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Thursday, Dec. 11, 2003 02:20 pm

The Italian way

Mariah’s owner Sam Alkhayyat spent 13 years at Olive Garden before starting his own venture
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

A tip before you order at Mariah's: Try something served with the homemade red sauce, a house specialty. The flavorful tomato sauce, which is rich with herbs, spices and onion, is light in texture and tastes like it just came off your stove at home after simmering for several hours.

Mariah's restaurant opened this fall in the former Fox Run Restaurant on the city's west side. The huge log structure resembles a ski lodge, something you're more likely to encounter in the Colorado Rockies than in Springfield. Natural wood planks cover the walls and ceiling. Chandeliers fashioned from antlers hang from above. My husband and I dined near the center of the room, next to the circular fireplace, which sits atop a platform of stone. It's the best seat in the house, providing a cozy atmosphere in the spacious building, which tends to get noisy due to its size and soaring ceilings.

Considering the building's architecture, you'd expect a menu of wild game and steaks. But the theme here is Italian, a reflection of owner Sam Alkhayyat's 13 years with Olive Garden. This is Alkhayyat's first venture as a restaurant owner. He and his wife, Mary, named the restaurant after their daughter.

"People love Italian," he says, explaining the menu options. People also love friendly service, something Mariah's has down pat. A hostess even came outside to greet us as we entered the restaurant.

Appetizers include calamari, stuffed shrimp, mozzarella sticks, and shrimp cocktail. The mozzarella Dijon sounded enticing, featuring Italian prosciutto ham and honey mustard wrapped in mozzarella and breaded and fried. But we chose one of three combination platters ($7.95), which featured stuffed portabella mushrooms (filled with shrimp, crab, herbs, and cheese), toasted ravioli, and zucchini straws. I would order the mushrooms and toasted ravioli again. Both were more interesting and superior in flavor to the fried zucchini sticks.

The menu offers soups and salads, a wide variety of pasta, six steak options, Cornish hen and chicken and pork dishes. Mariah's salad includes fresh greens, carrots, cabbage with artichoke hearts, tomatoes, black olives, and onion topped with croutons. The prime rib salad offers the same salad with prime rib served on top for $8.95.

The entrées, which are served with house salad, include an extensive list of Italian dishes, including spaghetti, linguine, lasagna, manicotti, pasta primavera, jumbo ravioli, chicken Marsala and eggplant or chicken parmesan. We ordered the stuffed pork chop, the special of the night -- a thick and flavorful bone-in chop stuffed with ham and cheese and topped with smoky sauce. It was perfectly prepared. However, I was disappointed when a bland mix of frozen vegetables replaced my choice of green beans, the vegetable of the day. My other option was a side of spaghetti.

Our second entrée was a veal dish called a nightgown, a recommendation from our waitress. It was a cut of veal wrapped around prosciutto and Fontina cheese, then covered in homemade red sauce for $14.95. It was a provocative combination and served with a side of fettuccine alfredo, a thick, white sauce with garlic and parmesan. While the veal was tender, the real achievement was the red sauce. In both dishes, however, the prosciutto tasted a bit overcooked.

The house salads were better than most salads that accompany a meal, with black olives, purple onions, cucumber, and tomatoes. The house and low-fat Italian dressings were full of herbs and very flavorful. A loaf of warm bread was served with the salads.

The lunch menu, which range from $5.95 to $8.95, offers many of the same Italian entrées, in addition to sandwiches such as chicken salad, chicken parmesan sandwich and meatball and Italian sausage subs. If you're really hungry, you can order the Mariah's combo for $13.95: a trio of lasagna, manicotti, and cannelloni.

Desserts include chocolate cake, New York style vanilla and café latte cheesecakes, tiramisu, raspberry bread pudding, and caramel apple pie. We chose the Kentucky bourbon pecan pie. The description promised a hint of bourbon in the rich and gooey pecan filling. My husband, a Kentucky native and bourbon fan, deemed it too light on the taste of bourbon.

There are many drink options, from moderately priced wine to martinis and frozen concoctions. If you are in the mood to celebrate, you can even order a bottle of Dom Perignon for $150.


Mariah's is located at 3317 Robbins Rd. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Phone: 217-793-1900. Reservations are accepted but not required. Take-out is available.

Menu changes at Z Bistro

Even fondue is going low-cal.

Z Bistro, central Illinois' only full-service fondue restaurant, is offering a few changes to its four-course fondue menu.

Tempura dipping is now available with all entrées upon request and a new chocolate and peanut butter dessert fondue has been added to the menu. For health-conscious patrons, white wine and chicken broth cooking pots are now offered, instead of the traditional oil.

And if you're too lazy to cook your own food, for an additional $1 per person, owner Abbas Zolghadr and his staff will prepare the fondue entrée of your choice and serve it over fluffy rice. Entrées start at $12.95 per person and are served with a house Caesar salad and warm Paseano bread.

Z Bistro is located at 220 S. Sixth St.

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