Mama Leone’s, Gaylord

Every year for the past several, minus one 2020, my family and I have taken a trip up north. It’s much like the trips we took as kids, but instead of camping we say screw all that work and we rent a house. We go to a different part of Michigan every year. Maybe one day we’ll go out of state, but for now it’s Michigan, which has plenty of worthwhile destinations.

This year we rented a place outside of Gaylord, near Otsego Lake. As we were wrapping up the week, we decided to get breakfast before heading out of town. We wanted a local place, and being a family with Italian heritage, it was a natural to choose Mama Leone’s.

Yolanda “Mama Leone” and Francesco “Uncle Frank” Mazzella owned a few restaurants in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. They moved to Gaylord and opened Mama Leone’s in 1971. The restaurant has been family owned and operated since.

I didn’t know what to expect from an Up North Italian place. Ethnic restaurants are not all that common as the population is less diverse than downstate. Of course plenty of immigrants have come through and settled over time, but many of the smaller towns are economically depressed and a lot of places probably just couldn’t survive. This was actually my first time visiting downtown Gaylord that I recall, though I have been to the area just off the freeway many times – it is a good stopping point when heading further north. I fell under the impression while we were there that the town has German heritage, but upon researching it seems that is not so. In the 1960s, someone in Gaylord wanted to start a theme downtown and landed on old world Bavarian style since it’s a skiing town, I guess.

Despite not being in the downtown area, Mama Leone’s exterior embraces that Alpine architectural motif. From the outside, nothing about it really says Italy. In fact, it was not all that inspriring as it was in a state of disrepair. Two lions guarded the front entrance – “leone” is of course, Italian for lion. They guided us through a liminal threshold and as we entered we were transported to some dimension where the perfect marriage of Northern Michigan and Italy existed. A stone fireplace stood in the center of the dining room. The tables Formica topped; floral-patterned chairs stackable. We ordered our food and I had to entertain the baby while we waited, so I took the opportunity to explore. Only a couple other tables were populated that morning, so there was plenty of room to roam. The interior décor was a hodgepodge of everything Italy – the Mona Lisa, adorned with a cannoli ornament hanging from one of the corners; images of the Italian countryside. Behind the bar was a photo from The Godfather and some Rat Pack memorabilia. A plaque presented “An Old Italian Toast: May your life be like a good wine, tasty…sharp…and clear. And like good wine May it improve with every passing year. ‘Salute.'”

Just above that was some kind of art framed in elbow macaroni. I only took a few (terrible) pictures as I was entertaining the little one before our food was ready. One of my favorites was the display of utensils used in the restaurant. The Sauce Paddle: “It stirred an average of 50 gallons of sauce every other day from 1971-1988.” The Egg Beater: “from 1975-1991 it beat 5 cases of eggs a day until it beat itself apart.” And the Pancake Spatula: “Frank’s own spatula flipped pancakes and eggs from 1975 until its retirement in 1991.” The spatula still looked pretty good, to be honest.

Italy isn’t exactly known for breakfast foods so that part of the menu was pretty American. Our meals arrived on red-patterned plates which delighted me in a way I can’t quite express. The kids loved their chocolate chip pancakes. I had a great waffle. Next time we are in Gaylord, we are going back for dinner!

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