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A City Should Be Measured By Its Brunch And Cal Mare Springfield Is Worth It

Cal Mare Springfield, MA

From a food perspective, a city’s worth should be measured by its brunch. For years we’ve overlooked Springfield but with Chefs Michael Mina and Adam Sobel introducing Cal Mare’s brunch menu this past January, they have made a destination out of an option.

Mass Foodies focuses a lot of its content in the Heart of the Commonwealth—arguably focusing on Worcester and its neighboring towns. A lot of this is natural, if not involuntary, after Worcester seems to have to defend itself from the “big city in the east.” Regardless, Worcester is reaping the benefits from immense investments in the city and to say that we need Boston’s once vibrant culinary scene would be hyperbole. However, having played defense for so many years, we sometimes forget not to turn into the bully we’re trying to overcome. This became most apparent after a recent visit to the “Wild West.” Sorry, Springfield, we pulled a Boston.

Let’s dive in. First, Springfield’s major presence is MGM casino. Anyone having ever attended a casino knows that, outside of Las Vegas, the casino’s business is getting customers onto the gaming floor by any means possible; food and entertainment is usually secondary. MGM Springfield, from the get-go, has focused on becoming a community within the city. By embracing the historic architecture, partnering with existing organizations, and upgrading city infrastructure, it put its money where its mouth is. This is apparent with the food options within the casino, all having street access to allow non-gamblers to quickly pop-in for lunch, dinner, or… brunch.

Cal Mare is not a new concept. Tried and true, Cal Mare Springfield is a sister restaurant to California’s original name sake and offers the same focused menu…. coastal Italian. It’s easy for any diner, casual or professional, to rag on Italian—it’s the only food category that a simple dish like lasagna, can be made countless ways without straying from its generally accepted definition.

Yellowfin tuna Tartare from Cal Mare Springfield, MA.To experience the range of flavors, brunch at Cal Mare should be shared with friends. One might easily consume just a starter and main dish to be full, but with such an extensive menu there are options that shouldn’t be overlooked. To start, our party of four began with the sweet Atlantic Oysters, half-shelled with limoncello mignonette and a Calabrian cocktail sauce; Yellowfin tuna Tartare which had a beautiful spice from the Tonnato sauce and pickled hot pepper which balanced with the savory of capers; the Little Gem Greens, which were simply mind blowing that such small, delicate portions could pack such flavor—the truffle vinaigrette played beautifully with the familiar flavor and texture of onion dip and parmesan; and ended with the Roman Sweet Buns which was a meal unto itself, a modern take to the sweet bun that, again, combines a complex level of flavors and textures as the whipped Mascarpone balanced the Nutella, highlighted through a salted caramel. To cleanse the palates from the wide range of starters, the house granola and yogurt was a beautiful way to subdue everything with a calming, smooth, orange blossom honey. While not everyone can get behind “family style,” starting brunch with a spread like this is a sure way to experience Chef Mina and Sobel’s culinary depth.

Italian Cheeseburger—a great brunch option from Cal Mare Springfield, MA.As for the main courses, there were two that really stood out from the rest. Although a brick pressed chicken is something found on many menus, its usage of chickpea and Pancetta offered a round experience that, when topped with fried sage, brought out flavors that you might not always expect from a dish of this nature. The second main course that is of note is the Italian Cheeseburger. The safest, American-looking meal on the menu, it is most likely the most approachable regarding preconceived notions of what to expect. While its plating was insignificant (burger, bun, fries, ketchup), the burger itself was not. With giardiniera replacing an American relish, and a spicy aioli made from combining garlic, olive oil, Calabrian Chili, and emulsified with egg replacing an American condiment; combined with a striking provolone, replacing an American cheese (you get the picture). The Italian Cheeseburger pushed the envelope when it comes to taking something “safe and standard” and elevating it to something that you’d be hard pressed to finish despite being full from the starters. Add sides of crispy smashed potatoes and bacon to ensure your taste buds go into overdrive.

Springfield has a reputation. Reputations are very hard to overcome. When you have corporations as large as MGM investing so much into such a small footprint, it should be noticed. While naysayers will never stop trolling the numbers, it’s vital to understand that what the city of Springfield has done with MGM goes beyond opening a casino—it’s created a community. And, like anything Italian, community revolves around food. With Cal Mare’s brunch, Springfield is serious. Sorry we treated you the same way Boston treats Worcester.

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Atmospheres and Appetites: Mare E Monti

Where the sea and the mountains come together – no, I don’t mean those famous Worcester hills. I mean the atmosphere of Mare E Monti, which translates to the “Sea and the Mountains” in Italian. It also brings together a non-commercialized, old school Italian vibe. But what does old school Italian even mean? I sat down with Pina Conte, the owner, and dove in to find out.

After operating Café Espresso for 20 years (in Mare E Monti’s current location) Conte and her husband took a hiatus from the restaurant business before returning with a fresh concept.

When building the restaurant in 2013, they hoped to open up the walls. They realized the original brick was still in good condition as well as the paneling on the ceiling. They went with their gut and decided to preserve it, working the rest of the design around those two elements. A pizza oven had previously lived in the back corner, but this time around they were aiming for more seating and a more open concept.

When you enter the restaurant, the bar is small – ten seats, maybe – but inviting. The wine storage space acts as a reflective chandelier. It’s eye catching and creative and makes you crave a glass of wine. The counter is the original from Café Espresso, and has aged beautifully in its 25+ years. The space is meant to be transitional, and if there is a wait there is plenty of room to mix and mingle while you wait to be seated.

On the left side wall hangs a photo of Conte, her father, and her brother walking the streets of Rome, Italy in 1962-63. The photo came about because she originally wanted the print on the front of the menu in 8″x10″ dimensions. Just prior to opening, Rick Edwards of Blue Frog Creative Printworks proposed to her that he could magnify the print even more for her to utilize as décor in the restaurant. Brought to tears upon seeing it for the first time, Conte knew it was the perfect piece for the walls of her restaurant. It is both a beautiful and nostalgic photo that makes many feel reflective of their own childhoods no matter where they grew up.

Having just celebrated the 5 year anniversary of the opening, the atmosphere continues to evolve as Conte likes to pick up small things here and there seasonally. She hopes to create the Italian vibe that she grew up with in Rome and Calabria, Italy.

Mare E Monti rests on an unassuming street in the hills of Worcester. Worcester certainly boasts a high concentration of Italian restaurants on Shrewsbury Street; however, there is no official “Little Italy” food district. But, you know what? I like that! It lets the authentic Italian restaurants stand on their own all over the city, and create a reputation and following all on their own. At Mare E Monti, you’re invited to have a real Italian experience just like you would with your own family, to relax, and to simply enjoy your meal in an atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re on the seaside coast or the mountains of Italy.