Mamma Leone
Louisa Leona of Mamma Leone’s world famous restaurant is born. Reflections of Italian American culinary success.

There is little gainsaying that Italian cuisine reigns as among the favorite foods for all Americans, a fact underscored by the ubiquitous pizza that has supplanted the hot dog in popularity, not to mention the varieties of pasta consumed. Virtually every American size city features Italian restaurants as among their culinary highlights. Some examples include: Felicia in Boston, Como in Chicago, Dante and Luigi in Philadelphia, Tambellini in Pittsburgh, Fior d'Italia in San Francisco, and Rao's and Moretti's in New York. The latter originated in the 1850s and was said to have introduced this land to spaghetti, olives, Chianti and other Italian foods.

Perhaps the best known of the early Italian enterprises was Mamma Leone's in New York City that flourished for almost a century and could serve as a prototype of traditional Italian restaurants. Louisa Leona (1873-1944) was born in Italy in 1873, married Gerolamo Leone and migrated to the United States. She embarked on her food legacy humbly and almost accidentally by catering large dinners for her husband's friends and business associates. On one occasion she cooked for fifty guests including Enrico Caruso, who, accompanied by other opera luminaries, was so taken by her offerings that he suggested she open a restaurant for business. This became a reality in April 1905, with her restaurant adjoining her husband's wine shop. Interestingly, it is believed that in that same year Neapolitan Gennaro Lombardi opened New York's first pizzeria. Mamma Leone's recipe for success was "Give them good food and plenty of it. They'll come back," which indeed they did especially at pre-Lenten "Carnevale" time. At their peak Mamma Leone's boasted of eight lavish dining rooms seating 1,200. With the death of her husband, her oldest son Joe became the head of the restaurant, however, Mamma Leone continued to preside over the kitchen. Over the years, other family members opened restaurants in New Jersey and California while the New York establishment proceeded to flourish. Mamma Leone's restaurant remained in the family until 1959 when it was sold to a restaurant syndicate, retaining the name, however. Subsequent moves to different locations eventually led to the famed restaurant's demise in 1994. While some of the original landmark Italian restaurants like New York's Mamma Leone's and Toffenetti's, that for a couple of generations enjoyed unparalleled popularity, have come to an end, others endure into the fourth and fifth generations. Moreover new Italian restaurants constantly appear on the scene with varying specialties and degrees of success but all clearly and identifiably ethnic in their presentation. As such the phenomenon underscores the reality that loyalty to foodways remains a factor in the lives of the overwhelming majority of Italian immigrants and their descendents. It also constitutes continuing affirmation that Italian food has become as popular as any American favorite.

Rao's Restaurant East Harlem, New York City

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