Food & Drink » Food and Drink

Working Lunch: MammaZu

Lunch is the best way to avoid the lines at this renowned Oregon Hill eatery.

by

comment

A bona fide Richmond institution, MammaZu is known almost as much for the long waits and brusque staff as for the delicious Italian food. At night it's buzzy, dark and crowded, but during the day MammaZu is almost peaceful, with the same tasty food and no lines.

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Vibe

MammaZu is, frankly, polarizing. Richmonders either wax rhapsodic about the simple, flavorful Italian fare or launch into apoplectic complaints about that time they were told they couldn't get a special order or particular table. Visit and make up your own mind.

That's easier said than done: The restaurant almost defies you to find it. The faded sign is hard to read on the nondescript brick building in Oregon Hill. The minimalist dining room boasts red walls and a few random pieces of art. A large chalkboard menu dominates the back wall. Guests choose their own wine bottles from a rack by the kitchen. The bar is miniscule, only serving wine and beer.

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

This is a no-frills spot, where the food is front and center. It's also a destination eatery where you are as likely to run into Tom Hanks or Bruce Springsteen as your neighbor or co-worker. Also, check out the restaurant's garden in the lot next door, where you'll find basil, tomatoes, peppers and artichokes.

Menu

MammaZu's lunch menu is more limited than at dinner. You can't, for example, order the whole roasted branzino, a European bass. But you can get the zuppa di pesce ($14), rich and brothy with clams, mussels, fish and shrimp, or the spicy Italian sausage over a generous spread of buttery polenta ($11).

There are plenty of pasta dishes with sauces including the rich carbonara, eggplant with raisins and pine nuts or gorgonzola with peas (each $9.50).

Roasted red peppers with fresh mozzarella - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Roasted red peppers with fresh mozzarella

Warn your co-workers before you go, because you'll come back with garlic and more garlic on your breath. You must order the broccoletti with pine nuts drenched in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice ($8). Or the roasted red pepper and anchovy salad ($8) that is, again, soaked in oil, garlic and lemon. The white pizza ($12 for a medium) is especially tasty, with sharp cheese and, you guessed it, garlic.

MammaZu serves dishes family-style for groups of six or more. This means ordering heaping plates for the entire table rather than individual entrees. You can double up on a dish, but you can't order more than four different dishes for the table.

Service

Do not under any circumstances waltz into MammaZu and assume that a lack of immediate attention means you can select your own table. If you do, you risk the wrath of David G. Ottaway Jr.

He runs the dining room with the ruthless efficiency of his military training. Don't take it personally. I've known him for years, I live in the neighborhood, I have been to dinner at his house and he knows I'm a food writer. I get zero special treatment when I walk in. This lack of deference upsets many Richmonders, who complain on social media about MammaZu's service.

white pizza - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • white pizza

Nothing in the dining room escapes Ottaway's notice, and he has no time for special requests, fun and games or an entitled attitude. You must accept the MammaZu culture, and enter with respect and a thick skin, in order to reap the delicious rewards.

Workability

MammaZu seems to be under the Richmond lunch radar — I've never had trouble getting a midday table. Given its convenient location to downtown and plenty of street parking, the restaurant is a great setting for a relaxed business meeting.

The lunchtime dining room features an equal mix of tastefully suit-clad businessmen and young students from nearby Open High School. Conversations are easy to overhear.

Although the space lends itself to a professional meeting, it is not conducive to a laptop work session. Solo diners are usually directed to one of the tiny two-tops in the center of the room, without space to spread out to create a mobile office. Although I have begged for (and gotten) a four-seater booth so two of us could have room for laptops, big tables for small groups are hardly a guarantee here.

Speed

Servers seem quick to turn tables at MammaZu, which can rankle at a leisurely dinner but pays off for lunchtime diners headed back to the office. At multiple lunches over the years, and recently, I've been in and out in less than an hour.

Be forewarned, however, that the pizza can take up to half an hour to make. If you want pizza but are in a hurry, check with the server before ordering.

MammaZu also offers takeout. Call ahead to order because if the tables are full, there's not much space in the dining room for waiting.

Price

With large servings at around $10 each, MammaZu offers excellent lunch value. I've never been able to finish one of those giant pasta servings, so I always have leftovers for later. Likewise the appetizers, which are generous for two, or tasting portions for four.

Spicy Italian sausage with polenta - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Spicy Italian sausage with polenta

MammaZu may be an acquired taste, but judging by the lines at dinner it's a taste beloved by much of Richmond. If you hate queuing up in lines, head to MammaZu for lunch instead. Just make sure to wait to be seated.

MammaZu
501 S. Pine St.
788-4205
Mondays - Fridays 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.,
Mondays - Thursdays 5:30 - 10 p.m.
Fridays - Saturdays 5:30 - 11 p.m.

Add a comment