Maybe because I was barely in my teens, I didn't get the joke. You see, in our Italian-American home, meatballs were never spicy. The closest we ever came to spicy was if my herb-phobic mother shook a few tired old oregano flakes into her tomato sauce. Garlic was a different story, of course, and onion had its place, but that was as exotic as my parents wanted to get during the dinner hour.
Maybe, I decided, spicy meatball was a metaphor for something sexual and that was why all the adults I knew thought the expression was so hilarious. After all, my dirty-minded friend Paul had pointed out the homoerotic meaning behind a seemingly innocent candy commercial, which had a little boy lustily licking on a caramel-flavored sucker while someone off-camera sang, "Sugar Daddy is the longest lick on a stick."
"It's not about candy," Paul said matter-of-factly. "It's about blow jobs."
I was scandalized beyond belief. For years after that, I blushed violently whenever I heard the phrases longest lick or spicy meatball. I don't feel the same way now, but still, I did feel a twinge of self-consciousness biting into one of the biggest meatballs I've ever seen at Mama Mia's, the most successful Italian restaurant in Leavenworth.
All right, it's also the only Italian restaurant in Leavenworth, and sometimes it's not even that. "On weekends, we're more of a steakhouse," says owner Chris Lozenski, who turned an old roadhouse on the outskirts of town into a 90-seat spaghetti parlor about 15 years ago. "We get a lot of Kansas City diners who drive here on the weekends to eat a thick steak and a baked potato. We still cut our steaks to order."
It takes a lot of meatballs to make a claim like that, given that Kansas City has plenty of its own legendary steakhouses. But I didn't have a beef with the bragging after I actually tasted one of Lozenski's 16-ounce Kansas City strips. (He offers only a strip and a 12-ounce filet mignon.) It was pretty damn good. And cheap!
"That's why people are willing to stand around and wait an hour for a table," my friend Colleen said when she joined Bob and me on a weeknight outing to the restaurant. Colleen had eaten at Mama Mia's before and liked it a lot. "It's very friendly, inexpensive, and you get an awful lot of food."
Like those big meatballs, which were not spicy -- the only seasoning seemed to be black pepper and onions -- but were mighty tasty anyway. Ditto Bob's charbroiled chicken breasts, all plump and hot and juicy. Too bad that after the fried mozzarella sticks, the salad and the garlic toast, he couldn't begin to finish them. "Too much food," he sighed.
Not all of it was meraviglioso, as my Sicilian-American grandmother might have said, but who needs wonderful when comfort is enough? Mama Mia's probably won't win any culinary awards, but sometimes maybe all you want is a big ol' plate of baked ziti smothered in tomato sauce and melted cheese, served with salad and bread, and setting you back less than 10 bucks.
Ten bucks and a couple of gallons of gas, which is a consideration -- it's 37 miles or so from midtown to the restaurant. But if you plan a day trip that includes some Leavenworth highlights -- the Frontier Army Museum, the last Nu-Way hamburger joint in the metro, a couple of antique malls, the high school where rocker Melissa Etheridge kissed her first girl -- a foray to Mama Mia's makes a nice finale.
The second time I drove to the restaurant, I took along Bob, Carol Ann and Yvette, who found the little dining room, with its floral wallpaper, vinyl-draped tables, paper napkins, neon beer signs and teenage waitresses kind of charming. "But charming in a small-town sense," Yvette clarified. "I mean, I don't think it would seem so cute or wholesome if it were in Kansas City."
Part of Mama Mia's allure is that it's not just off the beaten path but trapped in a time warp, right down to the specialty drink menu, which boasts Reagan-era classics such as the Fuzzy Navel and the Sex on the Beach. Not that I saw any customers drinking anything stronger than beer or wine; the clientele is heavily skewed to family groups or strapping, fresh-off-the-base military types with buzz haircuts and perfect table manners.
My own table manners were debatable because I was starving. I attacked my salad as if I'd just gotten out of solitary confinement down the road at the big house. Happily, it was a great combination of ice-cold iceberg lettuce, croutons and sliced onion served in a chilled, 1-quart steel mixing bowl. Inexplicably, bread comes not with the salad but afterward, so I ordered garlic bread -- which might have been good if the garlic-brushed slices topped with grated cheese had been put under the broiler for a few seconds so that the cheese was hot and bubbly instead of cold and boring.
I loved my baked ziti, though, even if Mama Mia's tomato sauce is the lightly seasoned, slightly sweet sugo that Midwesterners adore but usually sets my teeth on edge. But this sauce was a decent counterpoint to the ricotta cheese, sausage and ground beef layered with the ziti noodles. And clearly it was a multipurpose concoction. "I love this sauce," raved Bob, whose combination plate had chicken parmigiana, ziti and spaghetti, all blanketed with the bright red stuff.
Carol thought her eggplant parmigiana was "ho hum" (I found the vegetable slices a shade rubbery), and Yvette, who ordered that night's dinner special -- fettuccine in a shiny Alfredo sauce with seafood -- complained that "it smelled too fishy." She ate it anyway.
I returned a few nights later with Lisa and Patrick, who thought Mama Mia's would be a good place for an illicit tryst. "You'll never see anyone you know in here," he said. Later, lubricated by a stiff martini (served in a two-piece glass-and-bowl combo straight from the Lillian Vernon catalog), Patrick decided that even though he didn't know anyone in the dining room, "There's a couple of people in here I'd like to know."
Lisa gazed at all the soldiers and proclaimed the place "a man's restaurant," thanks to its big portions and big customers. She wasn't entranced by that night's dinner special, a virile portion of cheese manicotti, because she thought the tomato sauce was "ridiculously" bland.
"Hasn't anyone here heard of spices?" she asked.
"This is Leavenworth, darling," Patrick said between bites of a hefty slab of Kansas City strip. "Spices are un-American." He wasn't about to complain about anything -- his steak was extraordinarily tender and flavorful. So were my succulent pork medallions, really as big as chops. I nixed the idea of more pasta and ate the meat with a fluffy baked potato slathered with butter and sour cream.
The dessert menu includes spumoni in a nod to the restaurant's Italian-American theme, but the all-American confections are the best. We especially loved the bowl of hot apple brown betty, all crunchy pastry and tart baked apples piled with cinnamon-dusted vanilla ice cream, and the quivering square of steamy bread pudding dripping with gooey caramel sauce.
We felt guilty eating so much, but, looking around at the other patrons, we realized that everyone else seemed to be indulging with the same abandon. Most likely, we'd all be needing Alka-Seltzer.