Location: 732 Brookline Blvd., Brookline. 412-561-1814
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat. noon-7 p.m.
Prices: Sides $3-4.50, pasta $6-7, sandwiches $5-7
Fare: Homestyle Italian-American
Atmosphere: Cozy café
We've all heard of restaurants so small, the number of tables can be counted on one hand. Often an air of exclusivity clings to these places. Such tiny restaurants may be neither especially fancy nor particularly expensive, but everyone wants to score a table. Why? Because only a few can.
Psst! We know a tiny little restaurant where you can just walk in the door and snag one of only two tables for two, no reservations, no waiting. It's not especially fancy or particularly expensive -- nor is it candlelit, nor will your wine be decanted into anything more elegant than a Styrofoam cup. No matter. On a chilly night, the storefront windows fogged with condensation from the bustling kitchen behind the takeout counter, the coziness factor at Mateo's in Brookline was through the (pressed-tin) ceiling. And, though we were the only dine-in customers the night we were there, we did not miss the social aspect of eating out for an instant. The owners and their lone employee welcomed us as warmly as if we were guests in their home.
Mateo's serves a small menu of homestyle Italian-American fare, specializing, as its name suggests, in panini sandwiches and straightforward pasta dishes. The gnocchi and ravioli are made locally by a woman in New Kensington, while the sauces are homemade in Mateo's own kitchen.
Angelique forwent Italian wedding soup for her other favorite starter, beans and greens, and found it soupy enough. The cooked greens swam in a bland broth with a scant few white beans, to underwhelming effect.
Her meal took a sharp turn for the satisfying when she ordered the stuffed pepper special off the whiteboard on the wall. Instead of a stuffed bell pepper as she had imagined, this turned out to be a generous plate of three banana peppers filled with sausage and topped with marinara sauce and cheese. Now, we have learned from our own experience how unpredictable the heat factor of banana peppers is; we know of no way to predict in advance of cooking them whether a particular bunch will be mild or palate-stripping, so we were not taken aback when Angelique's order was delivered with a warning.
And, though the heat of the peppers felt just this side of survivable, Angelique enjoyed them very much. Fortunately the sausage inside was mild, so that it absorbed some of the peppers' fearsome capsaisins, and the marinara developed a creaminess as the cheese melted into it that also acted as antidote to the dish's searing heat. A side order of cheese ravioli were light, tender, and topped with the same sweet but not saccharine marinara.
Jason's gnocchi, combined with a meat sauce whose tender morsels of beef made it resemble more a true Bolognese than ground round dowsed in tomato sauce, were irresistible, dense and chewy without being heavy or palate-wearying. The meatball Jason added on the side was as tender as the meat in the sauce, but the flavor was less satisfying, with an imbalance between meaty and herbal notes.
Finally, we wanted to try one of Mateo's Panini selections. These turned out to be more like traditional hoagies on rolls than café panini on sliced and pressed bread, but that didn't mean they were pedestrian. We selected the steak pizzaiolo, an unusual option. As a dish, steak pizzaiolo originated in pizzerias as cooks took to stewing cuts of beef in their pizza sauce. In other restaurants it has graduated to the form of seared steak with a chunky tomato topping, but Mateo's keeps closer to steak pizzaiolo's origins as shaved beef in a spicy tomato sauce. A toasted roll was an excellent vehicle for this savory treat.
The only dessert on offer was cannoli, and we ordered one each of raspberry and chocolate. Our visions of berry- and cocoa-flavored cheese fillings were dashed by traditional fluffy white cheese topped with drizzled syrup, but one bite chased away disappointment. The shells were dark and crisp, the cheese light but not insubstantial. The filling was sweetened but not cloying, and the syrups added just enough flavor to enrich.
When you feel like an intimate dinner for two but not like navigating the hassle of advance reservations, menu pretensions or staff snootiness, Mateo's fits the bill.