It's a Saturday afternoon around lunchtime, and Mad Mario is holding court.
Garrett and I are sitting at one of eight tables at his university-area restaurant and deli, enjoying our chicken Parmigiana ($10.95), lasagna with meatballs ($9.45) and various deli salads. Mario hands sandwiches packaged to-go to a group of four college dudes—he knows the students by name—and then gently chides them when they sit down to eat at the restaurant instead.
A short time later, a young woman comes in with a male companion. She's clearly another regular, and she's effusive in her praise for Mad Mario and his offerings.
"Your food is sooooo good!" she says.
After a couple of visits to Mad Mario's, a couple of things become clear: The restaurant, in the old Asian Sandwich Deli spot several doors down from Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea, is gaining a following, including a lot of UA students. (Mario later tells me he gets some serious business from the UA hockey team, which often recommends the place to opposing teams.) They appreciate the food and are willing to pay a buck or two more for a (vastly superior) sandwich here than at, say, Subway. It's also clear that they appreciate Mario himself.
Far too many eatery owners give short shrift to service, which is a really dumb thing to do. You can't just hand a pad of order tickets to some barely trained teenager making the restaurant minimum wage and expect great things. Good service takes work—but it definitely pays off.
On my first visit to Mad Mario's, I dropped in to get a submarine sandwich ($6.95 small or $8.95 large; comes with a side of deli salad) and a bowl of the minestrone soup ($3.95; served with a roll) to-go. After ordering, I decided it would be nice to call Garrett and see if he wanted something, and he said he'd take a corned-beef reuben ($7.95). I ordered the reuben as Mario was bringing me my sandwich, and since I had a wait, I decided to try the soup.
It was decidedly OK. The minestrone had a nice tomato flavor amidst the pasta, beans and vegetables, but it was a bit watery. However, its biggest problem was the fact that it was lukewarm.
Mario saw me eating the soup and asked how it was. I replied that it was decent, but not hot enough. He apologized, directed the person working in the kitchen to turn up the heat, and then brought me a bowl of the soup of the day, Italian wedding soup, on the house.
"Here, try this," he said.
It was delicious—and hot—highlighted by a nice chicken flavor and bunch of tasty little meatballs. I appreciated it—as well as the efforts of Mad Mario to make sure that I, the customer, was happy.
When I got those sandwiches home, the food happiness continued. My sub, on a French roll, was packed with meats, provolone, tomato and lettuce, and enhanced with olive oil, vinegar and mayonnaise. Simple, yet delicious.
Garrett's reuben was a bit more complex, but equally fantastic. Corned beef, Russian dressing, sauerkraut and sweet horseradish pickles were placed on rye bread—and boy, was it yummy.
For my deli-salad side, I tried the potato salad. It was good enough, although I was surprised to find what tasted like curry in the concoction. Garrett enjoyed his pasta salad, highlighted by an Italian dressing.
A variety of hot and cold sandwiches are on the menu, ranging from a simple roast-beef sandwich or albacore-tuna sandwich (each $6.50 or $8.50) to a Tuscan panino ($7.45) or a sizzling steak-and-cheese sandwich ($7.45 or $9.45).
I'd recommend the sandwiches first and foremost at Mad Mario's. However, the aforementioned Italian entrées that we tried were pretty good, too. Garrett's chicken parm wasn't quite as delectable as the version we frequently enjoy at Mama Louisa's—it was missing the crispiness on the top, and Mario's meat sauce wasn't as savory as Mama's marinara—but it was tender, juicy and an overall winner. My lasagna was also nice, thanks to the presence of a lot of top-notch ricotta; however, the meatballs were only OK. They were nice and tender, but I prefer meatballs to have more of a meaty heft.
My accompanying salad was no-frills but fine. Garrett asked to try two of the half-dozen or so deli salads instead of getting the usual soup or salad. The pesto pasta salad was a hit, highlighted by pine nuts, while the macaroni salad was peppery and delicious.
In addition to chicken parm and lasagna, Mad Mario's offers a variety of ravioli and spaghetti combinations, as well as more than a dozen Italian-themed dishes, including a couple of veal dishes, mac-and-cheese and shrimp diablo.
While Mad Mario's features a handful of desserts—cannoli ($2.50), chocolate cake ($3.95), ricotta cheesecake ($3.95), carrot cake ($3.95) and spumoni ($2.95)—we decided to skip them, since Mario told us they generally aren't made in-house. "But I get the very best that I can," he added.
Mad Mario's offers free delivery in the UA/midtown area for orders of more than $20. The delivery driver, Mario tells me, is generally Mario himself. Also, consider yourself warned that this is a small operation—Mario was joined by just one person in the kitchen on both of my visits—so there may be a bit of a wait when things are busy. But it's worth it.
If you like sandwiches and Italian fare, try Mario's. Chances are you'll like the food and the smiling man serving it up.