Restaurant Reviews

Mama Mia, That's Cheap Italian!

The birthday dinner's entrée had been prepared especially at the request of the honoree, a tri-coastal sophisticate who divided his time among Toronto, Miami, and the French Riviera. But all six guests plus the host qualified as educated and experienced international eaters, vera cucina italiana on top of most everyone's list. We were all anticipating, with great delight, tonight's main course.

Our host plonked a huge steaming platter, piled high with red tangles, in front of the birthday boy. "Ahhh," he beamed, inhaling. "Spaghetti and meatballs!"

Try to order spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, as we did on my partner's first trip to Rome in the early 1970s, and the likely response will be a blank stare. The confusion continued even after she tried the Italian word for meatballs, because while polpettine do exist in Italy, they are far from a national dish; hamburger is mostly served in the south, where beef has historically been tougher. Even there meatballs are served more often with simple last-minute pan juice/wine reductions than tomato sauce. And mainly they are not served on spaghetti. In Italy spaghetti and other pastas, as well as risottos and soups, are primi (first courses); meatballs, along with other meats and fish, are secondi (second courses). Spaghetti and meatballs is not a dish that, these days, is likely to be found even in an authentic Italian restaurant in the United States, much less in Italy. It's the province of Italian-American eateries, or translated into the slang of my native regione, New Jersey, "red sauce joints." And Mama Jennie's is a classic of this genre.

"Red sauce joint" may sound pejorative but it's not meant as an insult. Most sauces are indeed tomato-based in these restaurants, but when red sauce-style stuff is prepared with skill and with love, everyone loves it -- except terminal food snobs. It's tasty and, just as important, it's comfort food, particularly for baby boomers since it was the only "Italian food" of our childhood years. With South Florida's current Italian-restaurant-to-resident ratio running at an estimated one-to-one it's hard to remember, but when Mama Jennie's first opened 26 years ago, pasta was considered an exotic food. The word wasn't even commonly used. In a 1918 edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, "pasta" isn't in the index; the body of the book devotes two sentences to "spaghetti." The 1964 Joy of Cooking had progressed to the point of titling a chapter "Cereals and Pastas," but the pasta section's subhead reverts, to the relief of U.S. homemakers, to American language: "About Spaghetti, Macaroni and Noodles." And most of the recipes were for All-American dishes. Macaroni and cheese. Tuna-noodle casserole. To make Italian spaghetti, the Joy advised, one should use a can of condensed tomato soup ... added to canned spaghetti.

In contrast, the spaghetti at red sauce joints seemed wondrously foreign. For one thing, the noodle was, well, long. One of the most popular period sitcom visual jokes, in fact, revolved around All-American persons, on first visits to "Italian" restaurants, trying to deal with the hysterically weirdo Italianesque concept of winding lengthier-than-canned-spaghetti strands on a fork. Ha ha ha ha ha! Red sauce-joint spaghetti likely wasn't imported from Italy, cooked al dente as in Italy, or embellished with Italy's typical barely cooked yet intensely flavored sauces. But as today's prima champion of la vera cucina, Lidia Bastianich, says, truly good Italian-American food isn't inferior, just different, "the crowning glory of the Italian immigrants' struggle to adapt."

Take Mama Jennie's spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs are a masterpiece! On my last visit, as always, they were savory despite light spicing, holding together perfectly despite light texture. Italian? Well, arriving with little money and soon running into the Depression, America's original turn-of-the-century Italian immigrant cooks stretched their expensive hamburger by mixing in cheaper eggs and breadcrumbs and plopping the balls on pasta. As for Mama J's thick, sweetened spaghetti sauce, that's also typically Italian-American; immigrants 100 years ago, after all, were even less likely to encounter perfectly vine-ripe, naturally sweet and flavorful plum tomatoes than Miamians are today, so they'd add flavor-intensifiers -- sugar, tomato paste, extra spices -- and cook sauces extra-long to add intensity. And Mama J's tomato sauce is certainly cooked-down tomatoey (though diners desiring even a hint of heat should bring their own Tabasco). Tip to big eaters: Mama's meat sauce is even more concentrated than that on the spaghetti and meatballs -- and spaghetti with meat sauce is all you can eat for $6.95. And those not in the mood for red sauce should know that, strange though it may sound, the balls go great with what always was the classic red sauce joint's one white sauce offering, spaghetti with garlic and oil (also available at Mama J's with broccoli).

Mama J's veal marsala is also perfectly Italian-American, rather than Italian. In Italy the dish is most often sautéed flour-dredged veal sauced with a light natural reduction of pan juices and marsala. Mama J's version has, besides meat, a ton of fresh mushrooms and an almost pot roast-rich thickened brown gravy. And it's just as good as a pot roast, too. Enhanced, perhaps, by half carafes of quite drinkable burgundy for $5.75, and pitchers of beer for $3 (small) and $5 (big).

All entrées come with soup (hearty minestrone) or a hefty dinner salad with mixed lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled peppers, brined olives, and choice of dressing (creamy Italian's good; vinaigrette with crumbled bleu cheese is worth the extra 50 cents), plus some knockout garlicky rolls.

With the recent explosion of authentic Italian wood-oven places that produce pizzas thin enough to practically see through, it's hard to find the tasty nonchain normal pizzas we grew up eating, but Mama J's has them. Despite the medium-thin crust's lack of wood/charcoal blistering, its oiled golden-brown surface was nicely crisp. And pies are cheap enough that one can get 'em loaded -- though the only truly required toppings, to my taste, were fresh garlic and extra cheese.

There are many desserts, including key lime pie, but we ordered what was usually the only dessert choice pre-1970: spumoni. This frozen concoction of nuts and candied fruits in layers of (most traditionally) chocolate, pistachio, and cherry ice creams is even more absent from current menus in Italy than spaghetti and meatballs. But it was very fashionable in the late 1800s, so, like a sort of passed-down-through-generations edible oral history, it still rules at red sauce joints. Vanilla was subbed for cherry but the spumoni was, as it should be, sliced (so all layers were festively visible), not scooped. Tiramisu? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Also forget, if you're seeking an authentically stress-relieving and emotionally satisfying experience, about things like the spotless white tablecloths of today's fancy "authentic" Italian restaurants. Our fabulously friendly waitress's red sauce-spotted white shirt (which perfectly matched the roadhouse-red walls) was the kind of authentic you want in a red sauce joint. And for goodness' sake forget all those "f" words -- like "formal," "fine dining," or "fashionable." Remember words like "simple," "cheap," "megaservings," "welcoming," "warm" ... and, especially, "mama."

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Pamela Robin Brandt