At Detroit spot Mumma Maria’s House, it started with meatballs

Feb 9, 2022 at 4:00 am
Portobello ravioli with palomino.
Portobello ravioli with palomino. Tom Perkins

Although he had always cooked, doing it for a crowd started for Carl Giordano at the Solanus Casey Center on the East Side, run by the Capuchins. “It started with meatballs,” says Giordano. He was grieving the untimely death of his wife, called Mumma Maria by her grandchildren, and the Center was a place he felt secure.

Turns out the meatballs and the Italian sauces were big hits. In 2019 Giordano won a meatball contest sponsored by Fox 2's Chef Bobby Nahra. In January 2020 he opened a restaurant “inspired by the late Maria Giordano” in a century-old house in West Village.

The décor in the small room, holding just four tables, is homey, if your home contains a glass-doored beverage fridge. Tablecloths and curtains are old-school red-checked; old family photos are on the walls. “Tight but meaningful,” said one companion. “Makeshift impromptu,” said another. In either case, it fits well with Giordano's welcoming, anxious-to-please demeanor.

Because Giordano likes to be generous. On our first visit, when we were the only people in the restaurant, he gave us free meatballs. On the second, a very busy night, we got free dessert — after ordering three spumonis. A glass of the house red was double the normal size.

The stars at Mumma Maria’s are the sauces, served over fresh spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, and ravioli. In each the freshness of the tomatoes shines: marinara with pronounced basil, “Mr. G's sauce” (red with meat) and palomino, a mix of Alfredo and marinara. Although the flavors are as bright as can be, there's none of the acidic after-taste you can find in some red sauces, nor any gumminess from too much paste or over-reduction. They're all you hope an Italian red will be.

One of my favorite dishes was the portobello ravioli: big silky squares and a lot of mushroom flavor, in a pale peach-colored palomino sauce. Every chef knows that a hit of butterfat will always win fans, and that's what happens here, the marinara mellowed by the Alfredo's butter and cream.

You can mix and match pastas and sauces as you please or substitute gnocchi. Ravioli can be stuffed with three cheeses, beef, or chicken. The “everyday pasta special” includes three meatballs, three sausages, or roasted pulled pork. One diner asked for a pasta side and remarked, “If this is a side I wonder what the big thing is.”

I've tended to shy away from meatballs, and finally figured out why: fear of cutting. You don't want a missile shooting across the table when you press down on the sphere with a fork. Two solutions: use a knife as well (duh), or make sure the meatballs are so tender that the side of your fork will work just fine. That's what Mr. G does with his beef-and-pork orbs.

The other prominent sauce is ammoglio, an uncooked combo of tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and garlic — a salsa, if you will. It's served on the big Marriage Salad, along with meat of your choice.

Subs at Mumma Maria's are not finger food; you will need a fork. Meatballs, pulled pork, or sweet or hot Italian sausage are piled into a crusty seeded bun and slathered with Mr. G's sauce and plenty of Parm — thus, meat sauce on your meat sandwich. I liked the fact that the sweet sausage was cooked in the sauce so that it too became infused with the meat's fennel flavor. The chicken Parmesan sub, built on hefty chunks of white meat, comes with marinara.

One oddity: no tap water is served, only plastic bottles. Many San Pellegrino flavors are available in the can. I asked for the house red wine one night and Giordano unceremoniously poured it from a big jug of “Dago red” (his term). Not a winner except for the size, but a mini-bottle of Prosecco worked fine. There are eight other wine choices, all Italian.

About those desserts, which are made specially for Mumma Maria's: the tiramisu made me remember why this ethereal creation took off like a rocket in the 1980s. In this version, a classic, the cakey layer is just moist enough, the mascarpone is ethereal. An almond cake has the same structure, with luscious mascarpone in the middle and almond flavor in every layer.

And the spumoni: the classic cherry, chocolate, and pistachio layers of gelato are covered in hard chocolate. Two under-13s of my acquaintance are Mumma Maria's fans for this reason alone, but I wouldn't blame grown-ups who felt the same.

Service is informal and you may get advice: Don't go with the ammoglio sauce on pasta, are you sure you want the grapefruit San Pellegrino?

A portion of Giordano's business is carry-out. You can buy the various meats, packages of fresh pasta ready to boil, and pints of the sauces: assemble your own Italian dinner at home.

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