With Bice, The Palm, and two Emeril’s — not to mention Pat O’s, Jimmy B’s, and Mr. Gump’s — the Universal Orlando Resort packs in more name-brand dining options per square foot than anywhere else in Orlando, including the sprawling Downtown Disney. With so many restaurants within steps to each other, a few are bound to get lost in the shuffle. Last month I returned to Loews Portofino Bay Hotel for a photo dining review of Mama Della’s Ristorante, one of my favorite underrated eateries inside Universal’s hotels.
Mama Della’s is located on the lowest level of Portofino Bay Hotel’s waterfront plaza, between Sal’s Market Deli and Trattorio del Porto. You can self-park at the hotel, and the restaurant will validate; or park in Universal’s main garage and take a scenic water taxi from CityWalk.
Priced between the luxurious Bice and the family-oriented Trattorio del Porto, Mama Della’s is themed after an Italian grandmother’s home, complete with ceramic brick-a-brac and a large hearthstone fireplace.
An actress portraying “Mama” herself serves as hostess (sadly, she had the night off during our Sunday night visit) and strolling musicians perform popera and Italian-American love songs tableside. The eccentric decor has been toned down a bit over the years, but you can still find more than a few colorful chickens on display.
Also, complimentary shawls and reading glasses are no longer listed on the menu, as the were when the hotel opened, but the staff will scramble to accommodate if you request them. Service was exceptionally attentive during our last visit, perhaps because it was a slow night; no fewer than 4 employees (not counting entertainers) saw to our needs.
The menu changes regularly, but always centers on refined renditions of rustic homestyle Italian favorites. In other words, if you are used to Olive Garden, Mama’s kitchen may shock your system with fresh ingredients and expert preparation.
My all-time favorite veal chop with mushroom stew is tragically no longer offered, but there should still be plenty on the bill of fare to satisfy. On our visit, we availed ourselves of September’s Magical Dining Month discount fixed-price promotion, but all the items we ordered were representative of ones found on the regular menu, only in larger and more expensive portions.
Following the fabulous bread service (don’t miss the rosemary bread with roasted garlic) we began with tuna tartare with fennel and orange, a delicious combination that was a refreshing change from the sushi-style tuna seasoning I’m used to; and a caprese red and yellow tomatoes, roasted peppers, soft-textured fresh mozzarella.
Main courses included Veal Marsala, which was not a flat pounded cutlet but a thick, juicy strip akin to pork belly, dressed with a rich wine sauce, roasted potatoes, and garlic sautéed broccoli rabe; and a hearty layered lasagna stuffed with large chunks of ground beef and pork, imaginatively enhanced with flavors of fennel and anise.
After two home-run courses, desert was a surprising letdown. The tiramisu was tasty, if intensely alcoholic, but the creme brûlée had an inconsistent texture, and the sugar crust was torched past the border of “carmelized” into bitter-burnt.
Mama Della’s pricing pushes it into the “special occasion” category for most people, but you can save calories and cash by ordering an appetizer or two and splitting one of the oversized entrees. But if you can afford it, Mama makes some of the best Italian in town, in an intimate yet unpretentious environment.
You can book reservations at Mama Della’s through Open Table. Once you’ve eaten then, please leave us your opinion in the comments below.