I can’t cook to save my life, but I closely follow Bon Appétit online. I have never once made one of their recipes. Not. One. I’m only into it for the food culture articles, and this month, they’ve been running a series that has knocked me for a loop.
The Red Sauce America series is every bit as familiar and cheesy as my own memories of my red sauce joint back home. An all-star lineup of authors includes some of my favorites: Jen Doll, Kelly Conaboy, Roxane Gay, and this piece by Kristin Arnett that made me absolutely fall in love with her. More than her Twitter already had, anyway.
These articles, and particularly the photo heading Conaboy’s piece, bring back fond, fuzzy memories of my own red sauce place, which I alluded to already, because I can’t wait to gush about Mama Giuseppa’s.
“Gush” is a good word to use, when it comes to Mama Giuseppa’s. I discovered this place in 2005, roughly my junior year of college. It was on the other side of the river from my hometown, coinciding nicely with the time I got my driver’s license. I discovered it was a decent 30-minute drive away, and a 30-minute drive back — enough time to get through most of a mix CD, all of it if you skip the songs you’re too impatient to finish. Anyway. College! As one of the only classmates with a car, I was literally in the driver’s seat when it came to choosing restaurants. I’d drive my on-campus friends to this cheap outpost, forcing them to listen to my mix CDs, on the promise of dirt-cheap home cookin’ and portions that could be stretched into two more meals’ worth of leftovers.
Mama had rules: there was a “plate sharing fee” of $3, if you were caught splitting your sizable entree with your fellow diners. This always boggled my mind because, as I recall, a mere $4 back in 2005 would furnish you with a plate of Mama’s Stuffed Shells. Three pasta shells, stuffed with a mixture of ricotta and apparent magic, floating in a mixing bowl of tangy red sauce, topped with mozzarella that burned and bubbled around the edge of the plate. Served volcano hot, this bowl of cheese and sauce with a liiiiittle bit of pasta in there somewhere was enough for two whole meals, three if you filled up on garlic knots as an appetizer. For me and my perennially cash-strapped college friends, heading to Mama Giuseppa’s as soon as they opened at 4pm was a bi-weekly occurrence. I loved the company, and my friends welcomed the break from the dining hall food.
As the one “townie” in my friend group, sneaking my city-born-and-raised college friends across the river to Mama Giuseppa’s was a bit of a triumph. Let me try to explain what this place looked like. It looked like… someone had turned an abandoned gas station into an Italian restaurant. The seating area was tight. Thus, the imperative to get there early, and get a table. Of COURSE there was a red and white checked tablecloth on it. All around the establishment were black and white photos, ostensibly of Mama and her bambini, stern adults corralling their tots into group shots in front of landmarks and pale vintage photos of family parties. All the predictable accoutrement of a small-town, family-owned red sauce joint.
I went on some of my first dates here. I spent one New Year’s Eve here. The combination of low prices, generous portions, quaint atmosphere, and cheesy decadence kept me coming back again and again over the next three years.
Of course, things all come to an end. After moving to New York City in 2008, I stopped coming to Mama Giuseppa’s. Maybe I went back once or twice. My visits became shorter and more infrequent over time, and there just wasn’t an extra 30 minutes to drive across the river for stuffed shells anymore.
Sadly, Mama Giuseppa’s is no more. The restaurant apparently closed in 2017. Inflation? Economy? Who’s to say. You can never go home again, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t tolerate that much cheese and gluten in one sitting, anyway. At this point, nothing could ever really compare to the memory.