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In the Neighborhood
Hottest Show on Broadway:Mama Mia's


At the corner of Broadway and Monument, Mama Mia’s rises incongruously across from the medical complex.
If the Broadway hit musical Mamma Mia, which opens in Baltimore this month, has as long a run as our own Mama Mia’s—the restaurant—it will make The Fantastiks look like a flash in the pan. For 42 years, the family proprietors have served it up good, hot and, most importantly, fast to generations of Hopkinsites on the go. Their production is prodigious: Mama Mia’s’ three-story, canary-yellow haven on the northwest corner of Broadway and Monument pumps out 300 cheese steaks a day, providing much-needed fuel in the furnace for ravenous patients, staff and neighborhood residents alike.

The mixed clientele gives Mama Mia’s its decided dual-identity. By night the locals rule the roost, along with ED staff, ambo drivers and even patients—some barely ambulatory—who have been holed up in the ED waiting room. By day, Mama Mia’s is mostly populated by Hopkins folks. “The men we all just call ‘doc,’” says the head chef and manager, known only as Larry. And what of the women? “We call them either ‘babe,’ ‘lady’ or ‘sweetheart.’”

Larry has been at Mama Mia’s for 27 years, since the days when Monument Street ran one way in the other direction. But while the traffic flow has changed, the personal touch remains. Larry has been known to unlock the dining room (it normally closes at 2 p.m. with carry-out open until 2 a.m.) for weary, foreign families who’ve spent the day at a loved one’s bedside. “When someone flies in from overseas, we try to give them hospitality,” he says. “We take a certain amount of pride in being part of the Hopkins community. Not just because we work nearby, but also because we go there when we’re sick.”

Actually, the Mama Mia’s building has long served the Hopkins community. In the early 1960s it housed medical students, including then-sophomore and future Chief of Medicine Myron Weisfeldt. The accommodations, recalls Weisfeldt, were rather unusual. The two female students who lived on the third floor (including noted pediatrician Judy Porter-Gieske) could access their apartment only via a stairwell inside the abode Weisfeldt shared with future class president Barry Strauch.

Mama Mia’s was yet to move in—Oken’s Pharmacy was then on the first floor—but ironically, Weisfeldt’s fondest memory involves food. “Our first weekend there, on a Sunday, we made pasta that got dumped in the sink,” says Weisfeldt. The pasta clogged the pipes, causing a ground-floor flood in Oken’s drug storage room. Recalls Weisfeldt, “Mr. Oken just about kicked us out.”

Instead, it was Oken who moved out, setting the stage for Mama Mia’s extraordinary run. Current co-owner Gail Pappas says that, Hopkins’ significant business notwithstanding, it’s Mama Mia’s commitment to the neighborhood that keeps it strong. All her cooks live in the neighborhood, and she gives the needy and willing opportunities to work, even if it involves simply taking out the trash or unloading a vehicle.

Such good deeds have not gone unnoticed. In late 1980s, when the subway extension to Hopkins threatened to wipe out Mama Mia’s’ building, neighbors and patrons filled two large notebooks with signatures. The petition saved the business; the show went on. Today, those subs, pizzas and cheese steaks still are stage-center. (Don’t even ask what they do to make the cheese steaks taste so good; the recipe has been a closely held secret for more than 40 years.) On our Mama Mia’s, at least, the curtain is unlikely to go down any time soon.

Mat Edelson

 

 

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