Mangia really used to suck.
Not that it didn't exude an agreeable, if gritty, flava. Before this year's takeover by new management, the revered pasta hut was one of two or three major distributors of counterculture on the South Grand strip. The theme was strictly boho-urban luau. Spilling from sidewalk tables were the kings of the boulevard: clumps of tattooed dudes in their twenties, regally supine, attended by packs of dogs, drooling into bottles of Delirium Tremens and chewing the fat with their supplicants.
Within, there twitched a cavalcade of rumpled rock stars -- sometimes waiting tables, sometimes slumped over the bar, often times both. Mangia Italiano's Michelangelo, Wayne St. Wayne, clung semifamously to the wall, flicking specks of paint at his perpetually unfinished epic mural. Some weekends, great underground rock bands such as the Star Death or the Red Squares would play, but Tuesday nights -- when much-decorated free-jazz practitioner Dave Stone threw down in the bar while bingeing teenagers threw up on the curb -- were the jewel in Mangia's crown of subversion.
It was under such colorful auspices that the cream of South Grand society once hunkered and roiled at kitschy dinettes over plates of spaghetti, ashing in bread baskets and spilling beer in their laps.
It was a stirring tableau.
Still, despite the warmth with which its many apostles regarded Mangia's legendary late-night excesses, filthy toilet and way-cheap lunch buffet, something was wonky: the food.
I am the last person to pooh-pooh the practice of hedonism as a handy substitute for actual enlightenment, but where dinner is regarded merely as a compulsory exercise to be endured between caffeine and alcohol fixes, pleasure -- the chief good and principle goal of the hedonist doctrine -- cannot be fully realized. Good food is key. And let's face it: No right-thinking person could possibly argue that the food at the old Mangia did not exhibit some serious flaws. The sickly-sweet red sauce sweated grease. The white sauce had all the heft, but none of the nuance, of wet cement. A notorious dish called savory pasta salad was a plate of fusilli onto which had been dumped a can of pickled jalapeños. So when word hit the street that some guys from Tony's and Balaban's had bought the joint and were plotting an overhaul, a glad cry arose from the Posey-Smith throat.
Then the field reports began drifting in. My operatives -- demented libertines who routinely spelunk the uncharted recesses of St. Louis nightlife with little regard for their own safety -- were strangely unequivocal in their condemnation of Mangia's new oligarchy. Seldom, in fact, have I witnessed such vitriol. The broccoli, went the refrain, was frozen. Sauces were weird and watery. Service was alluded to with finger-quotes. In sum, the outlook was bleak.
A month passed. Then another.
"We could go to Mangia," mused Stingray one indecisive eve.
"No," I said. "We couldn't. Have you forgotten the finger-quotes?"
The crocuses bloomed. Yearnings for Mangia resurfaced in my daily meditations. When all the young dudes began to spill once more from the sidewalk tables, I could put it off no longer. It was go-time. I collected my pal Fred and ventured into the gathering storm. I figured that Fred, who thinks soup made with Chee-tos is a good idea, would be unlikely to suffer much, even if the ugly rumors proved true.
They didn't. Sound the sackbuts! It's safe to go back to Mangia.
To their credit, the new owners have retained enough of the old place -- Dave Stone, Wayne St. Wayne, funky furniture, inexpensive pasta menu, huge portions -- to overcome their shaky start. Of the few perceptible changes between Mangias past and present, most may be construed as vast improvements. The place is spotless; a trip to the restroom no longer results in an obligatory pharmacology consult. Wine selections, though too scanty to comprise an actual list, now contain fewer toxins. Service is alert. That awful Fazio's bread is gone. Best of all, the food is quite edible and, in one case, hilarious.
Because the digestion can but suffer when one's first reaction to a dish is laughter, funny food is tolerable only when both infrequent and inadvertent. So it was with the endless, inch-wide practical joke of a pappardelle noodle Fred found tangled like a drunken anaconda under his grilled chicken. I plunged in my fork and pulled, and kept pulling, and this ridiculous entity kept unfurling, like scarves from a clown's pocket, until my arm gave out. We never did find the end of this noodle, but, sauced with a vigorous peppercorn cream, it was a decent enough thing to put under a chicken breast. The chicken itself was charred a bit past the point of perfection, but not enough to warrant hara-kiri, and its peppery afterburn lingered pleasantly into the after-dinner coffee.
Other dishes were less cheeky: a romaine salad with kalamata olive and creamy dressing was straight from the old menu, only now it was fresh and crisp. The infamous savory pasta salad, with jalapeño, olive, red onion and a sweet mayonnaise, had a kinder, gentler aspect than its Hell's Angel ancestor. Fans of crackery pizza will enjoy the understated pleasures of the Isabella (crunchy caramelized fennel, a modicum of salsiccia, roasted bell pepper) and a classic Margherita (tomato/basil/fresh mozzarella); both came sized for personal use. A salami sandwich named Giuseppe, with mozzarella on a wheaty baguette, made a respectable lunch.
Two dishes I would advocate skipping are the fusilli Amatriciana (puttanesca on crack: capers, prosciutto, kalamatas and much raw garlic duke it out with dubious results in a sauce tasting inexplicably of spoiled fish) and a vacuous spinach manicotti, our order of which revealed no signs of life. Spinach aficionados should opt instead for the vegetable toasted ravioli; ours contained an identical filling but had the deep-fried advantage and came very attractively plated with a trio of appealing sauces.
Such nods to presentation are a rare spectacle on South Grand but common enough at Mangia. Chef Landis Irwin has some big-ass plates and a squeeze bottle, and he knows how to use 'em. A dish that particularly profits from his design sensibilities is an appetizer of stuffed artichokes. The wan goat-cheese filling could use resuscitation, but the theatrical plating, with vertical prosciutto rolls surrounding a mesclun landscape, recalls a tiny, edible Stonehenge.
You're wondering about the spaghetti Mangia, though, aren't you? Many mourned the hiatus of this staple of the old menu, a baked, bricklike clot of cheese and noodles drowning in marinara. I had the pleasure of tucking into a coveted end piece the other night and now pronounce it better than ever. It's still not a delicate dish, but a spirited garlicky red sauce, drizzled with a few squeezes of béchamel, made all the difference.
Old-school Mangia purists may remonstrate, complaining that the grit is gone. Let 'em complain. I would argue that whenever measures are taken that reduce significantly the probability of one's finding a shriveled Band-Aid in the salad, mankind has been well served.