It seems like there are some Boston-area restaurants that have been around forever, yet get overlooked for a number of reasons, perhaps because they aren't trendy or on the cutting edge, or maybe because they don't get rave reviews (or reviews of any kind) from critics in the media, or possibly because they have been around so long that they almost seem invisible to those who have driven by them hundreds of times. And Mario's Italian Restaurant in Lexington Center certainly seems to be such a place; the dining spot has been in business for several decades now, and it continues to have a loyal following that includes folks who appreciate the eatery for its cheap, no-frills Italian and Italian-American fare as well as its unpretentious, old-fashioned atmosphere. Yet it still somehow remains a little-known spot outside of the area.
Mario's resides in a long, narrow space in the heart of the center of town (where Mass. Avenue meets Waltham Street). The interior of the restaurant has changed very little over the years, with classic checkered tablecloths (now black and white rather than red and white, however), Italian paintings on the walls, an uncarpeted floor that sometimes makes the noise level high, and a long hall-like space to the right where people can sit while waiting for a table. Generally, diners who come to Mario's during the busy times write their names in a notebook that sits by the entrance to the dining room and wait to be called. (Waits aren't often very long, as the service is usually quick and extremely efficient.)
Don't come to Mario's expecting perfectly plated Northern Italian dishes and glasses of fine wine (or any wine, for that matter, as Mario's does not serve any alcohol at all--BYO is ok, though). The restaurant is all about Southern Italian cuisine as well as familiar Italian-American items, and the food is solid here, with everything from a buttery garlic bread to a huge antipasto to a deliciously creamy (and almost pastitsio-like) baked ziti to a classic Italian thin-crust pizza (with a soft but flavorful crust) to heaping servings of eggplant, veal, and chicken parmigiana, spaghetti and meatballs (with a nicely rich house-made sauce), ravioli, and lasagna, the last of which is completely old-school, with lots of ricotta. Prices are dirt cheap, with most dinners being under $10. A children's menu is available, and for those who are having parties or other events, Mario's offers platters that serve up to 10 people. By the way, beer and wine is now offered at Mario's after many, many years of being purely a BYO spot.
Many, if not most, people who live in Lexington know all about Mario's, as it is a great place to go for takeout as well as dining in without breaking the bank. But ask someone outside of the area about the place and there's a good chance that the person won't know anything about the place. Yes, Mario's is indeed your classic local joint that simply doesn't get much fanfare, and maybe that is how locals want it, as it remains a little secret of theirs after all these years.
Copyright © 2010-2016, Boston's Hidden Restaurants (www.hiddenboston.com).