NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Mamma Francesca was, for decades, one of the most popular and well-established Italian restaurants in Westchester County. Opening in 1983, the restaurant was packed each week, including a lunchtime crowd of state and county judges, politicians, and other assorted movers and shakers. And then suddenly, in 2011, Nick Di Costanzo shut it all down, for months, undertaking major (and expensive) renovations before re-opening as a Latino nightclub and restaurant.
Siete Ocho Siete was a bold, brash, boffo success, attracting a new, younger crowd drawn largely from New York City and serving up to a thousand people a night on weekends.
After a falling out with his new partner, Di Costanzo parted ways, shut down again, briefly re-opening as Capriccio Latino then closing again.
The two-year flirtation with Latino cuisines was a business success but a public relations nightmare where longtime customers were alienated and the neighborhood around Pelham Road became downright hostile.
Familiar patrons joined local residents to stand before City Council and complain of constant late night noise - blaring car alarms, car radios, and loud-mouthed drunks.
Compounding matters was the issue of a cabaret license which would allow the new restaurant to operate as a nightclub. The license became tied up in a two-year long political battle and was ultimately denied.
By 2013, Di Costanzo had had enough. In December of that year he re-opened Mamma Francesca's.
Many of the old customers, still angry and feeling betrayed by the transformation from traditional Italian restaurant to Puerto Rican nightclub, never came back.
“The neighborhood was right, I was wrong,” said a chastened Di Costanzo.
Seated at his desk, in a private office tucked away in the basement of Mamma Francesca’s, Di Costanzo recounted his efforts to make amends by visiting with neighborhood groups. They were not all well received.
“There were a few people who said things I do not want to repeat here,” said Di Costanzo, clearly pained by the memory.
Even when those familiar patrons did come back, they found something just a bit missing.
"The cooking was very good," said Di Costanzo. "But not up to my standards."
He knew he would need to do more than just change the menu and the sign above the door. Within a year, Nick was back in the kitchen just like the old days and the transition back was complete.
That change made all the difference. Word got around and slowly but surely many of those disaffected customers began to find their way home to Mamma Francesca.
The hospitality business, cooking in particular, runs deep in Nick's soul.
Nicholas Di Costanzo was raised in Barano d'Ischia on the island of Ischia, a volcanic island which rises out of the Tyrrhenian Sea less than 20 miles due West of Naples.
Mamma Francesca used to prepare meals for her nine children on the family farm on Ischia. Her husband owned one of the first few restaurants on the island, founded in 1957. Nick spent his youth working in the kitchen next to his mother. His father later added a small hotel. The entire family was raised in the business; the restaurant is still operated by one of the Di Costanzo brothers.
After an 18-month stint in the Bersaglieri Regiment, a famous and well-loved rapid assault unit of the Italian Army stationed in Rome, Nick left Italy for Germany to learn the German language to help his family cope with the large number of German tourists descending on Ischia each holiday season.
During those years, two of Nick's brothers left for America, settling in Harrison, New York where one brother opened the Land and Sea restaurant. The other opened Chef Vincent in Mamaroneck.
Nick came for a visit in 1974 attracted to America by, off all things, Bruce Lee and a fascination with Martial Arts. Nick studied karate.
Nick decided to stay in America, working at the Land and Sea and getting familiar with the American market for Italian cuisine.
He opened Mamma Francesca’s nine years later, borrowing heavily from his mother’s recipes from Ischia.
Incorporated on her birthday in 1983, he recalled with great sadness taking down the "Mamma Francesca" sign in 2011 and how his mother passed soon after.
Ischia, a picturesque island at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples, is the largest of the Phlegrean Islands but small, measuring just 18 square miles. Located just across from the water from the ancient city of Pompeii, Ischia is a densely-populated, mountainous island. The main industry is tourism, centering on thermal spas - hot springs and volcanic mud - the main draw for all those German tourists.
It was no surprise then, when Nicholas Di Constanzo opened his own restaurant, he would pick a location looking out on the water and specialize in Neapolitan cuisine.
Located in an unassuming strip mall at 414 Pelham Road, the restaurant opens up onto the historic Titus Mill Pond, a unique protected wetlands, that goes back to the founding of New Rochelle, pre-dating the American Revolution by seventy years.
The son of Jacob Leisler, the man who acquired the property that became New Rochelle for Huguenot exiles, sold coastal property to Antoine Lispenard in 1708 who later used it to build a dam across the peninsula between New Rochelle Harbor and Long Island Sound. Lispenard constructed a tidal grist mill; rising tides filled the mill-pond behind the dam, the lowering tide, released through a millrace, turned the mill wheel.
