A Farewell to Antipasto
Bidding “my” Milwaukee meetinghouse a beyond-fond farewell
Time for me to convert to vegetarianism—or at least, as my wife's done, the “No mammals!” version. You see, for more than two decades, I've testified: “I could give up all other red meat, but never Mimma's carpaccio.”
As of New Year's Day 2017, though, that carpaccio; its creator, the ever-gracious charmer Mimma Megna herself; all of her other culinary masterworks; and the most, at once, warm-as-in-welcoming, cool-as-in-“hep” atmosphere/décor in town—will be absent, forever, from her cherished (by her and thousands of diners) 1307 E. Brady Street environs of 28 years.
Since its January 1989 opening, Mimma's Cafe has been, in this diner's opinion, the premier restaurant in my beloved home town. I try to stay away from absolute statements, but this situation is—to my tastes, at least—that rare inarguable one, as black-and-white as the Axis powers versus the Allies, or Trumpo the Clown versus Hillary—indeed, as black as Mimma's super-savory squid-ink seafood pasta, and as white as the most melt-in-your mouth buffalo mozzarella this side of Sicily.
Ah, bella Sicily, where Mimma was born and initially raised, in a small village near Palerma. In 1963 (the year that I began eating solid food; foreshadowing, perhaps?), the Famiglia Megna relocated to Cream City: “You know,” she smiles during a recent conversation with this ardent admirer, “I turned sweet 16 here in Milwaukee”—an impressionable age, presaging the deep impression that she, in turn, would leave on our fair city. “School was hard; I didn't speak English. I didn't know anyone; no one would give me a job.” So, she worked in an East Side grocery store that her family eventually bought … and where, in order to keep certain specialty items in stock, she took to the kitchen and started to to whip 'em up herself.
“I've always cooked the way we were raised to cook: with a love for it” … and, as the rest of us can attest, with a love for her customers, too—one that you can taste. I mean, seriously: that carpaccio …
I digress—but while we're on the subject of love, I should mention that Mimma for decades has strived to “give back to the community that's been so kind to me” through her involvement in causes from domestic violence to pediatric AIDS.
Her foremost engagement with and contribution to that community, though, has of course been culinary—right from the start. In 1972, Mamma e Papa Megna opened a vast (9,000-square-foot) supermarket in Glendale, for which Mimma prepared much larger quantities of many more specialty items. Next came a catering business in which she served, for all of its 21 years, as the go-to chef.
After that, it was change-of-pace time: a gift shop. But that idea—we, her “regulars,” know in our very bones—was not meant to last! So, “in '85 I got back into food and opened my own place in Cedarburg.
“A few years later,” she recalls, eyes shining, “somebody told me about this location. I came to Brady Street for a look.” The economically challenged (this was, after all, during the Bush I administration), semi-sketchy neighborhood housed, at that time, head shops, homeless people, and a whole lot of other closed-up commercial buildings. Another businesswoman might, understandably, have turned right around.
But not Signorna Megna. “I saw the potential. I'm a positive person; I always say to myself, 'I can make this work.'” The rent was $500 a month; that seemed high, but Mimma made the deal—then “made back the rent on our first night: January 27, 1989. By Saturday, the place was packed, and it was 'Go go go!' from then on.”
Here, a hint of justified ego enters into her lilting, Palerma-accented voice: “The other Italian restaurants in town had been trying to come out with the correct Sicilian recipes. But what was already on the market here wasn't even close to what it's supposed to be.”
(Sidebar: The new owner was recently quoted in the Journal-Sentinel as planning to substitute his own “trendier” Italian restaurant, including “pasta with a more modern take.” Yo, bro; good luck with that …. And, readers: Where on the East Side can I find some decent, like, Szechuan?)
As 1989 progressed, diners found and responded to this “new” (i.e., old) take on Sicilian cuisine, and Mimma's “Go go go!” just kept go-g-going: In 1990 she bought the building, in '91 she renovated it, and in '93 she purchased and moved into the adjoining house, thereby becoming permanently ensconced as “the Mother of Brady Street”—a thoroughfare and neighborhood that, due mostly to Mimma's arrival and runaway success, began turning into the cultural/culinary artsy-boho Mecca we know and love.
But: “permanently” encsonced? So we assumed; who (other than a “trendier, more modern” poseur) could imagine otherwise? “We all,” I tell her, “thought Mimma's would be here forever!”
