In the middle of a day of errands, I did what I have done for years. Found a parking spot in front of Mamma Lucia's in Annapolis to grab a bite to eat.
The guy behind the counter is from Italy; he calls me "signora" and knows exactly what I want. Penne arrabbiata and a side salad. I love how Mamma's dressing is always so tart and vinegary.
But the door was locked and the place, in a strip mall behind Annapolis Mall where it has been for probably 30 years, was dark. Chairs and tables were gone; neon signs, pulled from the windows, lay on the floor.
I went to the fabric shop next door to ask what had happened, and the lady said the rent for the Jennifer Road shops had gone up and, rather than pay more, Mamma's had closed.
Over the years, I had heard rumors about a feud in the extended Italian family that had opened Mamma Lucia clones around town. Fights over ownership and a bigger share of the pie, so to speak. To be frank, the food at Mamma's off-spring was always just fine.
But Mamma's had been the default restaurant for our friends and family for decades, the food an accompaniment to our lives.
Mamma's was where we went for pizza on birthdays and after soccer matches when the kids were young because the adults could order something much better than a slice of pepperoni. All these years later, it is where we took the grand-kids because the adults could still get something better than a slice of pepperoni.
At Christmas time it was where we met our best friends after shopping because we knew we'd all be too busy to get together any other time. The kids were grown and busy with their own friends, but they knew if they showed up at Mamma's any other absence was more forgivable.
It was where you got something to eat after a funeral, when you didn't have the strength to be around people. It was where you went after scary doctor's appointments. It was where we went to dinner when we couldn't be bothered to think of anyplace new.
When my soon-to-be daughter-in-law said that her high school sports teams ate at Mamma's — just like Joe's did — I thought their match was sanctified. They had played their sports a mile from each other but had never met, never heard the other's name. But they had Mamma's in common.
There are other restaurants in Annapolis more well known, closer to the City Dock and the historic district, more in keeping with the food traditions of the Chesapeake Bay. Harry Browne's, Cantler's, O'Learys, Carrol's Creek, and Lewnes' Steakhouse.
Mamma Lucia's couldn't hold a candle to those places. But it was our place, and we were never ashamed to be seen there. We could eat a lot of food for not much money, and nobody noticed if the kids kept filling their plastic cups at the soda dispenser.
There are bistros and taverns that anchor neighborhoods, families and ethnic traditions in other cities. Mamma's was never one of those. It was just a pizza and pasta joint in a strip mall. But it was our joint, and it anchored the families that made up our inner circle. And it isn't there anymore.
I have a picture of my grandson, the fabulous Mikey, and Ella and Lily, the granddaughters of our dearest friends, holding their (refilled) soda cups in triumph and smiling into the camera. It was Christmas, I think, and we were at Mamma's as usual. Ella's and Lily's dad had rejected the food court in the mall. He wasn't going to try to eat with three little kids when there was no wine, he declared, and we all agreed.
I looked at the picture not long ago and wondered about the next generation and whether Mamma's would be the glue that kept them together, or at least ignited memories.
I guess not.
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