A certain spaghetti commercial would like us to believe a certain North End mythology: that this neighborhood was, at one point, filled with sweaty boys named Anthony who were late to dinner, that the primary cause of hospitalization was errant stick balls, and that the streets were crisscrossed by so many clotheslines that they blocked out the sun.
That North End is gone, replaced by Frank and Sue from Cleveland who buy into the mythology for the cost of an overpriced bolognese on Hanover Street. If you’ve lived in this town for any significant amount of time, we understand why you might want to avoid this neighborhood. But when you strip away all the tourists and t-shirts, the North End does still have its charm - and if you want to be reminded of that, go to dinner at Mamma Maria.
Mamma Maria is far from the best Italian restaurant in Boston - it’s been a long time since any place in this neighborhood could claim that title. But it’s the best overall combination of North End atmosphere and pasta that wasn’t pulled out of a cardboard box and renamed “Nonna’s favorite.”
This place looks and feels special, with multi-level dining rooms that have wide windows looking down on the twisted streets and cobblestones of North Square. You come here for the waiters in neckties, the white tablecloth ambiance, and a dining room that looks like the set of the next European period piece Netlifx suggests for you. You’re going to be packed in with suburban families celebrating birthdays, tourists who somehow didn’t get lost when they turned off Hanover, and lots of people who may own car dealerships on Route 1 - but it’s almost always a crowd that’s having a good time.
This is not creative Italian cooking - if that’s what you’re after, you shouldn’t be in the North End. Mamma Maria sticks to the classics, giving more care and attention to what it makes than every other similar place in the neighborhood. This is old-school Italian food, the best of which is rich and meaty. If you’re thinking strategically, eat here before a snowstorm and then you’ll be able to hibernate for a few days.
It’s OK to be a little jaded about the North End - it means you’ve lived in this city and you understand it. But you can still come here and have a good night out, particularly if you want to show people the charms of old Boston. Mamma Maria is a good place to do just that.
They’re made with pork instead of beef, and served with a mint yogurt instead of red sauce. This is about a rebellious as Mamma Maria gets, which, on the teenage rebellion scale, falls somewhere between smoking a clove cigarette and watching TV in bed.
We’d really like a final and definitive ruling as to whether you’re supposed to pronounce the “E.” While we’re waiting, though, we’ll happily have some of this perfectly solid version of cheese and pepper pasta.
Sometimes you just want to go with something that won’t disappoint you, which is why Tom Hanks movies are still a thing. This bolognese does the trick.
We’re still searching for a lobster pasta dish that one person can finish in this town. This isn’t it, but for two or three bites, it’s pretty good.
You could probably come pretty close to making this at home. You’d be pretty pleased with yourself, but still, that isn’t exactly what you’re looking for when you go out.
They’re not on the menu. You can ask for something green, though, and they’ll offer to cook up whatever’s available in the kitchen.
Skip the lines at Mike’s and Modern Pastry - Mamma Maria makes some pretty good desserts and this is one of them.