Mama Louisa’s has been serving up Italian-American food on Tucson’s southeast side for more than 60 years, so it’s no surprise that some regulars don’t bother to look at the menu. “You get people who come in, you hand them the menu, and they hand it back to you,” Chef Michael Elefante says. For diners who have been eating at Mama Lousia’s since it opened in 1956, Joe’s Special ($11)—featuring house-made linguini, hot pepper seeds, garlic oil, and the house red sauce—is the dish that they know and love. But when Elefante took the reins at his family’s restaurant in 2014, he felt it was time for a change. He analyzed the previous 10 years of sales data and kept the bestsellers of the past, then added a section he’s calling the Third Generation Menu. This gives the up-and-coming chef, who was the runner-up for Iron Chef Tucson 2017 and spent his childhood cooking beside his father and grandfather, room to play with fresh dishes and his own take on “the kind of food you’d eat for Sunday dinner at your Nana’s house” while still catering to the clientele who have kept their doors open for the past six decades. “If you still want to get your Joe’s Special, you can have the same experience as you did 60 years ago, but now you can also check out the newer stuff on the menu,” he explains.
I arrived at Mama Louisa’s intending to do just that—after witnessing the peach-stuffed ravioli Elefante created as part of his menu for Iron Chef Tucson, I was eager to see what else he had up his sleeves. What I discovered was a Third Generation Menu worth venturing outside of your comfort zone—and your zip code.
We started our meal with the Relish Tray ($13), a rotating selection of modern takes on traditional pickled classics. Among my favorites: the Tuscan Gigante Bean Salad, featuring large creamy beans and roasted red bell peppers dressed in a house vinaigrette; delicate Marscapone-filled Peppadew peppers that beautifully transitioned from a subtly sweet flavor from the cheese to a spicy vinegary flavor from the peppers, with fresh mint leaves adding a bright note; and tender and sweet pickled Cipollini onions, which Elefante lets sit for two months before serving. There was plenty to go around, and one order can easily serve a table of four.
Next came the Mac ‘n’ Cheese ($7), an appetizer that can easily function as an entrée. Featuring house-made campanelle pasta (all of Mama Louisa’s pastas are made in house) and a perfectly melty, salty, creamy blend of Provolone, Parmesan, house-made mozzarella, Pecorino, and white cheddar, with a perfectly browned crust of breadcrumbs over the top, this dish made both my inner child and my outer adult’s mac ‘n’ cheese -loving day. Why those particular cheeses? Elefante chose the provolone and white cheddar for sharpness, the mozzarella for stringy, creaminess, the Pecorino for saltiness, and the Parmesan because, “Well, it’s Parmesan.”
From the Third Generation entrée section, we chose the pork chop. Brined in a mix of salt, sugar, and apple cider vinegar, the meat was tender and well-salted, with a beautiful char and smoke flavor from the grill. Plated alongside a small salad of greens dressed with house vinaigrette, the pork chop was served on a bed of pureed polenta and drizzled with a sweet-but-not-too-sweet raspberry gastrique. The polenta was smooth, rich, and savory, cooked in milk and seasoned with mascarpone and Parmesan cheeses and a blend of spices, and left me wishing I could order a small bucketful to eat later.
No dinner at Nana’s house would be complete without dessert, and the Cannoli ($6) turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. Made from a fine-grain Tenera Ricotta, chocolate chips, cinnamon, sugar, and a secret warming ingredient that Elefante wasn’t willing to reveal, all wrapped in an extra-crispy shell from the bakers at Viro’s, the lightly sweet cannoli embodies what Elefante views as a traditional, old-world take on sweets. I asked him what makes a good cannoli. “The filling is the key component, and the shell,” he says. “You don’t want to bite into it and have it taste like chalk and grittiness.” After devouring one, I can assure you Mama Louisa’s cannolis have the flavorful smoothness pastry lovers are looking for.
“You can’t do Italian food without being full,” Elefante says. “I want to make sure people are taken care of, like they just got done eating with family.” Mama Louisa’s has been run by his family for three generations and weathered 60 years of changes in Tucson’s food industry. Now, Elefante says the restaurant is entering a new chapter. It’s worth making the trip to experience it.
Mama Louisa’s Italian Restaurant
2041 S Craycroft Rd
Tucson, AZ 85711