5202 Butler Street, Lawrenceville. 412-408-3160
Hours: Mon.-Fri 7 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
When we first heard of MauraMori Café, we couldn't help but wonder what sort of exotic food the name portended. As it turns out, MauraMori is a simple portmanteau of the names of its owners (Steven and Maura Booher and David Mori, who'd already slyly inserted his surname into the moniker of his nearby pizzeria, That's Amore), and the food is as familiar as bacon and eggs. In fact, it pretty much is bacon and eggs.
And pancakes. And waffles. And sandwiches, burgers and fries.
MauraMori offers a straight-up, diner-style menu in a modest yet comfortable café-style setting. The recently renovated storefront in upper Lawrenceville (a couple blocks past the cemetery) is tall and filled with light. It is attractively finished inside, with pendant lighting and the work of local artists on the exposed-brick walls. Greasy-spoon dining may have its merits, but if we can have the menu without the dull walls, dropped ceilings and fluorescent lights, we'll take it.
Actually, despite the straightforward offerings for breakfast and lunch, to imply that MauraMori is an ordinary hash house would do it a disservice. While trickle-down economic theory hasn't done much for the working classes, trickle-down culinary exploration has given even basic diner fare a little aspiration. Thus applewood-smoked bacon and hand-formed burger patties (as opposed to those alarmingly round industrial pucks) imbue essentially simple food with subtle character and improved flavor. Make no mistake: Mauramori is not trying to remake down-home cooking into haute cuisine. Modest prices should assure you of that. But it does emphasize the quality of its ingredients, and the care that goes into their assemblage.
There's also care in the service. Omelets are the standard three-egg portion, but when we ordered one for our toddler son, our server cheerfully asked how many eggs we'd like for him, and then brought us crayons and paper for our wait. This kind of service goes beyond mere kid-friendliness to the sort of effortless welcome and accommodation that are -- or should be -- the foundation of restaurant dining.
MauraMori got the omelet right, too. The egg was perfect: just firm enough to hold its shape, yet almost meltingly tender within. Squares of sliced ham were well portioned to the egg, and the side of home fries was, in a word, fantastic. Home-fried potatoes come in all shapes and sizes, and Jason likes them all, but thin slices cooked in butter with salt and pepper, like these, may be his all-time favorite. As the potatoes were stirred and turned, they gathered into little piles with crispy surfaces and fluffy, moist interiors.
French toast and pancakes were good renditions of traditional preparations, the former made with thick slices of white bread, the latter with buttermilk. They were sweetly satisfying, if not revelatory. A side of sausage delivered a little spice, a welcome foil to all that maple syrup, and the bacon was expertly sliced to balance between meatiness and potato-chip crispness, pleasing both members of this couple.
If MauraMori served up a breakfast that was a palatable way to start the day, the transition to lunch was rockier. The aforementioned hand-formed hamburger patty was suitably charred on the outside (one of the benefits of its more rustic texture), but the interior was cooked to the point of dryness. Bacon was just as good in the sandwich as it had been on the plate, but a surfeit of bright yellow mustard threatened to overwhelm the other salty, savory flavors with its harsh acidity.
Much more disappointing was a Chicago-style roast-beef sandwich. One of America's great sandwiches, this should consist of beef roasted with Italian herbs, stewed with a spicy jus and topped with chopped pickled vegetables. MauraMori unaccountably translated this as deli roast beef, dry, with horseradish sauce, all on a soft hoagie roll. It was a regular roast-beef sandwich, and a so-so one at that, with no business taking on the name of Chicago's specialty.
Not everything from the lunch menu was flawed. The sweet-potato fries were brilliant, sliced like flat shoestrings so that they cooked through quickly. Not only were they crispy and full of earthy, sweet flavor (no need to dip), but they also had a flaky surface (natural starch? a bit of flour or cornstarch?) that added a hint of delicacy to their texture.
We also noticed that the daily-special board featured a rosemary-lemon salmon sandwich with Dijon aioli. This was another indication of MauraMori's mostly successful effort to bring all-American diner in line with sophisticated modern expectations -- without meddling with the essential simplicity that makes it so appealing to begin with.