My palms clasp a pair of breasts as perfectly constructed as the cupola on top of Saint Peter's Basilica; my lips are swiftly filled by a sweet, tentative lick of something delicious; somewhere in the distance, Madonna croons about being touched for the very first time. No, I'm not on the set of an 1980s porno; I'm sitting down to a meal at Gloria Trattoria in Shoreditch, drinking a cocktail out of a novelty mug shaped like a naked female torso.
Gloria is one of two, soon to be three restaurants, in London owned by the Big Mamma restaurant group. And yes, it's just as silly as it sounds.
Just in case you hadn't got the picture yet, Big Mamma likes to be a bit extra. In fact, really extra. Like, Jim Carrey's 1994 streak of Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber levels of extra. That's why I wasn't surprised to learn that the latest ostentatious osteria from the Franco-Italian restaurant group – known for its generous portions, fair prices and swaggering staff – promises to be its biggest, ballsiest, and most outrageous restaurant yet.
Taking up 7,000 square feet of space in Covent Garden, Ave Mario will operate over two floors with more than 250 covers, including two additional outdoor terraces and a 70s-inspired mirrored basement.
The restaurant's not even open yet and it already looks set to be one of London's buzziest, most talked-about openings of the year. Something that's not an easy feat considering that the city's hospitality industry is still licking its wounds from the caning it's received from the pandemic.
Ave Mario isn't even open yet and it already looks set to be one of London's buzziest, most talked-about openings of the year
Founded in 2013 by Tigrane Seydoux and Victor Lugger, two French men with a passion for Italian cuisine and culture, the Big Mamma restaurant group was set up with the humble aim of serving good food at affordable prices in great locations.
The group's first restaurant East Mamma opened in the 11th arrondissement of Paris in 2015. The second, Ober Mamma, opened up in the Oberkampf area of that same city a few months after. Today, the Big Mamma group encompasses fourteen restaurants spread across Paris, London, and Madrid.
Although it's a simple premise, opening a restaurant that ticks off all those boxes is something that's deceptively hard to execute. "The first thing that everyone told us when we started was 'that is a really bad idea'," says Lugger, speaking to me from his London home in the weeks building up to Ave Mario's grand unveiling in early July.
"Everyone was into all these tech companies building crazy new stuff at the time, but we decided that we were going to take the exact opposite approach," he adds. "We were just going to make a restaurant in the most traditional way possible – by doing it properly. And doing it properly, to us, means doing just four things. It means making good food that's cheap and served with a smile in a really, really nice place."
Having been to both of their London restaurants, I can confirm that Big Mamma has it nailed when it comes to delivering that much-PR'd-about concept of an "eating experience". It's impossible to order a portion of 'Fillipo's Big Balls' without cracking a smile and that fun, laid back approach to eating out is a major reason that Big Mamma's pizza, pasta, and big-ass burrata empire is so universally popular.
"We're seven years down the line now and I still believe that, if you do those four things, your restaurant is going to be packed day in, day out; week in, week out," says Lugger, "but if you're missing even just one of those four things? You're going to be half-empty. And if your restaurant is half-empty in this business, you're dead."
Half-empty is not a state that you'll find either of Big Mamma's London outfits in. Before the pandemic, both Gloria (the group's sophomore Shoreditch restaurant) and its Fitzrovia follow-up, Circolo, were perennially packed to the rafters with ring light-wielding influencers and millennial yuppies like myself.
And although the pandemic may have forced Big Mamma's restaurants to hibernate for a few months, Tigrane and Victor used the opportunity to launch a brand-new delivery service in the form of Napoli Gang.
"We were hit by Covid just like everyone else and were feeling a little helpless," admits Victor, "but we decided that we'll take a chance to recreate that classic Big Mamma restaurant experience in people's homes." With a menu packed with pizza, piggy bits – we're talking high quality mortadella al pistacchio and prosciutto di parma here – and quality Italian produce, it's safe to say they did just that.
"Now it's a year later and we've delivered over a million pizzas," says Victor, confirming that Napoli Gang is going to be a permanent vertical of the business going forward, "that just makes me realise how far we've come."
Though that's not to say a couriered box of bolognese-stuffed arancini can ever completely replace the experience of eating in a real restaurant. Just a week after reopening, Big Mamma had its "strongest week ever" in London – a result that underlines just how much people have missed the kind of vibe that's so intrinsic to the group's bricks-and-mortar sites.
