Yes, gentle reader, there really was a Mamma Josephine. The restaurant in the Shaw neighborhood of south St. Louis is named for her by her daughter Mary Samuelson, and it's Mamma's recipes that are the basis for the home-cooking-style food that appear on the plate. That's also Mamma's picture on the wall.
On a residential block between the Missouri Botanical Garden and Compton Hill Reservoir Park, its interior a genteel green and with lightly flowered curtains, it serves lunch and early dinner, many of which seem to be taken home after a rough day at work. Mamma also delivers in the neighborhood, and one employee or another, carrying a bag of to-go container, slipped out the door, while we enjoyed a traditional dinner.
Mamma must have been a whale of a cook. The meatloaf, for example, is among the best we've had in a restaurant, tender and light and full of flavor, but basically, still, all about the meat. Not normally a fan of ketchup atop a meatloaf, we're happy to forgive that here and beam with every bite. The fried chicken is fried to order, they caution, so it takes a little while (if it's a particularly busy time, it can take a long while), but the wait is worth it. Lightly battered but well-seasoned, it's perfectly golden, irregular enough that it's obvious that that guy from Kentucky never got near it, or even his rival, the sailor.
Chicken and dumplings is serious nostalgia food for some. Mamma Josephine's outstanding version has fluffy biscuit-dough dumplings about the size of gnocci in a thick chickeny gravy pebbled with black pepper. Our huge serving was all white meat, and piping hot. A pulled pork sandwich topped with coleslaw showed flavor that didn't merely depend on its sauce, the meat displaying a good smokiness, nicely moist. And the Monte Cristo, a French-toasted ham and cheese sandwich, a little gooey, a little sweet, was dipped in batter, deep-fried and dusted with a hit of powdered sugar, and served with mint jelly. Joe remembers them from his early days in St. Louis, when they were menu regulars at downtown spots like the Bismarck and the Mayfair.
Among the sides, we were keen on the macaroni and cheese. Now, macaroni and cheese is one of those things that folks mostly judge by whatever version they grew up with. Mamma's is creamy rather than baked, and while it may lack the browned cheese top that some yearn for, it's deeply cheesy, with the corkscrew macaroni not overcooked, and the cheese with a light note of nutmeg. Fried cabbage is a pan saute, technically, cooked until tender, probably in some pan drippings from one dish or another.
Hush puppies are almost greaseless, a hint of onion balancing the corn-y flavor. Green beans are probably meat-free, nicely flavored by the onion seasoning, perhaps with just a light hit of red pepper, worked well. (Green beans are cooked well into tenderness in kitchens like this.) Skip the french fries; head instead for the onion rings, battered and fried to order and arriving hot and crunchy. Only the okra disappointed; deep-fried in a cornmeal batter, it was crisp but the batter-to-vegetable ratio was too high, erasing the okra's gentle taste.
Peach cobbler is surely the southern equivalent of apple pie, always on the menu in dinig rooms or restaurants with this heritage. This is real cobbler with pastry crust, not a fruit pudding. Unless it's eaten within a few hours, such cobblers end up being the sweet equivalent of chicken and dumplings, with fruit and slithery pieces of dough soaking up juices and seasoning. Nothing wrong with that as long as the diner is prepared. Mamma's is one of the better examples we've had.
Mary Samuelson works the kitchen and pops out to chat with her guests, and somehow that's a better word than customers. Her staff seem mostly to be new at the serving game, and things are pleasant and eager, but sometimes off-stride. And when things are really busy, be very patient, especially while you're waiting for that chicken. This is a small kitchen.
4000 Shaw Ave.
Lunch Tues.-Sun., Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good