Young Italian men and their doting mothers have always had an unusually close relationship.
She does his laundry, makes his bed and picks up after him while he lounges about like a pampered little signore.
She will never hear a bad word against him but, naturally, has a lot — not all of it good — to say about his romantic partners.
But, most of all, she cooks for him: marvellous, mouth-watering food. From dawn to dusk, it seems, she’s chopping, simmering, sautéing, basting and boiling.
All of which means that, when the cosseted chap finally leaves home, the outside world can come as a bit of a shock. Take Giuseppe Corsaro, who arrived in London from Sicily 22 years ago. He was 17 years old, spoke no English and was crippled by homesickness — but was determined to stay here.
‘I missed my family, my home, and most of all my mamma,’ he says. ‘I lost more than 7 kg (15 lb) in six months because I was pining. And the food — it was so horrible!
Giuseppe set up La Mia Mamma, a rather different style of Italian restaurant here in Britain, where the consultant chefs have no official training and have never even worked in a professional kitchen
‘Of course, my mamma sent me food boxes, but they ran out very quickly and I was missing so much her food — I still remember it.’
Which is why, nearly two decades on, he set up La Mia Mamma, a rather different style of Italian restaurant here in Britain, where the consultant chefs have no official training and have never even worked in a professional kitchen.
Instead, they have different qualifications: they are Italian mums in their 50s, 60s and 70s who just want to cook and cook — if not for their own sons, then for someone else’s.
‘Everyone misses their mamma’s cooking,’ says Mamma Fabiana, 57, who hails from the Marche region in the east of Italy, is constantly laughing, and claims to make the best tiramisu in the world.
‘I made shoes for 25 years, but that was my job. Cooking for my family was my love because food holds the family together. It makes me happy. Here, I am happy to share my cooking with other people.’
This concept is such a winning formula that the first restaurant on the King’s Road in London’s Chelsea, has been joined by another nearby, with a third — currently closed for refurbishment — in chi-chi Notting Hill, and a fourth due to open in Fulham at the end of the summer.
To see how it all works, I joined Fabiana for a masterclass, during which she patiently showed me how to make fresh cavatelli pasta — rolling and shaping each individual shell on a ridged wooden spatula into the shape of a small ‘cava’, or cave — with pistachio and ricotta pesto.
Good food belongs to the Italians. It’s part of their DNA.
But the mammas don’t just cook in the front window of the restaurant. They welcome customers in with great friendly whoops. They haul huge, steaming pans of pasta from table to table. They dish up. They chat to young Italians who could be their children — or grandchildren — listen to their woes and bombard them with home-cooked food. They will even sing and play the tambourine, if that’s your thing.
They’re everywhere and extremely noisy — laughing and shouting and waving their arms about, a lot.
And, at the end of the night, they hug and clutch customers to their soothing bosoms and kiss and wave them goodbye — even mopping up tears. ‘We have a lot of tears,’ says Mamma Sara — at 41, by far the youngest and most glamorous mamma. ‘People can get very emotional. Many are homesick, but for the food as much as anything else. They need their mamma.’
Gosh, what a bunch of ridiculous mammoni (mummies’ boys)!
All this means that Italian men (and women, to be fair) are flocking across London to La Mia Mamma.
And that includes Hollywood star and foodie Stanley Tucci, who loved the mammas and their home-cooked fare so much he filmed a section of his forthcoming TV series Searching For Italy here. ‘Oh we love, love, love Stanley,’ cries Mamma Sara. ‘We thought he was just an American actor, but he was so passionate about food — he just really understood.’
The mamma concept was hatched in 2017. By then, Giuseppe was managing Made In Italy, a small chain of Italian restaurants in London. Life was good, but he was still pining for something more authentic.
‘British food was great — it had transformed,’ he says. ‘But something was still missing. It was restaurant food — never my mother’s food.’
So, egged on by a pal over a glass or two of wine, he phoned his 63-year-old mamma Anna, who helped out in his father’s estate agency, and asked if she’d consider flying over from Sicily and cooking for him and his friends in a pop-up restaurant.
