Despite the old-timey name, Mama Louisa’s Hero Shoppe doesn’t look like much more than your typical NYC bodega from streetside on New York Avenue. Inside, ancient shelves overflow with toiletries and toys, snacks and sundries, every item priced with a handwritten sign. Individual razors: 75 cents. A sleeve of Ritz crackers, sans box: $1. But it’s the haphazard array of paper signs behind the back counter–advertising everything from artichoke parmigiana to liverwurst–that hint at why Mama Louisa’s is a special place.
This unheralded hole-in-the-wall has been here for 120 years–long before Prospects-Lefferts Gardens was “on the map” and in fact, long before anyone had ever called it Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Frank Conigiliaro has owned the place for the past 30 years, during which time he’s continued a tradition of serving this ever-changing neighborhood with piled-high heroes and old-school Italian-American cuisine made in the small back kitchen.
The sandwiches here are a world away from your standard corner deli fare. The Italian combo layers thin slices of prosciutto, capicola, soppresatta and provolone, best topped by roasted red peppers on a semolina roll. Turkey sandwiches are made not with slimy deli meat but juicy, fresh-roasted breast. Hot sandwich items range from brisket and pastrami to made-to-order veal parmiagana. Most are $5.50 for a standard-size sandwich, $7 for a massive large.
There’s also a full line-up of heavy-on-the-red-sauce pasta dishes, with giant portions of stuffed shells, meatballs and lasagna cooked fresh and served in aluminum to-go containers. The handwritten signs strewn across the counter push everything from turkey legs ($1.50 each) to rock lobster and clam chowder, while daily specials range from spaghetti with clam sauce to a grilled chicken sandwich with broccoli rabe.
The sprawling menu makes only a few concessions to PLG’s changing demographics (most of the Italian population here has long since been replaced by Caribbeans, and more recently, Manhattan transplants and erstwhile Park Slopers). Baked chicken comes over a bed or rice and beans, there’s sometimes a Cuban sandwich on offer, and you can ask for a wrap, but really, would you?
There’s nothing revelatory about Mama Louisa’s cuisine. The pasta is not light as a feather, the sausage doesn’t offer subtle notes of fennel or thyme, the meatballs are not the moistest you’ve ever tasted. But that’s way beside the point. The focus here is on hearty portions of the classics, made quickly and perfectly, and most importantly, with lots and lots and LOTS of mozz. They also do delivery and catering. Basically, living near Mama Louisa’s is like having an Italian grandmother on call.