Felip chose the Penne con Salsiccia and gobbled down his plate in minutes, ignoring only the sausages saying they were too spicy, a fact we were warned about by our waiter. It points though to a lack of variety in the pasta section of the menu; most sauces are tomato based and rely a bit on heat as a crutch.
But that’s a quibble not a real problem. Magnone has a chance to grow and get even better with time. And while the market feels a bit precious—think gift shop at the wine tasting—it does feature many of the ingredients used on site.
Magnone Trattoria & Market, 1630 Spruce St., Riverside, (951) 781-8840 www.magnonetrattoria.com. AE V, MC.