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Mother Anna’s: A time-tested Menu

IN THE KITCHEN Mother Anna’s kitchen isn’t about a new Italian cuisine that so many chefs have quested after since the principles of nouvelle cuisine hit this country in the 1970s.

Forget about carefully composed, lighter plates, artful streaks of sauce, and local foraging. Mother Anna’s chef-owner, Alan Caparella, is cooking his great-grandmother’s dishes — just as she made them when she opened Mother Anna’s in Boston’s North End in 1932. “This is homestyle, chicken-parm-, linguine-, meatball-Italian,” said Caparella, who worked in the family business for 25 years before opening this outpost in July 2014. Caparella’s father and two brothers still run the family restaurant in the same Hanover Street spot where Anna Travaglione opened it 83 years ago. Mother Anna’s serves an Italian-American style many might remember from childhood, when they dug into enormous portions of lasagna or ravioli, or big bowls of pasta. And from the look of the guests on two recent visits, people are eating it up.

THE LOCALE Situated on Route 53 at the site of the former Café Eleganza, the 120-seat restaurant envelops diners in the warmth of a darkly wooded, brick interior. Half walls, wavy glass panes, and strategically placed mirrors create nooks and corners that lend privacy to booths and tables. The restaurant is further divided into a bar side and main dining room, capitalizing on the feeling of meandering, hidden spaces.

ON THE MENU The most important thing to know going into Mother Anna’s is that the kitchen offers two tomato sauces, and choosing between them makes all the difference. The one called red sauce turns tomatoes into something that is as delicious as can be, and the one called marinara is the opposite, tasting only of oregano.

The lunch and dinner menus cover all the old classic Italian dishes — baked ziti and manicotti, calamari, eggplant and chicken Parmesan, along with many pasta, chicken, meat, veal, and seafood favorites. The menu and prices vary from lunch to dinner, and a family-friendly kid’s menu ($9), for the under-10-years-old crowd, includes a juice box and a Hoodsie. Most dishes come with either a side of pasta or a house salad of carefully prepped romaine lettuce, cucumbers, red onion, black olives, and an old Mother Anna’s oddity: canned green beans.

On a lunch visit, our great favorite is the absolutely outstanding eggplant rollatine appetizer ($9). Covered in so much red sauce, the dish looks like it’s going to hurt; it comforts instead. The very thin slices of eggplant, rolled around a mild ricotta filling, highlight how versatile eggplant is when it is done right.

For dinner, a country-style cup of kale and bean soup ($5) comes with a big hunk of Wonder-bread-like Italian bread and butter. A bottle of pale yellow olive oil (that has no olive flavor) sits on the table along with a shaker of grated Parmesan. The chicken Marsala dinner dish ($17) is a very large serving of thin, pounded, boneless chicken breast smothered with what must be a cup of fresh white mushrooms and a sweet Marsala sauce.

The pasta in the homemade fettuccine marinara dinner ($14) is all but destroyed by the marinara: Give me your red sauce! The add-on shrimp ($7) are fine, or you can add on chicken ($4), scallops ($10), or lobster ($12).

The baked cod ($12 at lunch) sits on a hot metal platter covered in a light coating of highly seasoned breading and white sauce. The nicely done fish is drunk on white wine and a cut above the competition. A side of ziti with oil and garlic that comes with the fish is a mixed blessing: The pasta is sitting in too much oil, but the red lentil-sized bits of roasted garlic are deep brown, crunchy, and plentiful.

Mother Anna’s is offering a big, time-tested menu, and there are more good choices here than we could sample on two visits.

Mother Anna’s Ristorante & Bar is at 46 Columbia Road in Pembroke; 781-924-1955,