Mambo Italiano

Sergio’s Italian Bistro
owner/operator Sergio Garcia has an obvious passion for Italian cuisine,
but he’s not a native of Roma. He’s from Mexico City.

“Most
of my daily specials are Italian,” Garcia said. “But I’m from Mexico,
so I mix it up a little bit. I often make a poblano cream that’s similar
to Alfredo sauce.”

Located
in a small, free-standing building that backs up to the Sooner Theatre,
the restaurant is particularly convenient for pre-show dinners or
post-matinee lunch.

The decor inside could have
been done by someone’s doting Italian aunt reflecting a mélange of
old-world elegance and mid-20th century kitsch. It’s an inviting, homey
atmosphere without a shred of
pretension. The concept is obviously casual, but each table has a
tablecloth and tidy place settings. Music on the sound system alternated
between La Dolce Vitaflavored jazz and operatic arias. The two compact
dining rooms provide an intimate ambience.

Garcia,
who worked at Othello’s Italian Restaurant and Pepe Delgado’s on Campus
Corner prior to opening his own place, specializes in a tantalizing
blend of Latin on Latin flavors. Weekends, he sometimes whips up
Franco-Italiano favorite chicken Marsala.

But
don’t get the impression Sergio’s is a United Nations place; it is
mostly familiar fare found in Italian restaurants across the Midwest.

Soft
potato dumpling gnocchi ($3.50) sautéed in garlic butter is on the
appetizer list, and a muffuletta sandwich ($7.50) stuffed with ham and
banana peppers is for a meal.

Sergio
said he learned to cook Italian from books, and it’s evident he has
been a good study. He also occasionally consults with the brothers Patsy
and Vittorio Benso, now retired from years of being
Italiano restaurateurs in Norman. “Fresh” is Sergio’s mantra, which
leads him to alter dishes based on seasonal availability of fruits and
vegetables.

“I’ve been making a roasted pepper and chicken soup because the red bell peppers are so good right now,” he said.

The
menu includes starters, salads, oven-roasted sandwiches, pastas, pizza
and seafood dishes. Low-point beer is available, but not wine or liquor.

Our
gracious server suggested cheese ravioli ($8.50), paired with mushroom
sauce. This mating was a delectable mash-up of rich flavors and creamy
texture.

The small,
but often overlooked touch of freshly chopped parsley and grated
Parmesan on top added fresh flavor and affordable sophistication.
There’s a choice of spicy marinara sauce along with sweet marinara, meat
sauce, roasted garlic and oil, Alfredo or mushroom sauces for the pasta
and specialty dishes.

Baked
ziti ($7.50) didn’t skimp on the ricotta and mozzarella that anchored
the red sauce-smothered penne pasta. Sergio doesn’t just open a can for
his sauces, and that came across loud and clear on my palate. The
marinara sauce on one side dish of spaghetti was way too sweet for my
taste; I’d go with roasted garlic and olive oil given another
opportunity.

Not surprisingly, I learned rich, buttery Alfredo sauce is the numero uno choice with regular customers.

Portobello
parmigiana ($7) is seldom found on menus, and Sergio’s version is
prepared and served the same as the more common dish made with eggplant.
Vegetarians have several other choices, too, including a roasted veggie
sandwich ($8), pasta primavera ($7) and caprese salad ($5). Seafood
dishes are salmon or shrimp, and all come in under $11 with sides of
pasta and steamed veggies included.

Sergio’s
kitchen doesn’t have space to create desserts, so he made the good
decision to source from La Baguette’s commercial bakery less than two
miles away. Cheesecake ($3) was predictably scrumptious.

Sergio’s is a good date-night destination for anyone on a tight budget.

Oklahoma
Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive
aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or
service when appropriate.

Doug Hill

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