Food & Drink

Hits and misses in this branch of Little Italy

The host greets you with a warm "How ya doin' tonight?" and escorts you past a narrow, bustling bar and into the dining room.

A few minutes later, you're sipping a glass of chianti, munching on soft Italian bread and taking in the surroundings. Spanning one wall is a black-and-white photographic mural of the Brooklyn Bridge at night, with the New York skyline in the background. On another wall, framed head shots of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities look pleased to see a packed house. A crooner strolls through the dining room and lounge, occasionally stopping at a table to invite one of the female patrons to "Come Fly With Me."

It's Saturday night at Mulberry on Main in downtown Clayton. But it doesn't take much imagination to forget that you're on Main Street in a small town in North Carolina and instead picture yourself in Mulberry on Main's namesake street in New York's Little Italy.

The restaurant's Mulberry Street pedigree goes much deeper than appearances -- all the way back to the early 20th century, in fact, when owner/chef Jerry Gubitosi's great-grandfather settled in Little Italy. In 2004, the Gubitosi family moved to Clayton from New Jersey, where they had owned an Italian restaurant for 15 years. After establishing a local reputation in catering, they opened Mulberry on Main last year.

Judging by the crowds, that reputation didn't take long to spread to the restaurant. Presumably, by the time Mulberry on Main opened, many locals were already familiar with Gubitosi's traditional Italian-American fare, made from old family recipes and served in generous portions.

No doubt those fans already know about the rustic marinara sauce, which adds a vibrant counterpoint to everything from tender fried calamari to a hefty slab of lasagna. There's a good chance, too, that they've discovered the extra-crunchy fried croutons that distinguish Mulberry on Main's otherwise classic Caesar salad (though I imagine they're pleased to learn that a surprisingly generous side Caesar is available for a mere $1 surcharge with an entree or pasta dish).

Veterans of Gubitosi-catered affairs will be excited to discover a few dishes not offered on the catering menu. Three amici, for instance, serves up lightly battered shrimp, chicken cutlet and tender veal scaloppine in a lemony francese sauce over pasta.

Granted, even avid fans would have been disappointed by the fishy tasting mussels I encountered one night in an appetizer serving of zuppa di mussels. Or the eggplant parmesan, which came closer to the mark but was let down by a stale, soft crust.

But their faith would have been restored on another night, when eggplant rollatini -- basically, eggplant parmesan in a different shape -- was on the money. Zuppa de pesce came close to the mark, too, serving up mussels, scallops, shrimp and calamari rings -- nary a fishy bite among them -- in a white wine-laced tomato sauce over al dente linguine. The only flaw was a bit of undrained pasta water in the bottom of the dish.

It's less easy to overlook the insufficiently drained tomato juice that turned the Margherita topping on an otherwise excellent New York style pizza into a soupy mess.

The wine list is serviceable, neither more nor less than you'd expect from a typical family-run Italian restaurant. Same goes for the dessert offering, which includes tiramisu and cannoli from New Jersey and cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory.

Service is for the most part efficient, though one night our young waitress disappeared for long stretches, leaving us parched. The staff are uniformly friendly, however, which isn't surprising given that most of them are members of the Gubitosi family.

The food, it must be said, can be hit or miss. But the kitchen's batting average is respectable, and if there are no outright home runs, there is the occasional stand-up double. Besides, Mulberry on Main isn't just about the food. It's about the whole experience. It's about parking your car on Main Street in a small Southern town and walking through the door into Little Italy.