“They’ve been here for lunch and dinner every day for a week,” remarked Dorian, the maître d’ at MAMO, a charming upscale restaurant in SOHO, when I asked about the family seated by the window. Since it was too late in the afternoon and too early in the evening to catch a glimpse of celebs lunching or dining here, I deduced they like the food, service and atmosphere. If so, they’d be right on the mark. MAMO isn’t only a restaurant. It’s a legend.
From the outside the ten-month old MAMO is sandwiched between two high rises and is nearly hidden by scaffolding. If you’re dodging crowds, you’ll miss it. Once inside, patrons are reminded of a southern European seaside town. The decor in the bi-level restaurant is unpretentious, simple and white washed, as though the sun and sea breezes had bleached the wood and brick. An 18th century-type heavy red plush privacy curtain separates the lounge area (parted on weekends) from the reservations desk. Above the desk is a picture circa late 1950 of several men, in the center of which sits Angelo Mammoliti, the grandfather of MAMOs owner, Mike Mammoliti. Nearby pastel-colored hand-painted tiles adorn the stairwell leading to the bar and dining room.
Vintage Cannes film posters decorate the walls along the banquette, and luxurious white leather chairs fit comfortably under generous-size cloth-covered tables. Large bouquets of bright yellow forsythia flank the ends of the long solid marble bar opposite.
As the story goes, Angelo moved from his hometown in Calabria and settled in Antibes, then a small city on the French Riviera. Influenced by the region, his son Herve opened MAMO Le Michelangelo and served classic Italian cuisine with a Provincial twist. His five-star restaurant continues to draw a year-round crowd and is favored among celebrities during the Cannes Film Festival. His son Mike, an ardent New York supporter worked as a busboy and waiter, and at age 34 opened a branch of his father’s restaurant, calling it simply, MAMO.
Before coming to New York with Mammoliti, Maestro Chef Massimo Sola was instrumental in launching Eataly Roma and received a Michelin star at Ristorante Quattri Mori. True to the light flavors of Provençal cuisine, the foundation of the region’s cooking, Chef Sola uses olive oil, garlic and Herbs de Provence, tapenade, wine vinegar or lemon juice as his flavoring of choice. Fruits, beans and vegetables such as tomatoes (prior to the 20th century onions were favored), grains, fish and shellfish, and meat are creatively integrated.
As the Italian provinces are known for a variety of antipasti, so too is MAMO and there are seven on the menu. Chef Sola suggested a tasting, and while my guest and I waited for the appetizers we sipped Sancerre Vincent Gaudry Sauvignon Blanc ($16 a glass) and looked over the extensive French and Italian wine list. Excellent vintages range from $48 a bottle to $340.
Our first stunning reflection of nature arrived, an antipasti created with grilled red and yellow sweet peppers stuffed with a tuna and anchovy puree and served on a bed of watercress, frisse and baby arugula ($17). The dish would in itself make an excellent light meal. Still, the second antipasti rivaled the first. The diced tuna tartare with a chiffonade of herbs was molded with a round biscuit cutter and served on a panzanella atop salad and garnished with cherry tomatoes and olives. Lightly drizzled olive oil over all made this dish a decadent antidote to the days’ blahs ($23).
The core of the rice croquette is the light mozzarella cheese inside the crispy egg-shaped ball. The dish was served with lightly sweetened orange wedges and thin slices of fennel to compliment this ubiquitous appetizer from Lazio ($14).
Traditionally, the women of Liguria roll dough made from flour and water into thin twisted shapes about two inches long. Chef Sola uses this pasta for his out-of-this-world pesto sauce, serving the trofie al pesto with French beans and little diced potatoes and giving the pasta lover an excuse to have carbohydrates with other food groups ($19). His lasagna alla Bolognese style ($20) combines creamy béchamel, parmesan cheese and savory sauce between thin, broad layers of pasta. The result is a light, delicate, delicious ragu that bears no resemblance to the Italian/American style Bolognese lasagna.
Plenty of good-quality olive oil, tomatoes and stale bread are the staples of papa al pomodoro, a thick soup made in the Tuscany region that tastes earthy and deep. Undoubtedly it was created to ward off the cold winter months. Here, Chef Sola marries the earth and sea by using the soup as a sauce for the fresh wild sea bass ($40 on the menu).
The braised beef cheek and potato puree ($36) is meltingly tender, dense and hearty. Not fatty at all, the deep flavor stands out from the sauce that surrounds it. It’s a difficult dish to find in the US, but now MAMO has it and Chef Sola prepares it sublimely.
A New York dessert wouldn’t be the same without cheesecake. At MAMO, Chef Sola serves a light, airy lavender cheesecake.
It’s nothing like the old Lindy’s. Chef Sola adds a hint of lavender in his and garnishes the cloud-like cake with strawberry puree.
MAMO will have as long and as happy a life in New York as does its counterpart in Antibes.