Recently, I decided to visit two of the most highly regarded Italian restaurants in central Pennsylvania. They were a long way from one another geographically, but not in quality. Both, in fact, are perennial winners of local restaurant awards.
First, I stopped into Mangia Qui, located in a historic townhouse near the state Capitol in Harrisburg.
About 17 years ago, Rosemarie “Qui Qui” Musarra and her business partners, Staci Basore and Elide Hower, took over the Paper Moon Restaurant space on North Street. Over time, they changed it from a brunch and lunch focus to a lunch and full-course dinner restaurant. They also opened two co-located restaurants, Suba and Rubicon.
“Every day in the restaurant business, challenges present themselves,” Musarra said. “Supervising a restaurant with three active kitchens running simultaneously can be a bit tricky.”
As you go into Mangia Qui, you’ll enter a cozy and relaxing atmosphere. Modern, abstract paintings line the colorful walls and combine with soothing background music. There is a small outdoor patio out front, but, because of the warm summer day, my wife and I decided to eat indoors.
Colleen, a cheerful and knowledgeable server, greeted us and helped us to select our meals. My wife had the “Market Plate,” which included grilled and marinated eggplant and roasted red peppers with mozzarella on top, along with Swiss chard with raisins to add sweetness. I decided on the chicken cacciatore.
To restaurant operators, there are a million moving parts and personalities, and all must be dealt with simultaneously, Basore told me. We could tell they had it down to a science.
As we sat at the table enjoying our raspberry-pomegranate iced tea and listening to the music, I checked out the dinner menu. Choices included “Pasta Nero” (squid ink pasta with cold water lobster tail, shrimp, clams, scallops and mussels), “Spaghetti all’ Ubriaco” (“drunken” spaghetti), “Spezzatin di Vitello” (creamy Parmigiano risotto with julienned veal), and “Saltato alla Puttanesca” (marinated and grilled Mediterranean octopus). Many of their fresh vegetables are locally grown, some even in their own garden.
For dessert, I ordered the double-crusted peach pie with whipped cream, a fantastic choice.
“The restaurant business is one of total dedication,” Basore said. “Many people have a glamorous notion of what a restaurant owner is. I’ve got to say successful people in this business may give the impression of ease, but it takes a heck of a lot of work behind the scenes to make it go. You have to love it. And we all do.”
About an hour north of Harrisburg along Route 11/15 is the bustling college town of Selinsgrove. Founded in 1787 by Capt. Anthony Selin, who fought with George Washington during the American Revolution, you will find Isabella Ristorante, located between several quaint shops, all surrounded by the scenic countryside of central Pennsylvania.
“Our family has been in the restaurant business for years,” said owner Domenico Napoli. “My mother’s family came from Venice, so our heritage and family recipes are all brought from Italy. We hold to that tradition and expertise in preparing our authentic Italian dishes.”
They opened in 2011, selecting Selinsgrove because it’s a unique community nestled in the central part of the Susquehanna Valley, easily accessible to customers from surrounding communities.
Isabella Ristorante is located in an antique bank building that dates back to 1861, offering a bit of historical elegance. Three balconies overlook the space, and the 20-foot-high walls are filled with gold-framed portraits. Linen tablecloths and comfortable chairs complement the beige walls and provide a warm, spacious feeling for diners. The bar is located in the old bank teller’s cage in one corner of the restaurant under a sign that says, “Savings and Loan Department”—the bars are still on the windows.
I decided to try the lobster bisque, a great selection that complemented the homemade rolls and garlic butter. My linguine with clams in a garlic and oil sauce was tasty. For dessert, I bit into a creamy cannoli with whipped cream and chocolate chips.
Soft background music played as we ate, and, at 6 o’clock, a piano player arrived, a regular on Saturday nights. We found he could play almost any song and loved requests.
“For the most part, our challenges have been minimal,” Napoli said. “We are lucky to have excellent suppliers who can provide farm fresh products. We employ experienced staff and ensure the restaurant is pleasing with a comfortable atmosphere. I only wish we had more space for seating.”
Some of Napoli’s favorite dishes are “Fettuccine al Rocco” (homemade fettuccine pasta with mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp in a red sauce), veal piccata (fresh veal cut to order in a lemon and wine sauce with artichoke hearts and capers) and Chilean seabass (blackened seabass over a bed of fresh homemade pasta in a red sauce).
“I believe what sets Isabella apart is our attention to detail, quality of food, creativity of our chefs, and an atmosphere of big city dining in a country setting,” Napoli said. “This brings our customers back.”
Manqia Qui is located at 272 North St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-233-7358 or visit www.mangiaqui.com.
Isabella Ristorante is located at 23 S. Market St., Selinsgrove. For more information, call 570-374-0255 or visit their Facebook page.