Sometimes you want fra diavolo and sometimes you just want red sauce. In the latter case, consider Mama’s Pizza (961 Rice Street, St. Paul) to satisfy your classic Italian-American cravings. Sitting for nearly half a century on the corner of Rice and Front, it’s a North End neighborhood institution, though one that you likely haven’t heard of unless you’re from the neighborhood.
You walk in the front door of the old brick building, past a counter behind which flour dusted dudes work the pizza ovens, and into the compact dining room, booths line the sides and tables are packed strategically to achieve the room’s maximum capacity. There is a second kitchen in the back. Murals depicting Italian scenes cover the walls. A television broadcasts the latest sporting news, and a photograph of a woman, ostensibly Mama, stares down approvingly.
Squeeze in and seat yourself among the servers weaving through the narrow spaces, delivering pizza from the front kitchen and everything else from the back. The service is quick, so let’s get to business.
The pizza is traditional Minnesota style: thin crust, square cut, served on cafeteria trays. The crust itself is utilitarian; the sauce offers a little kick and some sweetness. The cheese and toppings are where the Mama’s namesake pizza excels. The special deluxe ($16 for 12”) was piled high with spicy pepperoni, sausage, veggies galore, and a glistening blanket of high quality cheese. As a frame of reference, imagine one of those cross sections of the earth that demonstrates how thin the atmosphere is compared to the size of the earth. The pizza crust is the atmosphere and the toppings and cheese are the earth. Or maybe the toppings and cheese are the infinite reaches of space. Either way, the crust is the atmosphere and it is exceedingly thin, but nevertheless does its job protecting us from being scorched.
You will notice a great many identical dishes emerging from the back kitchen: a plate of bubbly melted cheese, presumably with something underneath. Nearly everything on the menu, from the pasta to the sandwiches can (and should!) be ordered drenched in red sauce and covered in baked cheese. The meatball sandwich ($9 with sauce and cheese), for example, is hard to imagine naked. It would simply be a pile of sliced, abundantly spiced meatballs and somewhere in the vicinity would sit two small ancillary slices of Italian bread. But cover it all with Mama’s red sauce and enough cheese to top two large pizzas, and you have something gluttonously delicious. (Pictured above: the Hot Diego ordered sloppy and cheesy, for $9.)
An exception to the melt-cheese-over-everything rule, the Italian sausages ($9, large order) were good enough to stand alone. The stubby links of finely ground pork and rich herbs were nicely grilled in their snappy casing. The mostaccioli and ravioli would make adequate meatless alternatives, but at least order it with baked cheese ($11, large order).
Our small pizza was more than large enough for two people and the meatball sandwich with sauce and cheese was even larger. You will be stuffed, but more importantly, you will be satisfied. This is Italian-American comfort food done well, and then buried under an avalanche of melted cheese. At the end of the meal, they bring you an adorable, miniature soft-serve ice cream cone. If you don’t want it (they don’t ask if you do), there is nowhere to put it, or it will melt all over the table and the floor and make a mess. So be nice to your server and eat your ice cream cone.
961 Rice Street
St. Paul, MN 55117
Mon-Thu 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
Fri 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.
Sat 4:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.
Sun 4:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.
Bar: Beer and wine
Vegetarian / Vegan: Yes / No
Noise Level: Festive
Entree Range: $7.50 – $21
Parking: Small lot and street