Mama Mia!

Mama Louisa's has it all--great food, low prices and good service.

Imagine you are a food reviewer, and you have a meal where everything goes right. The food is superb; the service is great; the prices are inexpensive; the atmosphere is delightful. Basically, you have no complaints.

Then, you have to sit down and write the review. How do you write it without sounding like a spin-doctor public relations toadee writing advertising copy? How do you make it funny? How do you get by without drooling on your keyboard from thinking about the food without having the simultaneous mental exercise of constructively criticizing?

This is what I am going through right now. So, if I sound like a gushing cretin this week, I beg you: Please forgive.

I visited Mama Louisa's on a recent weekday for lunch. Irene Messina, The Weekly's editorial assistant who, despite her innocuous title, is the brains that keeps this puppy running every week, accompanied me. It was a late lunch--we arrived at the Craycroft Road location just past 1 p.m.--yet the parking lot was fairly full, showing that the 47-year-old restaurant doesn't seem to be hurting for business. The yellow brick building isn't much to look at from the outside, but who really cares what a restaurant looks like from the outside?

We walked in and were promptly seated at a table near the back of a restaurant, next to a window looking out on a fountain in a sort of mini-atrium. The brick floors, the colorful murals depicting the Italian countryside and the Italian music in the background added to the festive, yet unobtrusive atmosphere.

Our cheerful server promptly brought our sodas ($1.75) and, after we took a fair amount of time pondering the menu--more than three dozen entrées are available, even for lunch--we ordered. Irene, a vegetarian, decided on the eggplant parmigiana ($5.95). I couldn't decide on the crab cakes ($6.95, two cakes topped with sun-dried tomato sauce and served with a side of pasta) and the Joe's Special ($5.70, homemade spaghetti topped with pepper, chopped garlic and "special cheese" before it's baked), so I decided to try them both and take the leftovers home for dinner. (Ah, the joys of restaurant reviewing!) We also decided to split a fried zucchini and fried mushroom appetizer ($6.75) and to each help ourselves to the soup and salad bar ($1.95 with entrée).

The salad bar was fairly typical, with lots of dressings to choose from, plenty of ingredients and standard romaine lettuce. The soup, however, was fantastic. I tried the minestrone; it was packed with veggies and was perfectly seasoned. Many restaurants have a tendency to put way too much salt in their soups; not Mama Louisa's.

The appetizer was also delicious. The batter complemented the mushrooms and the zucchini perfectly, with both the batter taste and the vegetable/mushroom tastes evident. (A word of warning: the pieces were hotter than hell when they were delivered; be careful not to burn yourself.)

After an appropriate wait, our server brought our three entrées. My crab cakes were magnificent--my only gripe is that they were a tad oily--with the sauce enhancing the taste, not overwhelming it. Irene's eggplant was perfectly prepared, she said, with the breading, the cheese and the tomato sauce working in perfect harmony with the vegetable.

But the star of the meal was my Joe's Special. Mama Louisa's refers to it as the restaurant's signature dish, and I can see why. It sounds simple--after all, how many gazillions of Italian dishes combine pasta, garlic, cheese and pepper? But this blend was perfect. Irene also enjoyed a bite of the Joe's Special, and pronounced it to her liking.

After this delicious--and huge--meal, we didn't want to go back to the office. But we did anyway, with our bags of leftovers in tow.

And for dinner, I got to experience the delightful food all over again, thanks to those leftovers.

Mama Louisa's has been around since 1956. And it's apparent that in that time, the restaurant has not gotten stale; it's perfected itself.

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