That said, I'd be lying if I said that the elaborately named dishes like the '#FreeBritney Spearagus' (garlicky crisp sourdough with grilled asparagus, crunchy prosciutto, and fresh robiola cheese) or 'Squid Goals' (a bowl of calamarata pasta dressed to the nines with fresh local cuttlefish, capers, pomodorini tomatoes, olives, and bottarga) weren't also objectively delicious.
If ordering a dish that's named after a grassroots movement to free a popstar from her evil father sounds like your scene: great. If not: that's also great. Because there's plenty of people who will gladly take a booking at Circolo off your hands.
There are even Big Mamma diehards – a troupe not completely dissimilar from the flare and baguette-toting PSG ultras willing to trek to Stamford Bridge for a Champions League slugfest with Chelsea – who have travelled from Paris to London just to check out the group's English outlets.
"It's all about giving a great quality-to-price-to-experience ratio," says Tigrane Seydoux when I ask him about the restaurant group's fervent fandom, "that's the driving force behind Big Mamma and I think that's the main reason people keep coming back. We're always packed because our restaurants are the sort of places where you tend to think that your dinner is going to cost you 70 euros but the bill at the end will be, like, 30 euros. You're going to be happy with that."
While Tigrane's maths doesn't completely scan with the prices in the post-Brexit marketplace over here in London, a meal at Gloria or Circolo is still only likely set you back around £30 a head – and that's including starters, mains, drinks, and one of their super Instagrammable desserts. Which you should definitely order.
72% of Big Mamma's ingredients are sourced directly from Italy
The 'Incomparable Lemon Pie' is one of the Big Mamma's most iconic dishes in London; a zingy lemon tart topped with a six-inch behemoth of meringue that wobbles like Mr Blobby driving a jalopy down a cobbled street.
It's about 90% meringue with just a sliver of lemon filling and pastry propping it up and, on the surface, it might seem like a dessert that epitomises the issues that some of the city's more curmudgeonly diners have with Big Mamma's showy approach to cuisine: "all flash, no substance". But I like to think it's a dish that sums up the restaurant group in a different way because, despite its ludicrous appearance and overt ostentatiousness, it's also completely delicious.
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Yes, the terribly kept secret to Big Mamma's success is that the food is good. Perhaps better than it has any right to be, given it's not always the main reason people come. The products they use – 72% of which, according to Victor, come direct from Italy – are impeccably sourced, too.
"Sourcing is at the heart of the Big Mamma story," agrees Seydoux, "we took more than two years to open the first restaurant because we travelled for more than a year and a half across Italy trying to source the best products possible."
Whether it's burrata bought from Salvatore Montrone in Puglia, olive oil from Tuscany, mozzarella di bufala from the legendary Salvatore Corso, or black truffles plucked fresh out of the mountainous terrain of Molise, Lugger assures me that all of the high-quality Italian products they source come to the restaurants straight from the producers. I know what you're thinking: all of them?
"All of them. That's how we first started," says Lugger, "we realised that if we buy direct it means we're always going to get better shit than the guy next door."
Again, a simple enough premise that's been painstakingly difficult to bring into action. Big Mamma currently uses three separate mozzarella suppliers because each would be too small to supply all of Lugger and Seydoux's restaurants on their own. For two out of those three suppliers, Lugger and Seydoux are the only restaurateurs that they sell to. Seriously. The only other people who get to sample that mozzarella are the people who live in the villages where it's made.
"We're talking about very small companies that have their own buffalo and have been doing this for the last 200 years," says Lugger. "That mozzarella is way better than you'll find from a big-scale supplier. It's Savile Row versus Uniqlo. I'm not saying Uniqlo is shit and I'm not saying that industrial products are shit; you can still get a very decent jumper at Uniqlo, I have a few of them myself. But my point is that it's really not the same quality.
"We're going the extra mile by buying direct but we also don't pay any commissions to intermediaries. So, if you think about it like that, I'm buying that Savile Row mozzarella for a cheaper price than I'd get if I was buying an industrial Uniqlo mozzarella from a distributor. That gives me, and us, a massive edge."
Brexit, of course, is making things very complicated for Victor, Tigrane, and just about every restaurateur and chef working in the United Kingdom. It's why a meal at a Big Mamma restaurant in London is likely to cost more than it would in Paris or Madrid.
