“Is this your first time here?” she asks from the kitchen, her hands over a basin of milky water where she’s pulling mozzarella like it’s taffy. I nod. I must look lost. “You like mozzarella? Come. Taste.” She rips off a hunk of the soft cheese, squeezes it in her dripping fist, and thrusts it towards me. Like a good Catholic faced with the Eucharist, I take and I eat. The fresh cheese is warm, silky, and delicious. “Chew it good,” she says.
This is my introduction to Irene DeBenedittis of Leo’s Laticcini, also known as Mama’s of Corona. Irene makes the mozzarella and her sister Marie does the cooking—turkey with gravy, roast pork, manicotti, you name it. “I don’t use recipes,” says Marie. “I just go on instinct.”
Together, chattering in unison with great love and pride for the family business, the sisters take me on a whirlwind tour of the food store, opened in the 1930s (no one remembers when exactly) on 104th Street in Queens. By hanging garlands of salami and bunches of garlic, they show off photos of Mama with mayors and Mets players—the shop is decked out in Mets paraphernalia, and they’ve got a stand at Shea Stadium (the sisters don’t call it CitiField and neither do I). When their mother, Nancy, passed away in 2009 at the age of 90, “Mama” was so beloved, the city named the street and the nearby public school after her.
Irene, Marie, and their sister Carmela comprise the third generation of what will hopefully be a fifth-generation business.
“Fifth generation? Is that right?” The sisters count back through the years. “Grandma started it, then Mama, then us, then came Little Marie Georgina, and now there’s Gina Marie. Is that five generations? Gee, we never thought of it that way before. Come on. Let’s make you a sandwich.”
Before I can respond, Irene is behind the counter, slicing bread and mozzarella for a Mama’s Special, with peppered ham, salami, mushrooms, and peppers. She wraps the delicacy, invented 50 years ago to fill the bellies of local cops and firefighters, and whisks me next door to the bakery cafe. She shows me the back yard dining area, complete with a fountain, a statue of St. Francis, and a mural of the ancestral Italian countryside in Bari.
Calling out greetings to regular customers, she ushers me to a table so I can eat the sandwich in her presence. It’s wonderful, the entire concoction melting in the mouth. “Just have half,” she instructs me. “Leave room for cannoli.” I do as I’m told.
“It’s not just a store,” Irene explains about why the business is so special. “It’s our family.” The DeBenedittis’ customers, too, are like family. No matter how far away they go, they still have a place at Mama’s. “When people come back to Corona and see we’re still here, they’re overjoyed to find some roots.”
We talk about how so much of the city’s roots are vanishing today, how Little Italy is disappearing, and Williamsburg isn’t Williamsburg anymore. Irene says, “The thing that Mama instilled in our brain was that the neighborhood changes. You can’t stop it. But as long as people respect each other, it’ll all work out. Now, don’t forget the cannoli.”
Jeremiah Moss is the award-winning author of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com). His writing on the city has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Daily News, and online at The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He has been interviewed in major newspapers around the globe.