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.