Italian dining with family

At Rosa’s La Scarbitta Ristorante, the chef of the self-named restaurant, is the host at every dinner. She doesn’t just cook the food, she explains the menu, checks up on guests and treats them like they’re in her own home.  

I heard about the 4-year-old restaurant in Mamaroneck from a friend, who says the chef gave her a hug at the end of the meal. I didn’t quite understand, but I knew I wanted to go there for WAG’s family-themed issue.

An inscription to the left of the entrance of the restaurant explains this: “Rosa welcomes you. Come in as a stranger, leave as a member of the family.” Walk in and you will learn this is not an empty promise.

While Italian restaurants are known for catering to families and making you feel at home, La Scarbitta takes it to another plateau. Rosa Merenda runs the restaurant with husband Angelo, serving simply made dishes reminiscent of the food she grew up with in Italy.

The restaurant is an unassuming spot on a retail strip across from the train station on Halstead Avenue. The façade welcomes commuters, locals and visitors with orange and yellow stucco and potted plants in front of the windowed wall revealing curtains and soft lighting inside.

The interior is equally as welcoming, with warm colors, a family photo, framed paintings and charming lights hanging from the ceiling, which Rosa says remind her of Christmas festivals home in Italy. In the back is a more formal room used for private events and additional seating on busy weekends.

The main dining room is big enough to hold several couples and families, yet small enough for Rosa to emerge from the kitchen and strike up conversations with her guests, talking about her passion for her work, her healthy cooking style and even the old adage that food is the way to a man’s heart, which applies to her and Angelo.

On a Wednesday night, Angelo, the quiet complement to his gregarious wife, greeted us with a plate of warm, toasted bread served with a clove of garlic on the side. He took orders but also advised guests to consult with Rosa. When she came to our table, she recited her menu, a soliloquy of Italian specialties and heavily rolled “r”s.

We started the meal with a steamed artichoke served open on a ceramic plate. The fresh, soft vegetable had just enough lemon flavor, giving it zest. The eggplant rollatini, typically a heavy dish, didn’t feel damaging as it was lightly fried and accompanied by a tomato sauce that had an unexpected sweetness.

For dinner, I had pollo alla Scarbitta, chicken with lemon and wine sauce, a dish Rosa says she makes for her own family. It resembles traditional chicken Marsala, yet this sauce emphasized citrus flavors and complemented rather than covered the chicken taste. The extra sauce was perfect for dipping crispy, roasted potatoes and second (and maybe third) rounds of bread.

My friend ordered the pasta primavera, made with tubular pasta and chunky, tangy tomato sauce. The only thing I would have changed was the temperature of the food. It could have been hotter.

I liked that Rosa doesn’t do anything in excess — from the décor to the portions. Everything on the plate is used to flavor or enhance the meal, not just serve as garnish, Rosa says. Even after many courses, I never felt loaded down with carbs as I might at some Italian restaurants.

This even remained true for dessert. The creamy cheesecake, made with fresh ricotta, was rich yet still airy. The tiramisu, a dessert I don’t typically order because it tends to be soggy, was spongy and punctuated with tangy pomegranate seeds and fruit syrup.

La Scarbitta is well known among the locals. Visit once and you’ll return as family, as Rosa promises.

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