UPDATE: Maniaci’s Italian Bistro is now CLOSED. The announcement of the closing was made on the same day this post went live, and the restaurant closed less than three weeks later. Briano’s Italiano currently operates in the location.
One year ago, a Berks County restaurant became famous.
Maybe infamous is a better word.
On March 10, 2013, Maniaci’s Italian Bistro in Mohnton was featured on an episode of Restaurant: Impossible on the Food Network.
The premise of the show is pretty simple: a sinking restaurant, desperate for help, calls on Chef Robert Irvine to remake the restaurant and its menu. After a few days of hard work, crammed into 60 minutes via the magic of television, the restaurant celebrates its grand re-opening with a brand new look and better food.
When Robert Irvine arrived in Mohnton, Maniaci’s was a sinking business, having lost money for three years, according to the owners. New competition had arrived when Mangia Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria opened just a stone’s throw away.
And like most, the episode ended with revelations and a newfound commitment to the business.
One year later, my wife and I made our first visit to the Bistro.
Driving along East Wyomissing Boulevard, it’s easy to overlook Maniaci’s. The strip mall that houses the restaurant sits back from the street, and the only signage visible in the evening twilight was a large Miller Lite banner hanging above the take-out entrance.
Inside, Maniaci’s is much smaller than it appeared on television. Seating is very limited, 11 tables plus the family-style table that connects the two storefronts that make up the dining room. But on a Wednesday night in March, it didn’t seem to matter as only one other party of two was in the dining room.
How it appeared on the show
Maniaci’s one year later
With no hostess or waitress in sight, we sat ourselves at a table in the middle of the room. The room looked exactly as it had on the show, the shelves lined with potted plants and jars of pasta, arranged exactly as Robert Irvine had left them.
The menus we were handed looked cheap in contrast to the elegant decor. Printed on a double-sided sheet of paper, the menu had several appetizers crossed out with a black Sharpie.
Our meal started with two small loaves of bread, served warm atop a wooden cutting board, a nice touch that made it feel like we were getting something more than a basket of bread. A hefty salad followed before our main dishes arrived.
Not knowing which dishes were inspired by Robert Irvine, I opted for the involtini, a mix of spinach, red peppers and ricotta rolled in pasta. Unlike a ravioli, where the filling is completely engrossed in the pasta, involtini looks more like sushi, with one thin strand of pasta banding the filling together in the center.
The dish was beautifully presented, with halved meatballs serving as spacers in between the six pieces. I was excited to try it, expecting to be wowed by the flavor combination before me. I wanted to taste the heat of the fire-roasted peppers, the creaminess of the ricotta and the spices from the meatballs. Instead it was all masked by the tart taste of balsamic vinegar, which was liberally used in the sauce. It was good, but I went in hoping for great.
My wife opted for the Roman Delight: penne pasta tossed with chicken, peppers, spinach and olive oil. It was a good dish, but one that would have been better at home in a dinner, with thin strips of chicken that fit better in a chicken cheesesteak than a traditional Italian dinner.
Roman Delight as served on Restaurant: Impossible
Roman Delight, back on the menu one year later
It was only after our meal that I went back and re-watched Restaurant: Impossible, where I discovered that Roman Delight was a staple of the old menu, one that Robert Irvine had rejected for using processed chicken with no flavor.
We certainly were not unhappy with our meal at Maniaci’s, but there was a sense of disappointment after we finished our dinner. With noticeably smaller portion sizes than at their next-door neighbor, I was left wanting more, both in terms of flavor and my appetite.
When one of the most respected chefs in the world takes the time to help save your business, I expect a little more for my money.
What I got was an average meal that I could have had at any of the dozens of Italian restaurants in Berks County.