The mill was purchased from Lispenard's son in 1797 by Samuel Titus. He continued to operate the mill until the 1830's after the opening of the Erie Canal made his business unprofitable. The mill including the dam was torn down in the late 1800's.
A causeway built to connect New Rochelle to Davenport Neck divided the mill-pond with the northern portion filled in to create a play-field in the back of Trinity Elementary School after the school was moved in 1954 from Trinity Place (on the current of Tocci Field).
Today, Mamma Francesca’s offers a unique view of these protected tidal wetlands one of just a handful of protected man-made saltwater wetlands maintained under the jurisdiction of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The Titus Mill Pond serves primarily as a marina area for small watercraft, much of which can viewed from the seating area towards the rear of the restaurant.
The Neapolitan cuisine which serves as the heart of Mamma Francesca’s menu dates back to the Greco-Roman period, influenced by rulers that controlled what later became the Kingdom of Naples including the medieval Kingdom of Aragon (located in today's Northern Spain) and France as well as the Campania region which encompasses areas South of Naples along the Amalfi Coast and includes the islands of Capri and Ischia. Drawing from areas around the Gulf of Naples, Neapolitan cuisine combines seafood dishes with rural ingredients like pasta and cheese.
"La cucina rustica" includes Tripe Napoletana, Braciole and Simple Meat Balls, a speciality of the house where Di Costanzo relies on his mother's recipe which starts with 1 part ground beef to 3 parts pork and the rest you have to figure out if are lucky enough to stop by on nights where the meat balls are on the menu.
If you are truly fortunate, the world-renowned Ischian style of Coniglio alla Cacciatore will be on the menu. Coniglio all'Ischitan or Ischian Rabbit is the local version of rabbit cacciatore. This dish is the typical dish of Ischia where, for centuries, the island was populated with wild rabbits.
Traditionally farmers let the rabbits burrow their own tunnels producing healthier rabbits with firmer meat. Nick's family raised rabbits in their backyard.
These days, most rabbits are bred in cages on farms. A movement on the island is attempting to restore what is called the Conigli di fossa method, literally, "rabbits from the hole" to encourage more humane breeding and better food.
On a recent visit, late on a rainy Tuesday night, what was meant to be a final interview for this story turned into a tasting which featured two entrees (along with salads, desserts, and espresso).
The first was a Mamma Francesca classic, one of the original items on menu. Mamma's Stuffed Chicken is chicken sliced lengthwise stuffed with prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, and arugula covered in a Marsala wine sauce with mushrooms and onions.
The second dish was an inspired creation drawn from ingredients Nick pulled together after the kitchen had closed. He whipped up a dish with Cavatelli pasta, fresh grape tomatoes, broccoli rabe, garlic, olive oil, Italian sausage and shrimp.
Asked for a name for the second dish, Nick thought about it for a good while and came up with "Cavatelli Rustico".
Over the impromptu meal, Nick explained changes in restaurant styles over the years. He said Italian restaurants moved away from regional cuisines but he stays true to his roots.
From the 18th century until the 1960's what Americans called "Italian" restaurants were actually restaurants that served regional cuisines including those from Naples, Tuscany, Calabria, Lombardy and many others. Over the past several decades regional focus gave way to more broadly “national” Italian restaurants that drew their menu inspiration from all the regions of Italy.
“It’s like dialects,” said Di Costanzo. “Fifty years ago we all spoke our own regional dialect but as Italy became more and more one country we all spoke a common Italian language. Same thing with the food.”
When he opened Mamma Francesca's in 1983, Di Costanzo created a menu based on Neapolitan dishes with rural ingredients like pasta, vegetables, cheese and seafood dishes like fish, crustaceans, mollusks as well as popular dishes from throughout Italy: Pasta e Fagioli soup (pasta with beans), Alla Buona Donna (pasta with Tomatoes, black olives, anchovies, capers olive oil) and Misto Frutti di Mare (Shrimp, clams, calamari, mussels in a red sauce over linguini).
He hired a top chef who ran the kitchen from 1983 to 1985. When the chef had a sudden heart attack, Nick filled in temporarily, a stint that would last 8 years, until 1993. It was during those years that Di Constanzo made the reputation for Mamma Francesca's as both great food and a welcoming gathering place.
And now he is back in the kitchen.
“The response has been great,” said Di Costanzo.
It took a while, and Nick admits to some regrets about the detour in 2011 but today he beams with pride.
"Mamma Francesca is back in New Rochelle, where she belongs."
Welcome back, Mamma.