The New Old School

Mama Louisa’s menu might have been updated, but their flavor and ancestry remain a Tucson tradition

"If I changed too much on the menu, I'd probably get shot."

Michael Elefante, chef and now third generation owner of Mama Louisa's, cracks a knowing grin when walking through his new menu. The long standing restaurant has been in operation since 1956 and there are some items on the menu he knows he just can't mess with.

"This is the first significant change in our menu in over 40 years," Elefante says as the early lunch rush begins pouring in. "The old menu read like 'War and Peace', about four pages of just dish after dish. So to keep up with the times I had to make a few adjustments, but not too many!"

Elefante's grandfather bought the original Mama Louisa's in 1976 from, yes, the real Mama Louisa and her family. It was later passed down to his parents and that's when Michael's culinary training began.

"I started washing dishes here when I was 7 or 8 years old," he said. "By the time I was 13, I was cutting meat and doing prep; soon after I was on the line. I have no formal culinary training. Everything I learned was from just watching and doing."

That homespun talent landed him a position at the Ritz-Carlton at Dove Mountain where he quickly moved up in rank in just four years. After some additional training and experience in various kitchens, Elefante came back to his roots at Mama Louisa's only to shake things up a bit. Seeing as some menu items were a bit antiquated and not selling as well as they used to, he broke down what he needed to keep and what he wanted to add.

First was to pare down the menu into an agreeable format. Gone is the near novel –length layout, it is now a streamlined one page catalog of the new, the updated and the have-to-be-left-alone dishes broken up into two separate sections: The "Heritage" and the "Third Generation."

As you may have guessed, the "Heritage" section features all the delicious traditions that Michael and Mama Louisa's just had to hold onto, such as Joe's Special, on the menu since the restaurant first opened. It features fresh homemade linguine tossed in garlic oil, pepper seeds, house red sauce and melted cheese. It is huge, a vision of the old country and if Elefante took that one off there would be some explaining to do. Of course all of the various Parmesan dishes are still there—the eggplant, the veal, the chicken—so no need to bust out the torches and pitchforks just yet.

What is exciting though are Elefante's "Third Generation" additions—four new entrees, two new salads and a plethora of sumptuous appetizers to excite and invite the next wave of Mama Louisa's patrons and to move into, and with, the changing food trends and appetites.

Traditionally, a "\relish plate on an old school Italian menu meant a standard three-bean salad, some olives and, yes, perhaps some relish. Elefante's version though steps it up a few notches delivering a blend of time-honored combinations with gastro-plate charcuterie. For $13 you are served two long divided mini arenas filled with house cured cornichons pickled in spicy pepperoncini vinegar, peppadews stuffed with homemade mozzarella, Gigande white beans marinated in truffle oil, red peppers swimming in a spicy olive oil blend and an in-house aged pancetta that is some of the richest and most savory "bacon" you will have the pleasure to enjoy. There are also flatbread sliders ($5) filled with marinated pork shoulder and a jicama slaw that eat like a sandwich but look more like a taco. "

This is Tucson, we like us some tacos," Elefante said with a chuckle.

The only new menu item to be served with a pasta side is the skirt steak ($17) that is southwestern while keeping its Italian footing. The steak itself is marinated with pepperoncini, cardamom, olive oil and a forest of herbs giving it a very bold yet melt-in-your-mouth appeal. But what Elefante is most proud of, as he should be, is his new pork chop. Served over creamy polenta, this near two-inch bone-in cut is brined and comes finished with a raspberry gastrique which works on so many complex levels. Nestled next to a fresh arugula salad, for $18 this is something all generations need to embrace.

Slicing up some Casereccio bread, another Italian tradition, Michael muses about the recent changes.

"Dining these days isn't the same as it was and we need to keep up with that. Our menu is price pointed for under twenty dollars an item, that's why our Cioppino is scaled down to four different fish rather than the usual seven to 10," Elefante said. "My second child is on the way and I want my kids, and their kids, to know what real and good food tastes like and what goes into it. I think our new menu will reflect that."

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