How Big Mamma turned up the heat (and with it, the love)
It took two French trattoria enthusiasts to work out what makes Italian restaurants great, then recreate it outside Italy
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see just what makes a country great. Victor Lugger and Tigrane Seydoux, the founders of the Big Mamma group are French, but their restaurants are whole-heartedly Italian.
However, these hugely popular, fun-filled places, East Mamma, Ober Mamma, Mamma Primi, BigLove, Pizzeria Popolare, Pink Mamma, La Felicità, La Bellezza, Gloria and Circolo Popolare, in France and Great Britain, emulate a certain type of Italian restaurant.
As the founders explain in the group’s debut cookbook, Big Mamma Cucina Popolare, the idea for the places “was born out of the crazy idea to make authentic Italian food, and to recreate a place full of warmth and generosity that can be found in the small, out-of-the-way trattorias, all outside of Italy.”
In their restaurants, they aim to cultivate “a unique atmosphere that blends the simple with the spectacular, one which is so hard to match, and which reflects the essence of pleasure.”
Reliving this Italian-style, culinary dolce vita, outside of Italy, is something that goes back a long way for these two. Seydoux in particular can remember his father travelling overseas on numerous business trips to Italy, to bring back Italian ham, bread and other foods to the family home in Alsace, northwestern France.
Today, the pair travel widely in Italy, buying supplies for their restaurants, and harbour a great love for ingredients and craftsmanship - “the commitment of passionate and remote producers, far from industrial supply chains will always be hugely important,” they say.
However, well-cooked, good ingredients is only one part of an enjoyable restaurant experience, and Big Mamma knows it. If you really want to recreate the warmth and love found in neighbourly Italian restaurants, you’re going to have to bring in some warm, lovely people.
The Big Mamma founders know much of their success lies with their team, “because you can’t put a price on being served with a smile, by passionate people who put so much more into what they do,” they write, “not to mention our incredible team of chefs.”
Though they come from a wide range of backgrounds, most are Italian and most are quite young. “This fired-up team, with an average age of twenty-four, turns every dish, dessert and cocktail into an incredible journey,” they write. “Their wish is to share the flavours of their childhood, the taste of their very own Italy, of Naples, of Rome, of Verona, of Puglia and every other part of the country.”
This is why, in this new book, the chefs don’t only oversee the recipe, but also offer additional pieces of culinary advice, from how to choose truffles through to how best to set alight a cocktail.
Indeed, even the simplest of recipes are imbued with good times. “Each dish in this book represents a happy memory,” write the founders in the introduction. “We think back to the opening of Mamma Primi every time we taste those famous Burratelli , filled with ricotta and melted burrata, that chef Virginia insisted would be on the menu. How can we not be reminded of the first service at East Mamma, and the astonished faces of our early customers, when the huge dish of chef Ciro’s Carpaccio Sorrentino was brought to the table? That was the day when ‘go big or go home’ became our defining mantra.
How can we not spare a thought for Tigrane when the time comes to bring out the Tigramisu, which is always – and only – eaten in three mouthfuls? And when we think about the Torta al Cioccolato, imagining ourselves in London, at Gloria, and having tears in our eyes when thinking back to the day it came off the menu. Only for it to return, naturally, because we couldn’t have it any other way.”
Home cooks have quite the same attachment to these dishes, yet Big Mamma’s boys believe the food can be recreated the Big Mamma way, so long as you add one key additive.
“When you’re cooking a dish, never forget that the most important ingredient, the one you won’t find explicitly on any page, is the love you put into it,” they write. “It might sound stupid, but it’s actually so true. Even when you use the best ingredients in the world, a pasta alle vongole can end up tasting bland – perhaps because you didn’t go at it enough with the olive oil, perhaps because you didn’t dare to add enough salt, perhaps because you used a timer instead of tasting the pasta before turning off the heat. Make every moment counts, and trust your palate, because it’s always right.
For more detailed culinary guides to the dishes featured here, as well as much more, order a copy of Big Mamma Cucina Popolare here.