By all accounts, Ambler's newest restaurant, Massa, is an immediate success. Since opening earlier this year, you need to make reservations Friday and Saturday evenings—and sometimes on Sundays.
This past Sunday night, the day before Labor Day, not typically a big night for city and suburban restaurants, Massa was filled until its pre-holiday closing. And all of the reports I have received from friends and acquaintances have been very favorable as to the food quality and variety.
By now, it is past the let’s-try-a-new-place phase; its customers are coming back in numbers a second or third time. Its continuing popularity is mostly deserved, but not 100 percent.
The combination of cuisines is interesting. Its menu is a mix of Portuguese (think paella), Mediterranean and American dishes. Owner Lorival Felix is Portuguese, from Lisbon.
Massa is also serves pizza. The restaurant’s full name is Massa Pizza and Grill, and it offers a strong list of creative brick oven-baked pizzas. The chef is talented Peter Alessandrini Jr., formerly from the Four Seasons, a plus on any chef's resume.
The long, narrow dining room is pleasantly lit by several directed overhead lights and wall sconces. Walls of deep red are contrasted by the black polycarbonate, unclothed tabletops and chairs, and by gold linen napkins. The hard surfaces did not soften the fairly high noise level of the filled room. As it began to empty and get quieter, the ambient music, lovely Spanish guitar stylings from the Gypsy Kings on Pandora.com, could be enjoyed.
Prices are moderate, with only the signature Paelha Marinheira eclipsing $25. This traditional dish of seafood and rice is served in a good size pot, enough for two to share with the addition of an appetizer or a salad. My LDC (Lovely Dining Companion) and her sister did just that, each choosing one of the small salads (house or Caesar, $4 each), and sharing an order of paelha. It included a large helping of saffron rice topped with all the usual shellfish suspects: shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and a half lobster. The delicious, briny flavors of the sea were absorbed into the rice.
For my main course, I chose another of the menu's Portuguese specialties, Bacalhau á Lagareiro (grilled salt codfish, $21), with baked “smashed” (but not mashed) potatoes in garlic, kalamata olives and olive oil. The half dozen small potatoes were wonderfully sweet and tender, their skins splitting from being “smashed” (pressed to half their original girth). The salt cod is served not whole or as filets, but rather in flake form.
Be aware that unlike freshwater cod, this salt cod was definitely salty, though our server, Kevin, had assured me that it would not be, and also a skosh fishy. I suspect that this is how bacalhau is supposed to be, and the way the Portuguese like it. I should have thought to squeeze on some lemon juice to lower the saltiness.
The paelha's rice was also just a bit salty, according to my LDC, though not like the bacalhau.
Other entrées include salmon and halibut filets, steak, chicken and pork, all prepared non-Portuguese style, a vegetarian plate, as well as penne and pappardelle pasta dishes.
The soup of the day was roasted butternut squash ($5), a favorite of mine. Chef Allessandrini's version was a smooth, sweet and creamy puree, crowned with crème fraiche, served in a large flat bowl—perfect! So was the cream of wild mushroom soup.
Another favorite of mine is prosciutto and melone ($8), the classic Italian appetizer. It appealingly offered slices of both cantaloupe and honeydew melon, and a sprinkling of three-vinegar reduction...molto bene!
We also tried one of Massa's pizzas, the Santa Fe, one of a dozen on the list ($14). It bizarrely substituted barbecue sauce for tomato sauce, and mixed toppings of grilled chicken, pepper, mushrooms, onions and mozzarella. I would not have chosen this, nor did I care for it; but one of our party of four who had ordered it as his entree said he liked it very much. To each his own.
Our server was very competent and thoughtful. He helpfully brought my LDC a stain removal stick upon seeing her trying to wipe off a food stain she had acquired on her blouse.
Overall rating: mmm 3/4 (out of 5 m’s) A good new addition to Ambler's vibrant restaurant scene
Location: 131-A E. Butler Ave., Ambler
Cuisine: Portuguese, Mediterranean, American
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups, salads, $4 to $11; dinner entrées, $15 to $26; lunch sandwiches $8 to $12
Ambiance: Long, narrow dining room in red and black. Casual. Fairly high noise level.
Reservations: A must on weekends
Credit cards: All major accepted
Alcoholic beverages: B.Y.O.B.
To contact Mitch Davis, email MdavisMainCourse@aol.com.