Aug 2, 2022 - Food and Drink

Mama Ricotta’s celebrates 30 years. This is what owner Frank Scibelli would order there

Photo courtesy of Remy Thurston

I arrived at Mama Ricotta’s just 30 minutes after it opened on a Monday afternoon; by noon there wasn’t an empty seat in the dining room.

This is something that hasn’t changed in nearly 30 years, according to owner Frank Scibelli.

  • “It took us about five weeks to get busy, and then we were busy every day following,” he told me. 

What’s happening: Just ahead of the restaurant’s 30th anniversary — which makes it very old in Charlotte years — I sat down with Scibelli and asked him what I should order. I admittedly had only been to the restaurant one other time and ordered the tonnarelli carbonara, which was good, but nothing to rave about.

  • “You’ve got to have the penne alla vodka,” Scibelli declared. 

The penne alla vodka is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, ordered 7,400 times in the last 30 days, Scibelli says. It also has a reputation for inducing labor and is also referred to as “the inducer,” as Charlotte magazine’s Taylor Bowler recently wrote. Scibelli doesn’t know where that reputation came from but said to me, “It’s the only dish I’ve never gotten sick of in 30 years.”

penne alla vodka at mama ricottas restaurant charlotte
Penne alla vodka is a popular dish at Mama Ricotta’s and Little Mama’s. Photo: Ted Williams/Axios

Why it matters: Since Mama Ricotta’s opened on Kings Drive in 1992, it’s become a Charlotte staple. Its 30th anniversary more than solidifies that. And if you don’t consider age an indicator of success, look no further than its sister concept Little Mama’s, which opened in 2020 and will expand to a second location next year.

Between the lines: While Scibelli and I sat over lunch, two regulars came up to say hello. Neither of them knew that Mama’s anniversary was just two days away, but both talked to Scibelli about their fond memories at the restaurant.

  • One, a former WCNC reporter, recalled when he interviewed Scibelli after they first opened. He still orders “Mama’s Pasta” which isn’t on the menu anymore, but the kitchen carries ingredients for it. 
  • The other, a local middle school teacher on a date with his granddaughter, recalled when the original Mama’s had lines out the door and wait times as long as two hours. “He would cut up pizza and give it out to people in line,” he said to me, pointing to Scibelli, who learned very early on that attention to detail matters. 

Zoom in: It’s more than just diners who’ve left their marks on the restaurant. Some pretty well-known Charlotteans have worked behind the scenes as well, including city council member Tariq Bokhari and Michael DeMayo of DeMayo Law Offices.

  • “You never accepted anything less than excellence,” Bokhari wrote in a Facebook post to Scibelli.
Mama Ricottas
A Facebook post about Mama’s 30th anniversary garnered several comments from past employees. Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios

What we ordered: To start, we had the goat cheese and mascarpone dip and the mozzarella and tomatoes. Mama Ricotta’s has been making their mozzarella in-house since the restaurant’s inception because he couldn’t find a vendor that had mozzarella, “vendors would sell me pizza cheese,” he said.

  • Next, we ordered the Penne Alla Vodka (of course) and I asked for a margherita pizza, which I later learned isn’t on the menu.
  • Scibelli also insisted I try the chicken parmesan, which had the perfect ratio of cheese to chicken.
  • For dessert, we ordered the bread pudding, Scibelli’s own recipe.
Mama ricottas MOZZARELLA & TOMATOES
Mozzarella & tomatoes: House-made fresh mozzarella snuggled between thick slices of vine-ripened tomatoes, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil & fresh basil. Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios

What’s next: Certainly not a second Mama Ricotta’s, even though it’s Scibelli’s busiest restaurant.

  • “You can’t duplicate it,” he told me, explaining that more goes into it than people may realize. “We make so many meatballs, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of meatballs, plus sauces and mozzarella every day.”
  • Scibelli hopes Mama’s remains in Charlotte for years to come, and can even picture its 50th anniversary. Beyond that, he’s not sure. Because it’s a family restaurant built on family recipes, you’d think the obvious answer is for his kids to continue his legacy. But Scibelli says he’s always told his kids to find their own passion.
Bread pudding at Mama Ricotta’s. Photo courtesy of Remy Thurston 
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