In reply, she sighs. “I've been cooking for 60 years, and I'm tired. I can't do 14 to 16 hours a day. It's time to let the next generation step up. It's time to live some life. It's time for me to smell the roses.”
“Instead,” I suggest, “of the garlic?”
With a laugh, she reassures me that she'll still be pressing out or slicing the occasional clove, though “not from 7 a.m. till 1, 2, 3 the next a.m., six days a week. Sure, I'm a people person. But—200-plus people per night?
“I'm a lung cancer survivor, and I had a heart attack in 2014. I have to lay back a little bit; I've done 95 percent of the cooking! It helps, of course, that I have a wonderful staff: [head waiter per eccellenza] William has been with me for 22 years; Erik, who was here from the start for 18, is coming back to Milwaukee and is going to be with me when I close.” Javier, she continues, started as a dishwasher and “worked all the way up to my assisting cook!” Having learned from the best, he now handles many of the pasta dishes.
Mimma alone, however, creates all of the seafood specials that comprise the Cafe's ever-changing colpo di grazio. “I do original cooking, I cook new specials every week, and I make everything from scratch. That's the way I've cooked from the start,” to the delight of customers anonymous and famous alike. An eye-twinkle accompanies her partial list of the dozens of celebrities who've frequented Mimma's: Hollywood actors Leslie Nielsen—“He was a regular”—Mark Harmon, Kiefer Sutherland, and Twin Peaks star Sherilynn Fenn (ordering not cherry pie but tiramisu); music stars like Willie Nelson and Donny Osmond; former NYC Mayor Rudy Guiliani; “a lot of the Packers”; and—most gratifying to Mimma, it seems—“many famous chefs from Italy.
“In 48 years, I've met so-o-o many great people here! And, Paul, that includes you … and your mom.” Indeed, the late Hazelyn McComas was, within our family, second only to me in her partaking of the deelish bliss on Brady.
I'll never forget Mom's and my last sharing of that bliss, just under three years ago. I drove up from my now-native Evanston to spend Christmas-Eve and -Day 2013 with her. The hip-elegant Mimma's is no “carryout place,” other than when there are leftovers (a rare occurrence when the food is magnifico). But when I told Mimma that Mamma McComas was no longer up to the trip, the hospitable hostess whipped up braciole de manza (Mimma's amazing meat-roll entree), calamari fritte (fried—and never too fried)—insalata caprese, prosciutto y melone, and salsiccia tortellini in brodo (sausage-tortellini soup).
Oh, and carpaccio. Always! Because the flavor of Mimma's carpaccio …
Again, I digress. Anyway, that's what we ordered. And “When,” again, “the food is magnifico,” you really do remember, three years later, every. Single. Item!
When I arrived, Mimma handed me a pair of large-size doggie bags, relented when I insisted on paying her, hugged me, and instructed, “Paul, you give your Mamma my love.”
A light and lovely Christmas Eve snowfall accompanied my two-block walk back to Mom's beloved final home, Saint John's on the Lake. There, I put on Aimee Mann's “One More Drifter in the Snow” CD, then set the table and wheeled Mom up to it. Her last Mimma's meal—just three weeks, as it turned out, before my mother's passing—was, she reported, “one of the best.”
After napkin-wiping our mouth-corners, we repaired to the living room to watch a BET rerun of Roots (a miniseries we'd faithfully watched together, and discussed, when it first aired in 1977) till she said it was time for her to turn in. Only after I'd gotten her into bed did I clear the two-person dining table, fill the dishwasher … and—you'd better believe it!—“hit the fridge” to finish off that melone!
Going further back: I well recall my first Mimma's meal. In early 1995, at age 33, I returned to the city of my birth-and-childhood for, as it turned out, three weeks, so that my parents and my “big sis” Rachel could caretake me during my first, worst episode of major clinical depression till the meds began sinking in. A week after my arrival, Rachel said, “Let's talk. Meet me at this great place I know on Brady!” The food and environs, it turned out, made that dark day end brightly. (Attention, American Psychiatric Association: Mimma's + meds = mental health!) And so, the dye was cast.
