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Mama's soulful foods 

Italian food from a family that puts customers first

I can’t frequent restaurants I’ve previously reviewed because I’m always busy checking out all of the new places opening up in SLO County. But after a recent revisit at Mama’s Meatball in SLO, I realized it doesn’t hurt to remind our readers what makes this small family owned and operated Italian trattoria so special.

click to enlarge SAY IT WITH SPAGHETTI :  Mama’s Meatball staff (l-r) Patrick Parks (server), Ilario De Palo (maitre d'/kitchen Manager), Nicola Allegretta (executive chef and owner), Jackeline Allegretta (catering/owner), Luca Allegretta (sous chef), and Brian Hodge (server) serve up dishes like capricciosa pizza with mozzarella, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and ham and salmone allo scoglio with grilled salmon, clams, mussels, calamari, shrimp, and fresh tomatoes in white wine sauce. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SAY IT WITH SPAGHETTI : Mama’s Meatball staff (l-r) Patrick Parks (server), Ilario De Palo (maitre d'/kitchen Manager), Nicola Allegretta (executive chef and owner), Jackeline Allegretta (catering/owner), Luca Allegretta (sous chef), and Brian Hodge (server) serve up dishes like capricciosa pizza with mozzarella, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and ham and salmone allo scoglio with grilled salmon, clams, mussels, calamari, shrimp, and fresh tomatoes in white wine sauce.

When it comes to eating out, no matter what type of eatery, the number one draw for me is the food. I’ll put up with a limited wine list or slow service, but I have to love the fare or I won’t return. Dining at Mama’s Meatball made me realize that when you dine at a small family owned and operated eatery, service is so much different. Not only do they welcome you the moment you enter the door, they’re much more appreciative of the fact you’ve returned to spend your precious dining out budget there. And here you get excellent, house-made foods at reasonable prices. I’ve never seen a menu that offers so many options with a majority of dishes available at half or full portion sizes.

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER

Mama’s Meatball is all about the soulful, classic dishes of Italy that we Americans find so comforting: spaghetti with meatballs in Bolognese sauce; crisp pizza covered with pepperoni, mushrooms, and melted mozzarella and Parmigiano; and linguine alla pescatora.  But owner and chef Nicola Allegretto offers contemporary seafood dishes that would lure me back to enjoy them again and again. I loved the salmon scoglio, a fresh salmon filet that’s grilled and topped with clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, and cherry tomatoes in a white wine sauce, with a side of carrots, broccoli, and potatoes ($13/$19). The small plate was perfect for my appetite but it was so delicious I wished I had ordered the large so I could take some home. One of the few dishes that isn’t offered by the half order is the Ahi, another favorite. The tuna is dusted with togarashi (Asian seasoning mixture) and perfectly seared so it’s rare inside, served with a delicious Champagne sauce, squid ink risotto studded with squid rings, fresh tomatoes, and asparagus, only $19 and well worth it. 

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER

Allegretto explained that he started helping his mother cook when he was only two years old. He was raised in Bari, Italy, where he started working in restaurants and decided to attend the Italian Culinary Institute. Following graduation, he worked in restaurants in France, England, and Germany, then opened his own restaurant in the Dominican Republic. In 1999 he moved to the U.S. to work at Epcot Center in Disney World. He relocated to L.A. and finally, in 2001, moved to San Luis Obispo where he took over Benvenuti’s kitchen. Two years later Allegretto left to start a catering company and rented a kitchen in his space at the Creamery. He started offering take-out service but people told him they wanted to be able to dine there, and then it became a restaurant. He named it for his mother, Maria, whom he credits for instilling in him a passion for cooking.  

Allegretto’s fortunate to have his mother, father Savario, and his two brothers, Cosimo and Luca, cooking with him, preparing the dishes that have made Mama’s Meatball a favorite among locals. Maria makes all of the desserts, from the cannoli alla Siciliana and tiramisu to the ricotta cheesecake and the profiteroles. His father is the butcher who’s assisted by his nephew Ilario who also makes the pastas. Ilario also runs the dining room. Cosimo and Luca run the kitchen with Nicola, and they switch shifts so everyone gets some time off during the week.

“It’s all about family, and that means being able to spend time together with our families,” Nicola explained. “When I had the other restaurants in Avila Beach and Oceano, our guests complained that they didn’t get to see me when they dined in San Luis Obispo.”

When he had the opportunity, he expanded his restaurant in the Creamery. Last September, Nicola sold the other two restaurants. The added dining area, titled the Tuscan room, provides 55 more seats and can be rented for private parties. The original dining room, the Capri, seats 40 and provides space for their regular patrons if the Tuscan room is rented. Nicola’s wife, Jacqueline, heads the catering side of the business. Mama’s Meatball was featured on the Best Of weddings by theknot.com for their full service catering. They also belong to Central Coast Wedding Professionals and will have a booth at the 17th Annual Wedding and Special Events Faire at the Embassy Suites on Sunday, Jan. 29.

“My wife is on top of every detail for catering,” Nicola noted. “We can do catering that’s like an adventure in global cuisine.” Jacqueline, who studied architecture, redesigned the dining room with the help of Nicola. It’s as comfortable as you’d find in a Tuscan village.

“It’s better to be small and more intimate,” Nicola explained. “We are better able to maintain the quality.” The wine list is also consumer friendly: there’s an excellent selection of Italian and local wines which can be ordered by the half-glass, glass, half-liter, or the bottle. My husband Dan and I liked being able to order half-glasses so we could try different wines with each dish, and one of my favorites was the tasty Damilano 2009 Barbera d’Asti.

“People would tell me they wanted a bit more wine but not a glass, that’s how I came up with different size options on the wine list.” Now that’s what I’m talking about, the Allegrettas always thinks of their patrons first. They’re busier than ever so it’s best to make dinner reservations. Once you’ve experienced Mama’s Meatball, you’ll want to dine there regularly.

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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