Fixed-price dining doesn’t usually project a welcoming sense. You may feel uneasy about your post-meal check, or intimidated by over-the-top presentations. (How exactly do I eat this? I’ve wondered on occasion.) Not so at Mama. With an accessible three-course menu and a budget-friendly wine list, the Italian-inspired eatery on Grand Avenue is a charmer. And one that you can turn to for a celebration or a simple night out.
The brainchild of Stevie Stacionis and Josiah Baldivino, a wife-and-husband team, Mama opened on July 8 to much anticipation. When it comes to vino, the duo is pedigreed: Baldivino is an advanced sommelier, and Stacionis is, likewise, a certified sommelier. For years, Baldivino managed the wine program at Michelin-starred Michael Mina in San Francisco. He didn’t escape attention: In 2011, Wine & Spirits named him one of the best new sommeliers.
Stacionis, who has written about travel and food, possesses customer-facing restaurant experience, too. She’s worked the front of house at white-tablecloth venues, like Il Fornaio in Pasadena. It was there that she met Baldivino. They hit it off during a wine tasting trip organized by Chamal Perera, Il Fornaio’s general manager at the time. Perera is now Mama’s GM, and his decades of experience at Il Fornaio shine at hospitality-oriented Mama.
Baldivino left Michael Mina for Bay Grape, which he opened with Stacionis in 2014. The bottle shop, just four doors down from Mama, focuses on “low-key” wine education. Now, Bay Grape claims its own accolades. Wine Enthusiast recently recognized Baldivino and Stacionis for their approach to retail in the magazine’s 2017 “Top 40 under 40 Tastemakers.”
But back to Mama. The restaurant’s moniker is an homage to Staconis’s 99-year-old grandmother, who she fondly calls “Mama.” She was the “consummate hostess,” Stacionis told me recently, as we chatted near the restaurant’s foyer. “At home, it was always this convivial party.” And that party “always centered on food.” At Mama’s gatherings, like most family meals, you weren’t given much latitude to decide your dish. But, there was “always pasta with sugo.”
You are right to feel spoiled at Mama, in part because of the concept. Though fewer choices mean less flexibility for guests, a limited menu can reduce stress while ordering. It can also lead to greater precision by cooks, who can hone their focus on fewer dishes. And Mama provides that experience for under $30, in contrast to most prix-fixe meals. With a high camp interior — think, burnt caramel banquettes, pops of pink and lush greenery — you get a sense of bohemian glitz, too.
Though Mama’s menu will rotate frequently, guests will always have a choice between two appetizers, two pastas and two desserts. Bring a friend, or a few, to maximize opportunities to sample. If your party expands, you may need to wait for a table, as so far, Mama is popular, and doesn’t take reservations. There is no bar, but there are other options for a pre-dinner drink: head across the street to Room 389 — the bar hawks cocktails in a laid-back space. Or, if you’re sticking to wine, you can wander down the block to Bay Grape, Stacionis and Baldivino’s original haunt. The host will call you when your table is ready.
Pasta is, not surprisingly, the mainstay of a meal at Mama. For its opening menu, Mama offered a linguine with cherry tomatoes and pesto. Smacking of basil, we crowned the dish a knockout. (The fight isn’t quite fair when grated Parmesan fuses with extra virgin olive oil.) Dorian Jones, Mama’s executive chef, delivers on other vegetarian items, as well. On week two, she highlighted seasonality (and responded to the recent heatwave), with an effortlessly sweet, chilled corn soup.
The linguine has since cycled off the menu, replaced by orecchiette with chard. On a second visit, the spaghetti with sugo commanded attention (the pieces of beef were hunkier this time), and the sauce’s tomato base was bright. Like at Mama’s home, sugo will always be available.
If your budget allows, don’t skimp on additions to the three-course set. Anchovies are a divisive fish — even still, you should request the salty specimens, which Perera told me, the restaurant imports from Italy. They are accompanied by warm Acme ciabatta and butter ($6). Between the salty tang of the fish and the rich dairy, the trio forms its own enjoyable meal. But do save some bread to accompany the pan-fried meatballs ($10); there are three, they are dense, and they are doused in sugo. These too will remain on the menu.
In contrast to most carb-forward meals, the pasta portion is thoughtful, so that dessert doesn’t offend your better sense. The deconstructed lime tart, a star on both of our visits, is best eaten separately, so that the citrus custard nips at your tongue. Another dessert, a housemade hazelnut gelato, was quotidian, but gratifying. And though it felt heavier than a typical gelato, more like ice cream, it wore the weight well.
Stacionis credits Baldivino for the wine list; it’s “all Josiah,” she said. Considering his experience, it’s no surprise that Mama’s by-the-glass list is smart. But, unlike most precious presentations, Mama’s approach is just plain fun. The list reads like a game; it even tells you “How to Play,” in big, bold letters. Just below that header, there is a legend with cartoons. Match the symbols to suit your predilections: flashy bubbles, for instance, signal a “sparkling, party starter.” The bicep-flexing “T” reveals wines with “tannic, mad grip.” The menu transports to a gentler, easier time, when cartoons enraptured you. Except now, there’s alcohol!
Don’t despair if you can’t decide what to try: most by-the-glass options are keyed to at least two icons, a reprieve for indecisive drinkers, like me. Plus, with options as low as $8, you can roll the dice at least twice. On a recent visit, our server said that she would abandon most worldly pleasures to sip the round, slightly tart Pezzuoli Lambrusco ($10). After sampling it, I volunteered to join her.
It’s a difficult time to operate an East Bay restaurant. (Diners cannot ignore recent closures, including popular craft beer haven, Hog’s Apothecary.) Particularly in this context, Mama deserves applause for striving to support workers. The fixed menu is, in part, a tactic to trim waste and concomitant food costs. That’s money, Stacionis told me, that can contribute to staff salaries. Mama’s straightforward dishes also don’t require much prep, which allows for a lean team and the ability to pay workers more, she added.
Beyond just frequenting Mama, there are other ways to help the restaurant’s cooks, who don’t directly earn tips. For instance, you can purchase a “six-pack of beer” ($10) for the kitchen. That money goes to back-of-house employees based on the number of hours worked, Stacionis said. Once finances allow, she said, Mama hopes to offer full benefits to the entire team.
With their second venue, Stacionis and Baldivino are applying a trademark charm to loosen up a historically stuffy prix-fixe format. Meanwhile, they’re building a supportive space for guests and staff. Mama would be proud.
Mama is open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., daily.