"Brexit is eventually just going to make things more expensive for the Brits and for everyone in Britain," concedes Lugger, "unless, of course, you're happy to only eat products that come from England. I mean, there's great cheese and crackers in England, so if you're happy to eat that for the rest of your life, that's great! But, if at some point, anyone who lives on British soil wants to eat something from outside of the UK – including parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano, mozzarella – you're going to have to pay for it. And I'm saying that as someone who, before Brexit, would buy 95% of their vegetables locally."
In spite of the red tape at the border, Big Mamma looks set to continue its domination of "best restaurant for a Hinge date" listicles with Ave Mario, and the group aren't showing signs of slowing their expansion anytime soon. Victor confirms there will be more restaurants in London, but, crucially, he adds "You're only ever as good as the last meal you've served."
Ensuring quality control across all of their restaurants is something that's vital to Big Mamma's success. So, too, is guaranteeing that each restaurant offers a completely individual dining experience. "From the beginning, we never wanted to create a chain," says Tigrane.
"The common DNA is the Italian vibe and our values of excellence, meritocracy, and authenticity, entrepreneurship – those four values are the common pillars of all the restaurants. But we want to achieve that through a collection of diverse restaurants. Gloria was a fantastic success but we didn't want to take that formula and just copy and paste it for the second one. We did Circolo very differently and we've done that for all fourteen of our restaurants in Europe now."
Ave Mario will have a dedicated caviar section and also includes a two-foot-tall stracciatella ice cream cake
From Carmelo in Lyon to Bel Mondo in Madrid, each of the Big Mamma restaurants has a completely different design and menu. To a certain extent. They are all Italian restaurants, of course, so you can still expect to find pasta and burrata on just about every menu, but Victor and Tigrane's grand aim is that visiting one Big Mamma restaurant will only make you want to go to the others even more, not less. It's a tactic that's certainly worked on me. I can't wait to see what Ave Mario has got to offer.
Things are still very hush-hush at the time of writing but if there's one thing that we can expect from Ave Mario, it's largesse. And a lot of it. The menu will have a dedicated caviar section and also includes a two-foot-tall stracciatella ice cream cake. Why? Because why not?
"The food is going to be amazing," says Seydoux, "I think we've brought the level up from Gloria and Circolo in terms of the research and development that's been carried out by our chefs." The kitchen itself is being headed up by Big Mamma's youngest-ever head chef, 23-year-old Andrea Zambrano.
It's also going to be big. Like, really big. Ave Mario is spread across two buildings on Maiden Lane with the city of Florence having supposedly been used as the venue's major design inspiration.
How you design a restaurant like a city I don't actually know, but apparently it'll include nods to the Duomo and be a "cheeky" interpretation of a church where "'sins are forgotten, not forgiven". Make of that what you will.
"The first reason why we chose that spot is because it's a fuck-off site," Lugger tells me. "When I visited it for the first time I had a very similar impression to when I visited La Felicità in Paris – which is the biggest restaurant in Europe. I came to Covent Garden and I was like 'fuck me, this is big,' and immediately I had a vision of what the space could be. It all made sense. It was simply love at first sight."
Covent Garden hasn't exactly been wanting for quality restaurants thanks to classy joints like Frenchie, Parsons, 10 Cases, and Cora Pearl calling the area home but it has been bolstered by a glut of new openings recently, including Asma Khan's Darjeeling Express and food from Eleven Madison Park alums Ian Coogan and Leo Robitschek at the swish new NoMad London hotel.
Crusty jugglers aside, the postcode is now home to what Tigrane refers to as "the Champion's League of the restaurant industry" and although Victor admits the vibe in Covent Garden used to be a "little more surly," both are confident that it's the ideal location for Ave Mario's loud and proud approach.
It is, however, impossible to ignore the shockwaves of Brexit and Covid that are still being felt across the industry, and that no-one is completely sure on what the future of hospitality is going to look like. Or if there will even be a future for it at all.
I'm not a betting man but – if I was – I'd put money on that future looking a hell of a lot like the model that Big Mamma has perfected; a revival of restaurants that remind us about the joys of eating out, of the sheer excitement you get at reading words like "crispy guanciale flakes", and of that feeling of satiated content at being surrounded by the people we love the most in front of a plate of well-made pasta.
And, despite all the continuing uncertainty in the world with variants and vaccines going head-to-head in the news headlines, there is only one thing that Victor Lugger is very certain about: "It's going to be a crazy summer."