Covington’s Main Street – the heart of the historically designated MainStrasse Village – is home to one of Greater Cincinnati’s finest assortment of restaurants. The lion’s share of the credit for this abundance goes to a group of restaurants known as Otto’s Restaurant Family. MainStrasse residents Emily Wolff and Paul Weckman opened Otto’s in 2003, bringing sophisticated versions of Southern favorites such as shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes to the riverside town. It was their only restaurant for more than 10 years, but since 2015 Wolff and Weckman have added popular Mexican restaurant Frida and two casual spots on opposite ends of Main Street’s commercial strip: The Standard and Larry’s.
And now the duo has Mama’s on Main, which brings traditional pasta-focused Italian dishes to the neighborhood. If the difficulty we had in getting a reservation for the weekend is any indicator, Mama’s looks like a gold-plated success from the outset.
Wolff and Weckman clearly have a deep commitment to this part of Covington. Their personal journey began in 2002 when they purchased the building at 521 Main Street where they lived upstairs from the brand new Otto’s. Wolff says “the Village” – as residents refer to MainStrasse – was primarily a bar destination at the time. But they saw greater potential.
“We wanted this community to shine as much as possible,” Wolff said. CityBeat.
Otto’s became an anchor for other businesses on the street, and this success helped make the couple’s subsequent investments possible. They opened Mama’s on March 4 after renovating the space formerly occupied by the Commonwealth Bistro. Wolff says she and her husband enjoy doing restoration and design work.
“We have a love affair with historic buildings and love the process of bringing them back to life,” she says. “I did all the design and illustrations at Mama’s, and I have to say this is my favorite to date.”
In assembling Mama’s, Wolff focused on the color red as a recurring motif, having decided that “Mama wears lipstick”. Red bar stools and other prominent splashes of scarlet enliven the two main rooms and adjoining spaces. The restaurant’s most significant design element is a large stained glass window salvaged from a MainStrasse church that had been destroyed by fire in the 1980s. restaurant.
“I was bringing some of the history of the MainStrasse back to the Village,” says Wolff.
Upon entering Mama’s, guests enter a cozy, dimly lit front room facing a bar with those bright red stools and a few high tables. There is a glowing faux fireplace with framed antique family photos over its small chimney. Lively conversation from the adjacent dining room greets you, along with a host checking your reservation.
Quickly seated, we were surprised by the noise level, which took some getting used to. Luckily trying to get along over the cacophony turned out to be the only downside to our evening as the food, drink and service were all good. As we settled in, I checked out the transformation of the space, comparing it to my memories of the Commonwealth Bistro. Our table didn’t have a view of the stained glass window, but we enjoyed the three large round paintings hanging on the wall across from our seats.
Wolff says the paintings honor her grandmothers, with pieces of family china and other personal items incorporated into the design.
The opposite wall contains a dozen or more vintage depictions of pin-ups, neatly framed. The overall effect is harmonious thanks in part to a cohesive red, white and blue color scheme.
Mama’s paper-folded menu is unassuming, displaying a handful of offerings under each heading: appetizers and salads, pastas and mains. The goal is to supply the neighborhood with traditional Italian dishes in red sauce, starting with basic spaghetti and meatballs ($19). Simpler dishes include popular standards such as cacio e pepe ($16), rigatoni with vodka sauce ($19), and lemon artichoke risotto ($18).
Other intriguing pasta preparations include ricotta gnocchi tossed with herb pesto and tomato-hazelnut vinaigrette, topped with salty and crispy prosciutto ($21); a tagliarini with a hearty mushroom stew ($19); and, my favorite, the agnolotti with pine nuts, lemon, ricotta and garlic breadcrumbs ($21).
The little stuffed pasta shapes, which look like ravioli, hit all the right notes. The sauce for the dish was buttery but not too greasy, the lemon cutting through the richness of the cheese and pine nuts and the breadcrumbs adding that touch of crunch that I love in almost any savory dish. The portion was relatively small – our server told us it was the lightest of the pasta dishes – but just right for my appetite.
If you want protein with or instead of pasta, try the Pork Milanese ($25), Salmon Piccata ($25), or Chicken Parmesan ($19). Those without meat can enjoy the eggplant parmesan ($17). We tasted the chicken, a thin and tender cutlet with a crispy breading on spaghetti with red sauce. The dish was satisfying, but nothing special. If you are looking for something special, go for the tagliarini or the agnolotti.
We shared two quite delicious appetizers between the three of us: snow pea salad ($11) and fried calamari ($13). The salad included crispy yet tender peas, thinly sliced radishes and chunks of marinated shallot topped with a generous helping of whipped ricotta. The calamari, crunchy and fat free, arrived in large quantities, enough for three diners. A bowl of hot red sauce and slices of lemon accompanied the delicate and hearty squid. The combination of the crispy spring salad and salty salted calamari couldn’t have been a more perfect start to a meal.
There’s a short list of Italian-inspired cocktails — I tried the unusual Negroni Bianco ($12) — with at least one Italian beer and a handful of Italian and other wines by the glass. You can order from a more extensive list of wine bottles, but we were happy with the glass pours. The bright and slightly sour Grillo ($11), a white from Sicily, was a great accompaniment to my lemony agnolotti.
For dessert, we sampled both the homemade tiramisu and the panna cotta (each $10). I am a fan of the latter and order it as soon as possible. This version had a less firm consistency than I’m used to, but had a pleasant flavor, the creamy base topped with strawberry compote.
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, Mama’s hosts a bake and espresso bar they call Mama’s Mornings. The restaurant serves dinner from Tuesday to Saturday.
Mama’s on Main, 621 Main St., Covington, instagram.com/mamas621cov.
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