‘She went very quiet, which was a bit worrying, so I asked if she was still there and she said: “I’m just on Google. I’ve found a flight on Wednesday — I’ll see you then!”’
That was nearly five years ago — and she’s been here ever since, still doggedly using the trusty old paring knife she brought from home.
‘In the beginning she was quite scared. It was a new life, a new adventure,’ Giuseppe says.
Giuseppe’s father followed her to the UK soon after.
But however good Anna was, one real mamma was never going to be enough for all the motherless Italians in London, so Giuseppe decided to branch out.
He started by putting a message on social media saying he was on the hunt for mammas — not trained chefs — to cook in a restaurant in London. If they’d come for at least three months, he’d pay their travel, a transport allowance while here and even put them up in a Mammas’ House in London.
He was inundated. ‘It went totally out of control. I started with Sicily, but I had messages from all over Italy — many of them put forward by their children!’
One was the mamma of one of his best friends from school — ‘her cooking was amazing, we all wanted to go to his house’ — so, despite speaking only Italian, she was straight in.
One was a teacher. Another had worked for the council. Some had barely travelled; the Underground proved quite a shock.
Mamma Marilena, from Emilia-Romagna — the richly gastronomic region in the north of Italy — was 60 years old and had never left the country, or spent any time apart from her husband since their wedding. But when she saw an advert in a local newspaper, she said: ‘I want to go!’
She came with her son — he worked on the bar — and stayed for four months.
‘She loved it. She was so happy. We all cried when she left,’ says Mamma Sara.
After a telephone interview, all the mammas were then invited to London — armed with signature recipes from their regions, passed down through generations, which they would have to cook during the interview process.
Hollywood star and foodie Stanley Tucci loved the mammas and their home-cooked fare so much he filmed a section of his forthcoming TV series Searching For Italy there
Mamma Maria comes from Bari and likes nothing more than stuffing customers with panzerotti (savoury turnovers), orecchiette alle cime di rapa (pasta ‘ears’ with Italian broccoli) and handmade bigne (tiny, deep-fried pastries).
And Mamma Fabiana’s recipes — along with her tiramisu — include ragu marchigaiano (chicken, pork and beef slow-cooked in tomato sauce) and rabbit in tomato sauce. They all came from her mother-in-law.
‘I divorced my husband ten years ago, but I took the recipes! They were the best things I got from that marriage!’ she laughs.
None of them failed the cooking test. What else would you expect? Good food belongs to the Italians. It’s part of their DNA.
‘It’s not just about eating. It’s about preparing. Being together. It holds a family together. It’s part of us. When you smell the tomato pan, you have memories of summer-time with your family,’ says Mamma Sara.
And when you think of all those famous Italian chefs, forever banging on about their mammas, it seems that Giuseppe might be on to something.
Giorgio Locatelli may be festooned in Michelin stars, but he learnt how to cook from his mother and grandmother.
And Gennaro Contaldo loves to eulogise about his mother’s slow-cooked ragu and bread — which she baked on Thursdays because, she said, that was ‘the day I was born’ — and the three-course lunches that, for years, she delivered to him by train.
But back to the very noisy kitchen of La Mia Mamma, where the mammas may be miles from home but are lacking in neither confidence nor chat, particularly when supervising the cooking of their signature dishes. ‘They are all very, very bossy. Very firm. They will not change a thing!’ says Giuseppe.
Which means there’s a lot of shouting. A lot of ‘No, no, no! You don’t do it like this. Why you want to do it like that? My mamma did it just like this!’
Not only is La Mia Mamma one of the liveliest and most brilliantly chaotic restaurants around, the food’s fantastic — and good value. A two-course menu that kicks off with an Aperol Spritz, followed by a selection of starters to share and a pasta course will set you back £35 per person.
Add a main, and it’s £45.
I recommend the pistachio pesto with cavatelli pasta. And if, by chance, you are on the hunt for an unattached Italian man, this could be your lucky place. But don’t forget you’ll always come second to his beloved mamma.