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Eatbeat: Special touches worth a return trip to Mamma Maria's

It's the special touches — such as ice and lemon wedges in the water glasses and a mint with the check—that bring me back to Mamma Maria's.

This restaurant with a main entrance at 211 DeMers Ave. in East Grand Forks is near movie theaters. It's part of the East Side eating scene and busier during dinner hours than at lunchtime.

Chad Thomas, who has operated Mamma Maria's for 10 years, loves this time of year. He says sales of pasta go up as the weather grows cold. There are more orders for lasagna and cranberry tortellini.

Though dinner hours draw more customers, I enjoy an occasional lunch at Mamma Maria's. Rather than ordinary bread, you get garlic knots baked on the premises. They were a welcoming omen when I went to Mamma Maria's recently with three friends: Ann Porter, Joan Reinhardt and Susie Shaft. There was little traffic, and we were seated in a booth where the seat cover was loose.

Things quickly got better. There was ice in our water. And a creative menu that led us to exploring the endless soup, salad and pasta choices for lunch.

The place was fairly quiet at lunchtime. Our server was Chris Dietrich, who seemed to be all over the place. He was there with more garlic knots. More ice water.

He was serving others in the large restaurant where there are choices of tables for two, booths and bar seating. And there is a private party room that is reserved ahead of time for parties and private meetings.

Larry Bannik has served as chef at Mamma Maria's for the past eight years. Along with Chad Thomas, who operates the restaurant, he turns out specialties. They include Polish dill pickle soup the second and last Fridays of the month. And for customers who like olives, there's a green olive soup now and then.

Although the restaurant has its own way of drawing customers, there are moviegoers nearby. Sometimes they stop in before a movie. Sometimes they pick up an order to take home. There is an inviting area near the bar at the rear of the restaurant. It has a fireplace with small booths designed for two.

And the creation of original pasta recipes goes on in the kitchen of Mamma Maria's. Thomas has a fetish for cooking, although he came to this area to attend UND in 1995. He got his master's degree and was teaching and working on a doctorate when he decided to try restaurant work.

He says he loves cooking and coming up with original creations — such as the Polish dill pickle soup. It shows up in the restaurant the second and last Friday of the month. Then there's a green olive soup with its own special appeal.

"If," he says, "you like green olives.''

Thomas said his family members are among several investors who own the restaurant.

"We try to go above and beyond ..." he said, "but sometimes it's hard. There's sometimes shortage of staff, although we have a low turnover."

At this time, he said there are 36 full and part time helpers. "We try to have 40 to 45."

Mamma Maria's Restaurant

211 Demers Ave., East Grand Forks

Owner-operator: Chad Thomas and associates

Chef: Larry Bannik

Hours: 11 a.m. to closing

Seating: 165

Reservations: 218-773-2225

Report card: A large, locally owned restaurant that dares to be different. Creative Italian menu.