When Michael Elefante was bussing tables at his family’s Italian restaurant at the age of 5, virtually every dish on the menu was ladled with red tomato sauce. These days, as executive chef at the same eatery, he’s pushing culinary boundaries in a way that honors the traditions of old school Italia while exploring the potential that seasonality can bring to the plate.
Call it a tale of two tables.
Expressions of these distinct approaches can be found on a single menu at Mama Louisa’s, 2041 S. Craycroft Road, where dishes from both a heritage-style Italian table and a modern, or what he calls a “third-generation,” table are sharing the spotlight.
After taking some time away from the family business in 2010, which ultimately led to a four-year stint in the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, Elefante returned to his restaurant home with the intention of elevating the cuisine while preserving the classic dishes that they’ve been making since 1956.
“Doing different things meant finding a place that balances a higher-end yet approachable experience with what I call the ‘Grandma’s Sunday dinner’ style of cooking that we’ve been known for,” he said. “Offering both a heritage and a third-generation menu essentially allows us to bring a mini restaurant inside of our restaurant.”
For fans of Mama Louisa’s old school spirit, fear not. The bulk of the menu continues to let pasta and red sauce shine in the same way that it’s been done for decades. In fact, the sauce-heavy Joe’s Special, its signature dish, outsells other dishes by eight to one.
“If I was a smart man, I’d put a nickel in the price of every Joe’s Special that we sold, and that would be my retirement,” he said.
But for those looking to experience Elefante’s advanced culinary chops, the 11 dishes on his current third-generation menu will deliver.
One example is what he calls a love letter to his wife, Crystal.
“Every menu I put out, I dedicate at least one dish to my wife as a way of showing that I’m always thinking about her, and our roasted bone marrow starter is my current one,” he said.
Elefante’s family hails from Italy’s Amalfi Coast, which reportedly produces the best lemons in the world, while Crystal’s family has Calabrian roots in Southwest Italy, known for Calabrian chiles. The dish is a loving blend of both, with the creamy bone marrow plated alongside a preserved lemon gremolata, a Calabrian chile caponata, and focaccia toast.
Can you feel the love?
Another third-generation selection was inspired by Elefante’s winning gnocchi dish at last year’s Bacon, Blues, and Brews event sponsored by the Tucson Originals.
The Calabrian gnocchi, obviously another love letter to Crystal, features poached and fried gnocchi, a Calabrian chile and bacon jam, sautéed Brussels sprouts and mushrooms, grilled chicken, and house-made ricotta, all topped with a candied hazelnut brittle.
You may have to be reminded that you’re at Mama Louisa’s when you see these kinds of dishes on the menu, but the checkerboard tablecloths underneath them should bring you back.
To keep his third-generation story fresh, Elefante also maintains onsite gardens that produce several ingredients for his rotating menu, including two species of lavender, lemons, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, rosemary, parsley, lettuce, three grape varietals, and, for his darling Crystal, Calabrian chiles.
It doesn’t matter what side of the menu you order from, or what Italian cooking style you prefer, there’s room at the Elefante family table for every generation.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the publisher of OnTheMenuLive.com as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.