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MAMA LEONE'S restaurant opened a month ago in a new building just off of Copley Square and within a blown window pane's distance from the new John Hancock building. Above the restaurant is a multi-leveled parking garage and beneath it the Mass Pike.
The original Mama Leone's opened almost a half century ago in New York where it justifiably earned a name as one of the better Italian restaurants with its strengths resting in the variety and quantity of food that the waiters insisted you really could eat. The restaurant expanded in a haphazard way and the jumble of dining rooms, stairways, and doorways helped the now large New York restaurant to maintain some of its intimacy even after it was bought out by Restaurant Associates. Inc. Restaurant Associates operates perhaps the world's most exclusive chain of restaurants, including Forum of the XII Caesars, Four Seasons, Le Pavillion, La Brasserie and The Ground Floor in New York. Around Boston their holdings cater to a different clientele: plastic salamied Zum Zums and fashionably filthy Hungry Charleys.
Until recently the good businessmen of Restaurant Associates were doing very well but four years of Nixon has taken its toll and fewer people are eating out for $18 to $20 per person. The recent 7:30 p.m. show time cut into the number of before theater diners, inflation pushed up the cost of food, and employees, as evidenced by the current partial restaurant workers' strike in New York, began to demand a decent wage. As some of Restaurant Associates' name restaurants started to lose money, they looked to Boston to boost their sagging fortunes. They built a multimillion dollar restaurant using Mama Leone's good name while conducing a massive advertising campaign that included the trunks of many Boston-area cabs.
By the looks of the crowds during the first month of operation, the men of Restaurant Associates have done well. Like Anthony's Pier 4, no reservations are accepted and a wait of two hours is not unusual.
Good eating is always more than just good food; the same food tastes different on Nauset Beach than in the Freshman Union. In its desire to process huge numbers of diners, Boston's Mama Leone's has lost any sense of intimacy and family that still lingers in the New York restaurant and supplemented it with large, noisy, open, plain dining rooms more reminiscent of the Greyhound Bus Station than Sunday dinner at the D'Arminio's. Thankfully, no attempt was made to make a month-old building look 100 years old by using plastic bricks, fiberglass rustic beams, and electric candles.
THE LENGTH OF THE POLDED proper menu is impressive and for $6.95 one is promised "Mama Leone's Famous Dinner," consisting on paper of fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese and bread; "Famous Antipasti Della Mamma" such as cherrystone class, shrimp cocktail leone, or a glass of tomato juice; followed by a pasts or a soup, then a main course of meat, fish, or meat and served with a vegetable, potato, and mixed green salad; concluding with a beverage and a dessert; cake, pastry, fruit, spumoni or ice cream. If one's main course tastes lean toward price ribs or steak, that will cost an extra $2 or $3. Most of the dinner items can be ordered a in carte but their prices leave most people ordering the full dinner.
The wine list is shorter than the menu and what-is-to-be expected in price; ranging from $4.25 for Almaden Granache Rose to $16.50 for Mum's Cordon Rouge Brut.
Getting all that food to the patron's table is another story. The restaurant has been understaffed, and a large number of the originally hired waiters have already quit. Bureaucratic measures aimed at increasing morale have backfired. One waiter related that after being told he was a member of the big, happy Mama Leone family, he was warned that his eating at other than designated times would result in his dismissal.
The consequences have not been lost on the patrons. One couple ended up with two waiters who forgot the appetizers until prodded. The bread was taken away too soon, the pasta and soup courses were omitted, and the second waiter offered extra deserts as reparations while forgetting the salad. Bottles of wine mysteriously appeared but no one offered to open them. And should the food arrive, it is likely to be cold.
Boston's Italians and Sicilians already know better; no one speaks Italian in the waiting line or at the bar. The Ford Country Squires pulling up to park have an unmistakeably suburban look to them and the strolling Italian musicians are requested to play songs ranging from "Yellow Rose of Texas" to "Sound of Music."
Even with the promise of four more years of Nixonomics there is no reason to give the owners of Mama-Leone's a break. Save your money and walk up Cambridge Street to an Italian bakery and buy a loaf of bread and a dozen canoles.
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