When the local Italian restaurant has been doing things the same way for more than half a century, change can be a challenge. Michael Elefante, the chef and owner of Mama Louisa’s in Tucson, has been learning that since 2014, when he returned to the family business. “Everybody knows the restaurant as a red-checkerboard-tablecloth kind of place,” he says. “The one time we tried using black tablecloths, I had a mutiny on my hands with the guests.”
Thus, Elefante has walked a fine line between tradition and innovation — something he’s happy to do. “In the process of modernizing and renovating a little bit, we’re keeping in touch with our history and embracing it,” he says.
The Cassidy family founded Mama Louisa’s, named for a member of that family, in 1956. Elefante’s family of Brooklyn natives bought it in 1973, and Elefante himself grew up there, first busing tables and later learning how to make the pasta and other specialties that had earned the place a devoted following. He left in 2010 and spent four years as a chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, then came back to take over day-to-day operations from his mother.
Over the decades, Elefante says, the restaurant had strayed from its focus on homemade dishes. “I really wanted to get back to what an Italian restaurant should be known for,” he says. “You don’t get into the restaurant industry because you can take things out of a box and put them on a plate better than anybody.” He stripped the menu down to the most popular items; now, almost everything — including up to 150 pounds of pasta a day — is made from scratch, and many ingredients are sourced locally.
The longtime favorite, and the centerpiece of what’s now the Heritage Menu, is Joe’s Special: linguine with hot pepper seeds, melted cheese, garlic oil and tomato sauce that, like all the sauces, is aged for two days before it’s served. “I always say this is the house that Joe’s Special built,” Elefante says. The chicken Parmesan, which is pan-fried in clarified butter, is another highlight.
But the chef also wanted to employ what he’d learned at the Ritz-Carlton, so he created the Third Generation Menu, which features cioppino and a roasted bone marrow appetizer. And he’s proud of the Calabrian gnocchi, a “love letter” to his wife’s heritage in that part of Italy. It features a chili bacon jam, shaved Brussels sprouts, ricotta, mushrooms and hazelnut brittle, along with grilled chicken.
The combination has paid off, and Mama Louisa’s now feels warmly familiar — down to the tablecloths — but also offers devotees a chance to try something new. Regardless, Elefante says, they go home satisfied: “If you leave an Italian restaurant hungry, there’s a problem.”
2041 S. Craycroft Road