CHE BELLA COSA: Real Italian restaurants have historically been a weakness for the Athens area, with some exceptions, probably due to the lack of a population of real Italians to start them. For example, Italian Americans make up around 14% of the population in New York, 17% in New Jersey and only about 2% in Georgia, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Martino’s (2061 Hog Mountain Road, 706-705-6243) opened in the Bell’s shopping center in Watkinsville late last year in a space that’s housed a couple of other Italian restaurants. It’s quite likely that you’ll hear “O Sole Mio” playing when you walk in the door, which gives you the suspicion that if you made your way out the back of the restaurant, you’d find two dogs smooching over spaghetti. The interior hasn’t changed much, remaining fundamentally conservative, although it favors neutral paint colors and wood over red-and-white-checked tablecloths. The new ownership is warm and attentive, and the menu is extensive, with large sections devoted to seafood, chicken and veal entrees.
The restaurant seems to be highlighting pasta and seafood in particular, based on the real estate they’re given, although based on what I tried, the land-based entrees are a bit better. It is nice to have the option of frutti di mare—a combo of squid, clams, mussels and shrimp with linguini and a bit of marinara sauce—but the dish really should highlight its marine ingredients a bit more, and the shellfish should be cleaned a bit more thoroughly. On the other hand, veal pizzaiola, with tomatoes, olives and capers, is quite nicely done, not overcooked and with plenty of flavor. The capellini that accompanies it and all other entrees of its type is clearly from dried pasta rather than anything housemade, and it’s a bit slippery for the sauce to cling to it.
For better pasta, you might want to go to Osteria Athena (upstairs at 323 E. Broad St. downtown, 706-353-3911), which is in the process of revamping its menu but makes darn good pappardelle with a nice ragú. On the other hand, it doesn’t do lunch, is priced higher and feels a bit fancier. Both restaurants bring bread and oil to the table, and both accommodate children. Osteria doesn’t currently include this information on its menu, but it will do a child-size portion of pasta for only $5—or slightly more, depending on what sauce you choose.
Martino’s has a whole section for kids that even includes chicken fingers and fries. It also makes good soup, including a Tuscan white bean soup with sausage that is hearty and stomach warming, and its Caesar dressing is intensely garlicky, meaning it tastes quite good but may require several mints to overpower. There’s not much for vegans, but vegetarians have loads of choices, including an eggplant stuffed with ricotta and spinach, then topped with marinara and baked. Martino’s is open for lunch and dinner every day, serves wine and does catering. Osteria Athena is open for dinner daily and has a full bar.
I DID A THING: Readers, I have eaten a macaroni and cheese sandwich for you. I Heart Mac and Cheese (165 Hickory St., 706-945-3585), a franchise with locations in 10 states, is open in The Mark, the Brobdingnagian student apartment complex that includes mixed-use stuff on the ground floor, and that is one of the things it serves. If you prefer baked macaroni and cheese—the only real kind that one should eat, IMHO—this will not meet your needs as well.
The folks behind the counter mix in whatever you desire—mojo-marinated pulled pork, mango-habanero sauce, meatballs, market-price lobster, vegan cheese, corn, bacon, Muenster, jalapeños, celery, pickles, et al.—shake it in a couple of bowls, then run the whole thing through an oven on a conveyor belt. Voila, mac and cheese. Kinda. Or broccoli, quinoa, cauliflower or tater tots and cheese. The sandwich, which comes with short rib, white cheddar, American cheese and barbecue sauce, is overkill, clearly, but it’s fine.
Everything is pretty much fine, if not super exciting. The hum of fans whirrs in the background constantly, because the oven is always on. There are loads of vegan choices, including Beyond Meat products, and plenty of gluten-free items, both bread and pasta. You can also get fried macaroni and cheese bites, should you not wish to use a fork to consume your cheese and starch, as well as tomato soup to dip them or other things in.
The place feels, unsurprisingly, like a franchise. It also offers plastic cups full of mini chocolate chip cookies that ain’t bad. Signs everywhere note that the parking is not free and is not under the control of the store. Instead, it is operated and vigilantly monitored by The Mark, 24 hours a day, via pay stations that require both a license plate number and a credit card. You can get your mac and cheese from 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. The restaurant does catering and does not serve booze.
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