It's not for nothing that, whenever my Dayna Clay Band scores a gig in Milwaukee, or I return to St. John's to present a film or literary program, a veritable posse converges upon Mimma's at my invitation. DCB bandmates, “newly hatched” family members (i.e., upon their admittance to the clan), and friends who've come from San Francisco, East Michigan, and myriad points in between … all have been instantaneously converted. (Just ask my aformentioned no-mammals Missuz, Heather. Or my lead-singer/de-facto-kid-sis, Maya.) What's more, many Milwaukee friends who've been away for a while (Terri, Pat, Roselyn, Dave: I'm talkin' 'bout you.) have returned to join the McComas Party … and promptly wondered why it had taken them so long to come back!
It's unanimous: The magnificent menu, stellar service, and “traditiotrendy” décor always provide the perfect anticipatory pre-gig or celebratory post-program atmosphere. But—
Where the hell will I “assemble the team” for fine dining and camaraderie next year, and beyond? There's no place as good to which I can bring my friends to break bread together, and no place at all in which we can then slide that broken bread around in a saucer full of Mimma's homemade, chopped-olive-laced olive oil—soon to be available, by the way, for purchase.
Yes, at least there's that: “A while back, a company approached me about marketing some of my cooking as products. That sounded good to me!” A quadruple-S-sampling—soups, salad dressings, sausage, and sauces—-will show up shortly on shelves of M'waukee grocery stores. (Yes, my fellow “Mimmadmirers,” you can take it with you!)
But some folks want more, and they want it now. “People come into the kitchen and ask, 'Why are you doing this? You can't go! Well, Mimma, at least give me the recipe for …'” She laughs. “I'll miss them. I'll miss everyone.” She hopes to see as many of us as possible before and/or during that fateful New-Year's-Eve swan song, about which she offers only this: “There's something big coming up on our last night. I don't know what it is; the staff want to handle it.”
(Note to staff: Reservation, please, for “McComas,” party of two.)
“After that,” she speculates, “just give me two weeks off, and I'm sure I'll be looking for something to do!”
Such as a return to Sicily? “Yes, I'll go home for a bit—I have relatives there, and I miss them—but really, Milwaukee is home now. But I'll take a little rest, back in my first home …”
“And,” I inquire, “let the chefs Siciliano cook for you?”
“Absolutely!” she grins. “Then, I'll come back here. And then, I'll have a life like I've never had—but I'll look at one thing at a time.”
“Well, Paul, as you know”—she winks—“I want to write a book.”
Indeed, whenever I stop in for my “fix,” Mimma reminds me that I must co-author her memoir—which will be, let me tell you, one hell of a read! My response tradizionale: “Only if you pay me in carpaccio.”
Yes, carpaccio. And now, at last … it's time:
Ahhh. The Mimma's Cafe carpaccio. Imagine the best lovemaking to which you've ever been a party, translated into a generous dinner-appetizer: you long—at the same time—both to gulp it down fast … and to draw it out. Carpaccio a la Mimma is the perfect intercou—er, interplay of capperi piccante, tart succo di limone, crisp-yet-juicy green-leaf lettuce, shaved parmigiano, her incomparable olive oil, and some secret ingredient I've never been able to identify (I'm guessing: manna?)—all of this in service to the most exquisitely rich-and-savory, thin-sliced raw tenderloin that a steer ever sacrificed for the human good.
I've tried to recreate this dish at home. But even when I deploy the succulent, farm-fresh Kuper Beef steaks raised in Iowa by my aformentioned lead singer's free-ranging, grass-feeding parents—organi-agri-gifted micro-farmers Keith and Marian Kuper— well, I can't. Quite. Do it. (It ain't the meat; it's me subbing for Mimma.)
Which begs my next—and final—question:
“Mimma, you cooked for the public here in Milwaukee in the '60s and '70s, then kept on doing so at Mimma's in the '80s, '90s, '00s, and into the current teens. Is there any chance you'll do at least some cooking for us, some time, somewhere … into the '20s and beyond?”
She shrugs: “Some local restaurant owners have approached me, asking, 'Would you be our consultant?' or 'How about doing a 'Mimma Night' here from time to time?'” Her Mona Lisa smile suggests, to my relief, an inclination toward obliging these entreaties. “Maybe. Why not? Y'know, I've been cancer free for 20 years … and I have another 30 in me!
“What I don't have is regrets.”
Go to mimmas.com, and you'll find a message to her patrons—one that we, in turn, now offer back:
“Grazie, grazie, grazie!”