LEGACY restaurant preserves its Italian tradition

Mamma Luisa Italian Restaurante

Written by Gail Collins

When you put your heart and soul into something, it becomes more than a business. To Tony Martinez, his restaurant became his love. Wife Lisa smiled and said simply, “Mamma Luisa’s was his pride and passion.” After a good night, Tony might say of their maturing business, “‘She’s so beautiful—let’s buy her a gift,’” Lisa mused.

The man in the double-breasted chef’s jacket with a toque smashed over a bush of curls died his unexpectedly in June. “Honoring Tony and continuing his legacy in operating the restaurant is important,” Lisa said, her voice catching. “The community support, sharing memories and celebrating Tony, has been inspiring.”

Tony had presided over the kitchen since 1984. The original owner, Ernesto, built his menu on his Italian mother Luisa’s cooking, and Tony employed the same craft. There are no microwaves, food warmers or vats of sauce, other than the long-simmered spaghetti standard used in a variety of ways. All dishes are made fresh to order, like the renowned stracciatella, a Roman egg-drop soup, and the bread is baked daily.

The guest book contains a long list of regulars known by their first names. “We’ve seen people get engaged, have children, and grow families of their own,” Lisa said. Day-trippers and annual trekkers on cross-country ventures plan a Flagstaff stop to dine. The experienced wait staff has logged nearly a decade on the floor and includes extended family. The kitchen crew apprenticed under Tony and carries his legacy forward.

Mamma’s menu is fixed and full of favorites. Chicken pompiana—a boneless breast oozing with three cheeses and spinach, and served in a puddle of pesto sauce with a pasta side—comes standard with soup, salad and bread, like other mains. The saltimbocca varies a classic, layering tender veal slices, ham, mozzarella and fried eggplant, all nestled on a wine-laced, brothy bed of spinach. All meats are fresh, never frozen, and produce is gathered at the farmers market.

Touches, like the Italian oil paintings or Rat Pack music, are expected. Presentation of the meal on handmade pottery by Arne Ceramics reinforces the personal touch.

The wine list ranges around the world. There are Italian whites and a reasonable stable of reds, plus a choice of Chiantis. A gratis cordial made from three wines and reminiscent of port is also offered. A meal at Mamma’s is a perfect Italian getaway that doesn’t require a plane ticket.

“We serve a wonderful product and are family run and supported,” said Lisa of their ongoing success. It was especially poignant to learn of this year’s award on what had been Tony’s birthday. He would’ve been proud.

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