Food For Thought - A Family Tradition - Michael Elefante
MAMA LOUISA'S ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Chef Michael Elefante is one of the nicest chefs I've had the pleasure to meet and his hospitality transcends onto his restaurant. One of the ways people seem to describe Mama Louisa's is that there's a sense of welcoming there and the vibe it gives off is definitely one of feeling at home. It's very old school Italian and a perfect place to take your family for a nice East Coast Italian meal.
When you walk into Mama Louisa's you can expect a family friendly restaurant with a sense of home. In Michaels words, "They can expect a casual, relaxed atmosphere. It's warm, you're going to come in, you're going to feel welcomed here, we want this place to feel like it hasn't changed. I want you to come in and feel relaxed. It's not pretentious. Our food is good. Sunday dinner you come down here and you have fun, you eat with your family, and you're here with them. I don't offer Wi Fi or anything like that. You're not here to be on your phone and you're not here to do those things. You're here to be with family and that's the main thing this is a family place". Like I said old school Italian and I think some parents would be very happy being able to have a conversation with their kids at the dinner table.
Mama Louisa's has been a family owned restaurant for many years and I definitely think that's part of the reason people care about the restaurant. But don't let the years fool you there's definitely more to its charm. "I think people should care about us because we've been here 62 years we're a Tucson landmark but landmark's only go so far. Just because I've been here forever doesn't mean you should come. You should come here now because what we're doing now is getting us back to what the original soul of Italian cooking is. I use the word soul food cooking a lot and it doesn't necessarily mean like a southern kind of thing. Every culture has a soul to it and the Italian American soul is you go to your grandma's house on a Sunday back in New York or Long Island or something like that and she's making all this food it's like seven courses, you've got to get up and stretch after each course because you're so full. That's kind of what we are.
This restaurant was started by the Cassidy's and she was a first generation Italian immigrant so the menu was very small, everything was made from scratch. That was how it was back in the day, with Italian cooking you didn't buy anything pre-made, you made everything. So I think throughout the years we kinda got away from that because of how cultures and people were changing so fast and they wanted all these different varieties of things, and our menu got so big that you just couldn't keep up with that. So when I came back from the Ritz, I wanted to get back to those roots and wanted to get back to that soul cooking. I didn't get into this business to take things out of the box I got into this business because I feel like I make my product better than anybody else in this town.
So with that, I feel like this menu is now back to how it was back when the restaurant first opened. We're about 90 percent scratch kitchen, there's a couple of things that we don't make but we just can't because of the volume of what we do, but other than that pretty much from basically growing our own produce and raising our own livestock, almost everything is 100 percent scratch. That's why I feel like people should come here. We care for the ingredients. I cook for people as if I'm cooking for my kids or for my mom or my grandma. I don't want my kids eating all the chemicals that are in food now. Here our vinaigrette's have 5 ingredients in it. There's mustard, shallots, oil, vinegar and seasoning. That's it. So I feel like we're putting care back into the food and I feel like that's a big thing. People really care about what they're putting in their bodies now. People experience that and people see that kind of love that we put into everything and that's what makes us special".
Adding to that statement, we know that ingredients are important and Michael makes sure that you're getting the quality stuff from reputable suppliers. "As much as I would love to get every single thing locally, we can't sustain that. So being able to find that balance of having to order from the big guys, but being selective on the ingredients of quality that are local is big to me. For our butchery, any meat that we bring in, we always test that, but our pride and joy is with Ben Forbes, the local butcher. Our sausages and any kind of specialty items that we want to do, we go local and then just making sure you have a reputable guy who's not just dealing with stuff out of the back of his truck." LOL, yeah, that would be a no go for me Mike.
If you go dine at Mama Louisa's you'll notice there are two menus to choose from. One is the Heritage menu and the other is the Third Generation menu. The Heritage menu goes back 62 years to the first dishes ever made and has kept that traditional Italian style of food. The Third Generation menu is more for the new generations. It has Italian style with a more modern twist. So, if someone wants to come and have their Joe's Special that they've always had and the other person wants something more modern both have the opportunity to choose from either menu. They are both worth a try and equally delicious. I highly recommend the pork chop (featured in the photo gallery below).
There was certainly inspiration for Michael behind this family tradition. "The inspiration was, it's kind of cheesy but I wanted to feel like I was closer to my dad. My dad passed away when I was 12 and he was a chef. This has been our family's place since my family bought this in '73. So when my dad passed away, I grew up cooking with him. He grew up teaching me how to cook, knife skills, all these different basic things. After he passed away, this was my way to kind of be with him still, even though he wasn't around. I would be on the line in the same building that he spent 30 years of his life cooking here and it's a way for me to be closer to him. That's why I do it. He's a person I want to impress even though he's not here anymore". Knowing this, and after trying his food, I truly believe this love translates to each dish that is made.
But we all know that working with family can be hard and that posed many trials in Mike's life. "It's not the easiest working with family. That was a big trial for me. Back when I was growing up, family was always here. The whole family worked here and then as time goes on you kind of grow up and you see stuff working with family. Everybody's got different views and when there's family working in a family restaurant, there's too many chiefs and not enough Indians, you know. So it's like everybody has their opinion and there's no followers. I've basically come to the point where me and my mom are the only family members here now. My mom does the books. She's been doing them forever, and I run the restaurant and there's not 16 different inputs coming in. The other trial was not really accepting this place for what it is. It's not gonna be my Michelin Star restaurant that I want it to be. It's not going to be a Chef's Table dinner kind of thing. This is Mama L's, Joe's Special, painted murals, wine pouring, it's red checkered table cloths, that's just what it is, and it's beautiful once you learn to accept it".
Mama Louisa's never disappoints and that's because Michael's main focus is consistency in his food. "A lot of people will say creativity, that is what drives them, consistency is what drives me here. That's what's made us be around for 62 years. Whether you get a dish today, it was the same thing you got 60 years ago, and having those standards is the number one thing to being consistent. If people come in for a meal one week, and then next week it's completely different, people aren't going to come back. All too often that happens at a lot of places. So, our number one thing is consistency is the key and that's what's going to drive us". With that said, 62 years of consistent food is no small feat.
There's no doubt experience is something that Chef Elefante has but there's always something you learn along the way. The best advice he has received came from his old executive chef at the Ritz. "I was having trouble focusing a little bit at work and I was kinda in a slump there and he pulled me in the office one day and we had this conversation and he just looked me in the eyes and was like: "Look Michael, you can go and do multiple other things and make a lot more money". He goes, "If you're going to cook, you need to cook 100 percent of the way. You don't cook half a**ed. If you're going to cook, you're going to do it to the best of your ability, and if you don't then you need to go find something else". He stared me right in the eyes and I was like, yeah! Got it! Done! Let's get back to it. It stuck with me".
There's so much history in this little place and I encourage you to take a trip down to Mama L's and be part of this family tradition that has been part of this city for so long. Bring your family or your friends on a Sunday for lunch or dinner and take it back to the old school Tucson days and just enjoy. If chef Michael isn't there he did tell me he really likes Charro Steak so keep an eye out and maybe you'll see him around.
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