Much has been written over the years about the institution that is Mamma Teresa (some of it by me in this space) and certainly the walls speak up. Framed, signed photos of the power elite cover the vestibule and line the stairs that lead to the private rooms – those infamous upper lairs on the second floor – where legend tells us much of the nation’s business has been conducted.
My dad used to fly up from Toronto from time to time, meeting other important men in the restaurant’s “upper chamber.” I remember asking him what he ate after one such meeting. I have no idea, was his reply. (Can you imagine?)
The power meals still happen, but it’s the changes at Mamma’s that have brought me back. The boss has gone. Guiliano Boselli (son of Teresa, who ran Mamma’s for close to forty years) retired last spring, selling the business to two of his long time servers. Boselli was a presence, and much a part of the pleasure of Mamma’s. A benevolent host, he led his happy flock to their tables, then wandered the room, attending to the business of the place, conferring his blessings, shaking hands, kissing cheeks.
If you were not a Mamma regular, you might not notice Boselli’s absence. And there are other constants. Long serving chef Rinaldo Falsetti is still in charge of the kitchen. The hierarchy of black vestured officiants still run the floor, as they always have – explaining the menu (sometimes impatiently to those who don’t know it instinctively), scribbling, serving, pouring, bussing, fetching, each according to his station.
And though the upstairs has been spruced up a bit – smart new window treatments and a crafty paint job – the main floor is as it’s always been. Rooms of utilitarian beauty, white cloaked tables spaced over a red carpet, and still those wicker laundry baskets that cover the hanging lightbulbs and the shelves of knickknacks – antique toys, tins, old bottles, olive oil, a collection of nutcrackers, plastic kindergarten food. Mamma’s is all dressed up for Christmas these days, and she looks rather pretty.
The powerful still come. John Baird and his Blackberried entourage are at a corner table at one evening visit. Jean Chretien is having lunch with his grandson at another. They order off a menu that never seems to change and sheds little light – regulars might know what Linguine Giuliano involves, or Ravioli Sofia or Manicotti Gloria, but I am clueless.
Monsieur Chretien knows what he wants. Veal. So we order that too. If it’s good enough for the Right Honourable, it’s good enough for us.
When it arrives, it’s good enough. Veal in a lemon butter sauce with spinach fettuccine. The meat is tender, the pasta is flavourful, nicely cooked and sauced, the portion is just right and it doesn’t cost too much. What’s not to like? It comes with a little dull salad and the cake of the day – a moist, homey vanilla cake with strawberry that won’t win any awards for looks, but tastes perfectly fine.
Dinner could begin with Mamma’s antipasti. It’s a jumbled collection of hot and cold things curiously served on three plates. We don’t ask questions, we just tuck in to crunchy garlic shrimp, a trio of grilled scallops and a tangle of very tender deep fried squid, served with lemon. Hot-cherry peppers are sliced and stuffed with proscuitto and fontina cheese. They are delicious. A third plate holds olives, cured meats and cheese, all tasty.
Soups are reliably homey, with a made-from-scratch goodness about them. I also like the house gnocchi – lovely little potato-flour dumplings. I like too the option of starter portions of pasta. The cannelloni appetizer could be a full meal.
We wish the eggplant parmigiana had a less soggy breading beneath the admirable tomato sauce. And we’ve had clumsy tortellini, the stuffing tumbling out of the stolidly thick pasta pouches; a risotto primavera that tasted like Rice-a-Roni (though the shrimp on top of the reddened pile are sweet and crunchy); and a pork tenderloin pounded flat and cooked to grim, served with cold figs and an array of stodgy vegetables.
But order carefully – soup and gnocchi, smelts, calamari, the house pasta, anything with shrimp (they’re good here) and a veal dish – and Mamma’s is a dependable bargain. Dinner for two with a simple wine can be as easy as $70. As Ottawa is increasingly scattered with designer restaurants and personality chefs, it can be a comfort to return to a moderately priced institution with very few gastronomic pretensions.
On my last visit, lo and behold, I’m led to my table by Mr Boselli, looking trim and rested. It turns out he still works part time, when things get busy. Plus Ã§a changeâ€¦