Augustino’s cooks it like your mother did

Terry Kirts

Meatballs ($11) were seasoned well, and this big dish of spaghetti and red sauce did indeed hearken back to the simplicity of childhood. Of all the fleeting images I can recall from childhood, none is as vivid as one from a hotel restaurant in Tampa, Fla., where, in the drenching gales of a tropical depression, my family took refuge for an evening meal. This was an old school establishment of the type rarely seen anymore. Hefty velvet curtains hung in thick folds across windows. A plush high-back chair dwarfed my 5-year-old frame. At an adjacent table, a fire burst above a chafing dish of crêpes Suzette, inspiring polite applause. Allowed to order my own dish, I went for my favorite food, perhaps the only dish I downed with zeal as a finicky kindergartener: spaghetti and meatballs. Soon, a massive platter of pasta arrived with king-sized meatballs and a gravy boat of sauce to complement the generous amount already drenching the spaghetti. Chef Boyardee, this was not. Though the memory stops there, I doubt I even made a dent in this mountainous meal. At times, however, I crave it still. Through the years, I’ve come to appreciate more than just the comfort food favorites of my youth. Among more daring Italian items, I’ve downed risottos trumped up with truffle oil, cracker-thin pizzas with anchovies that were never canned and ravioli stuffed with duck confit. But like many diners, I sometimes want a plate of lasagna or linguine. I want enough sauce to scandalize a native Italian and a basket of soft white bread to sop it up. I want a salad that actually comes with the price of the meal. So, when I looked up from my menu at Augustino’s, one of the newer of several strip-mall Italian eateries on Indy’s Southside, and saw a sign bragging “Indy’s Best Meatball,” well, I was back at my grandmother’s table. Our waitress concurred, “It’s the most authentic thing on the menu,” she said, with confidence. What she meant by “authentic” was that these meatballs best represent the long history in Italian food that owner August (Gus) Mascari has drawn upon in creating his cozy little trattoria. A mural and images in the building’s glass façade represent the storefront to the old J. Bova Conti Italian grocery Gus’ grandparents operated years ago on the Southside. Given this immigrant heritage, it’s no surprise Mascari’s menu eschews more complicated Italian dishes for such old-time favorites as baked manicotti and veal parmesan. A couple of spicier twists do include chicken Picasso encrusted with cheddar and pasta Diablo with Italian sausage in a spicy marinara. Inside, a wall of black and white family photos channels the spirits of Mascari’s ancestors, and a rosary enshrines one photo of a departed family matron. The night we dined, a church group was having its Christmas dinner, filling the place with laughter and song. Unfortunately, the front door was opening almost every minute, letting in a bitter December breeze. Smoke-free and with simple no-nonsense booths and tables, however, this place is as family-friendly as it gets. Before we could get to those meatballs, we had an appetizer portion of toasted ravioli ($6). Crispy and golden, they came with a quite mild alfredo sauce and a somewhat sweet and tangy marinara sauce, giving us a hint of what would be on our pasta. Those salads included with the meal were just as we’d expected. The house was packed with iceberg and a few veggies, and the Caesar had plenty of slightly watery romaine though with a tasty and creamy house-made dressing. Among other entrées, the chicken marsala ($14) seemed a good test of what the place could do with non-pasta items. While the deep flavor of porcini mushrooms went well with the sweetness of the marsala, thick boneless chicken breasts, not the typical flattened filets, were utterly drowning in the sauce. A bed of spaghetti wasn’t exactly al dente. An “authentic” antipasto salad ($8) was mostly iceberg with cheese obscuring the top and a creamy version of Italian dressing one step from ranch. But what about those meatballs ($11) — and what about my childhood memories? While Augustino’s weren’t anywhere near the cue ball-sized wonders I was dreaming of, and while the texture was almost a bit too fine, leaving little work for the teeth, they were seasoned well, and this big dish of spaghetti and red sauce did indeed hearken back to the simplicity of childhood. Were they the best in town? As I hadn’t ordered meatballs at a restaurant since adolescence, I couldn’t exactly say. But they were definitely a good start. Two sweet stuffed cannoli ($5) encrusted with glowing green pistachios completed the meal, which, when all was told, hardly taxed our wallets. But when you start out in America feeding immigrants with the foods of the homeland, you just fill the table and don’t worry that much about what you charge. Like a good Italian mother, Augustino’s treats you right.

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