A Woodland Nightmare 


It's a double-edged sword, really: On the one hand, around 3 million people will be introduced to your restaurant. On the other hand, it's via a network show called Kitchen Nightmares.

Mangia Mangia owner Julie Watson says she knew the risks when she applied online to appear on the show's seventh season.

"I was having frustrations," she says, "so I thought, 'I'm gonna have Gordon Ramsay come in, and see how it plays out' ... though I never thought he'd come to Woodland Park. When they called, we thought it would be a lot of fun."

Fun: As in hosting the multiple-Michelin-star-wielding Scotsman who also lends his testy temperament to Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef and brands himself equal parts profanity and perfectionism.

"I'm pretty thick-skinned," Watson says. "I can take a lot of criticism and turn it into something constructive ... I can't imagine a downside. Any press is good press."

All of which remains to be seen — specifically on Friday, April 25, in a two-part episode of Kitchen Nightmares (see "All a bad dream," p. 25), and in the weeks after. Watson hasn't watched and doesn't know how the episode, filmed over a week last August, will play out. All she knows is that after taking nearly a week to remodel after the FOX crew left, she got "hit so hard and so fast that it was a little crazy."

These days, just ahead of the big reveal, Watson says she's still making changes, executing some suggested menu ideas but also hiring a new chef to replace the last one, who departed in November. She wants leadership in the kitchen in case Mangia does get rocked in the episode's wake.

If there are any soon-to-be-quotable thin-air tirades to come from Ramsay, Watson can't say, noting that execs have "got a clamshell" on her. Or maybe she doesn't remember, since the filming week was "surreal" and "a blur."

Which segues nicely into memories of my own Mangia review visits in fall 2009.

Tapped out

The low point was probably looking outside our dining-room window and seeing the then-chef play with his dog between courses. But we also found an array of elements that were offbeat, and I wrote that the eatery lacked focus — particularly as the word applied to a literally pixelated picture of a busty Sophia Loren framed above the men's room urinal.

Today, a Marilyn Monroe portrait, nice and sharp, handles the cleavage quota that's seemingly still necessary for Woodland Pee-ers. And the copper-pot-adorned dining room's pretty sharp, too, with bright white tablecloths, ivy green walls and taupe curtains lined with shadows from abundant wooden blinds that match dark wood chairs and a snappy three-quarter wall that mostly blocks the view of the open kitchen.

But still, sound pours out, particularly the hum of refrigerator motors when business is slow and nobody has bothered to reset the Italian music that died 10 minutes ago. Cooks can be heard shouting to one another over the whir of the stove hoods.

There remains a palpable quirkiness to Mangia Mangia, that for almost every fine accent or gourmet touch a rough edge plays counterbalance, like a suit that doesn't quite fit right.

The sideways glances at your dining partner begin in the parking lot, where a sandwich board placed directly in the wrap-around driveway acts as an unnecessary "You are here" dot, forcing awkward avoidance and parking. Upon seating, our server says hello, quickly followed by a "Can I get you a Pepsi or wine?" as if they're the only two options.

"A Peroni please," I say, only to learn that "We have a keg, but there's no tap for it."

Ruffino Chianti it is then, and a Gnarly Head Zinfandel for the lady (both $6.50 and generously poured). But God, where's a frat boy when you need one? And WWGD (what would Gordon do)?

An honest assessment

Well, the G-man might only have himself to blame when it comes to the Eggplant Parmigiana ($9) — it's his recipe, according to Watson, who cuts it to-order. Nothing's pre-made anymore, she notes, except the house tomato sauce, which unfortunately quickly sogs the eggplant's breading under two melted mozzarella caps and a seriously uneven basil chiffonade garnish.

The eggplant itself thankfully isn't bitter or tough, but it isn't flavorful, either. It comes alive somewhat when dipped into a chunky red bell pepper soup du jour — included with an entrée purchase; salad option available, too — toning down the puréed soup's overly sharp notes due to some imbalance of garlic (which tastes bitingly raw) and spicy red pepper flakes.

Not ideal, but we were better off than a nearby table, which couldn't order the eggplant at all — we'd gotten the last plate at around 7:30 on a slow Wednesday. Didn't Gordon go over inventory basics? Apparently not, as on the following Sunday at lunch, on a well-predicted snowy day no soup had been made at all.

(Of course, we might have known it'd be a bumpy ride when we called ahead to ask what time Mangia opens. "It's supposed to be 11," we were told, "but our server isn't here, so it'll probably be 11:30.")

Anyway, back to dinner. I like the intent on the fried artichokes appetizer ($8) of battered hearts stacked like hot wings over a capricious and bountiful lemon aioli smear, garnished with golden raisins and pancetta bits. The fatty pork belly dipped in aioli, chased by a sip of Chianti, creates beautiful fusion. But again, we're rearranging elements to suit our tastes — the aioli alone needs more lemon juice, while the art hearts feel overly battered and heavy.

The spaghetti and meatballs ($11), supposedly another Gordo recipe, are entirely serviceable but not special, both noodles and sauce lacking character. And the veggie lasagna ($14), with scant mushrooms and spinach, is more of a punishingly creamy béchamel and melted mozzarella boat — truly one of the heaviest, most dense, rich and sedating dishes you'll ever eat anywhere.

"After three bites," my guest says, "I feel like I need to run eight miles."

Hell, make it 10 if you're eating the house tiramisu ($7), which appears quite egg-salad-like, very whipped and pasty with mushy Kahlua-tasting ladyfingers both layering and garnishing in strange cubes on top.

Who knows?

Lunch plays its Italian essences pretty straightforward, and on the whole ranks better for us. It's not that the service shenanigans disappear, as no acknowledgment's made when our walnut, cranberry and apple salad ($10) arrives sans the promised blue cheese crumbles. Guess what? They're out of them.

Our waitress, once asked, does at least offer a substituted goat cheese crouton (a delightful fried cheese ball), which should join the colorful dish permanently — it works well with the nuts, sharp red onions, Craisins and big apple hunks whose sweetness is further piqued by the sappy, tart and pleasant house vinaigrette.

The Sausage Puttanesca ($12) succeeds on all levels, even if I was given different answers each time I asked where the sausage came from, and always had to press for information when "I don't know" became such a familiar answer. Hey, Gordon: Did you mention that "I'm not sure, but let me go ask the kitchen and I'll be right back" can be a right-useful phrase?

But where other plates land bland, the sausage's peppery pizazz really pops with some onion-and-stewed-tomato assist and a nice pesto line from a squeeze bottle.

The Chicken Caprese Sandwich ($10) is a few touches away from greatness, too. Its pesto mayo shines; I just want much more of it to combat the baguette's dryness. Actually, a softer, airier baguette would be ideal. No complaint on the moist, neutral chicken and tomato, mozzarella and balsamic drizzle; side fries (not house-made) are nicely crispy, salted and peppered.

It's apparent that quirks aside, Mangia can execute on many levels. But after nearly five years later and a Ramsay tutorial, I'd hoped to find the eatery in more consistent shape than this. Perhaps Friday night we'll all witness the confounding culinary crux and gain insight into exactly why Mangia continues to struggle. We get a hint above from the show's executive producer that in the past, anyway, all ills led back to Watson.

Let's hope she does indeed sport a very thick skin.



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