First Look: Little Mama’s Italian Kitchen
by Cathy Martin | photos by Remy Thurston
After months of anticipation, Little Mama’s Italian Kitchen, the latest spot from veteran Charlotte restaurateur Frank Scibelli, opened in June in the Porter Building on Sharon Road. The restaurant’s comfortable vibe — equally suitable for a casual date night or dinner with the family — and approachable menu of Italian-American staples with a few new twists should make it an instant favorite among Charlotte diners.
That’s not to mention Scibelli’s remarkable track record of success in building restaurant brands — he sold his Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar chain, which he developed with veteran restaurateur Dennis Thompson, for $21 million in 2015, and his Midwood Smokehouse and Yafo Kitchen casual-dining spots always pack a crowd. Little Mama’s is a nod to Scibelli’s Italian roots, which he first explored in the beloved Mama Ricotta’s on Kings Drive.
Little Mama’s is modeled after casual Italian-American neighborhood eateries prevalent in the Northeast in the ’60s and ’70s. Scibelli and FS Food Group colleagues Stephanie Kalish and Chef Tom Dyrness honed the concept by sharing family recipes and tales of restaurants they frequented while growing up. The pictures covering the walls are the owners’ actual family photos. Near the host stand, Scibelli points to a snapshot of himself as a boy cooking alongside his mom, who lives in Charlotte and is a constant source of inspiration.
The space formerly occupied by Luna’s Living Kitchen (and before that, Zebra) is almost unrecognizable from its previous incarnation. The stark white interior has been replaced with warm neutral hues, dark wood furnishings and leather banquettes. An underutilized patio space has been converted to a four-season sunroom that seats about 50.
Park behind the building and pass the zinc bar before entering the main dining room, a bright, open space with a counter where guests can watch chefs make fresh mozzarella behind a glass partition. The music is a throwback to the same era that inspired the menu — think classic jazz and R&B such as the Four Seasons, Ella Fitzgerald and Smokey Robinson.
“It is not another Mama Ricotta’s,” Scibelli says emphatically, though fans of the 28-year-old midtown establishment will find a handful of familiar favorites on the menu “because I didn’t want a riot in here,” he laughs. The popular penne alla vodka makes an appearance, along with Mama’s homemade garlic rolls and Nutella pie for dessert.
“I get hate mail when I change anything [at Mama Ricotta’s],” Scibelli says. “So, it’s been fun to do some new dishes.” One new item is the pappardelle: A pasta-making machine imported from Italy allows the chefs to produce super al dente noodles, made from a semolina flour and tossed with a sweet San Marzano tomato sauce.
Crispy chicken Parmesan is pounded thin and topped with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce, while eggplant Parmesan cutlets are breaded, fried and topped with Asiago and Muenster. Can’t decide? Order the “combo Parm” and try both.
Cheese lovers won’t be disappointed in selections like the Brown Cow Parmesan served with fettuccine Alfredo and other pasta dishes. But the made-to-order mozzarella ball, served warm and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, is a special treat. Available for dine-in customers only, tableside mozzarella service comes with a choice of two sides, such as oven-roasted tomatoes, roasted Sicilian red peppers or marinated artichoke hearts.
Broiled specialties include shrimp with a white wine-oregano sauce and a whole roasted cauliflower served with three sauces: a zesty Calabrian chile agrodolce, a garlicky bagna cauda, and a lemon tahini, a crossover from FS sibling Yafo Kitchen.
Little Mama’s big ribeye is a tender USDA Prime cut steak served family-style with marrow bones, a whole head of roasted garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The hearty entrée, which serves at least 2-3 people and comes with choice of a family-sized pasta, was inspired by a similar dish the team came across when visiting Florence a couple of years ago.
For dessert, expect familiar Italian favorites such as N.Y.-style cheesecake, tiramisu and cannoli in portions large enough for sharing. If chocolate isn’t your thing, Mama’s olive oil cake with orange essence and served with limoncello sorbetto is delightful, as is the warm bread pudding topped with housemade gelato and dulce de leche.
General Manager Bradley McClain, who spent six years as GM at Good Food on Montford, developed a cocktail menu that combines classics such as a spritz, a Negroni and an amaretto sour with seasonal refreshers like a basil smash and the lavencello martini — vodka, lemon-lavender simple syrup and limoncello.
Overall, Little Mama’s menu is a blend of familiar, well-executed Italian-American dishes made with top-notch ingredients, along with a few new curiosities to satisfy more adventurous diners. The accessible menu — there’s even an 8 oz. Prime brisket burger — and convenient location across from SouthPark Mall and adjacent to the new Apex development are sure to make it a culinary hot spot for years to come. SP
Little Mama’s Italian Kitchen is open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week. Takeout is available, though several menu items are reserved for dine-in customers only. littlemamasitalian.com