Without question, Mama’s Way is the smallest venue I’ve ever reviewed. There are three stools outside on Duke Street, looking out on our thriving branch of Ryman: I suppose you could sit there with an Aperol Spritz, but best of luck eating at them. Inside, up at the window, there are three more stools with a ledge in front of them. The bits of the ledge that aren’t accommodating goods on display, that is.
And there are goods on display literally everywhere in that little room. Chocolate eggs hang from the ceiling this time of year, the wall nearest the door is lined with Italian wine, amaro, vermouth – even mirto, the Sardinian liqueur. Under the counter, lit enticingly, is a cornucopia of cheeses, again all Italian, and a delectable range of cured meats just asking to be sliced. On the counter is a makeshift wall of panettone, and above that glasses hang down, ready to be filled with Aperol or Crodino.
It doesn’t stop there. Eye level might be buy level but if you stoop, there are multiple types of balsamic vinegar and oil, black rice, snails in jars, every kind of paté or pesto you could want. On the far side another fridge gently hums, keeping burrata and scquacqerone cool, next to them sit ’nduja, blocks of bottarga, fists of sausages crammed with fennel. You could get lost in the place, walk out with countless treats you weren’t intending to buy. Perching on a stool next to Zoë, people watching the passers-by heading into town, I fantasise about lock-ins, imagine the fun you could have.
I would describe the room as a Tardis but that’s not right. The Tardis was bigger on the inside, this room is still minuscule. It just happens to be absolutely rammed with lovely things to eat and drink, covering nearly every square inch. When I was in Paris last month I went to a branch of Eataly, the upmarket food hall; I reckon Mama’s Way has, in a fraction of the size, a respectable proportion of the stuff you can find in Eataly. I bet it’s a darned sight cheaper, too. With Madoo next door, this forms a little Italy in the town centre: I’ve tried dubbing it Via Del Duca, but so far it hasn’t caught on.
Although I’ve popped in to Mama’s Way occasionally to buy coppa, fennel salama or olive oil this is the first time I’ve eaten on the premises since it opened in 2021. I remember seeing the pictures of their opening night, that hole in the wall transformed into a riot of drink and celebration, people spilling out on to the street, and I recall cursing the risk aversion that stopped me joining in.
Months later, towards the end of the year, I tried their food via Deliveroo but wasn’t won over – and yet even at the time I knew that some food just doesn’t travel well and that I needed to try it out properly. Since then Glen Dinning, the man behind Blue Collar, has raved to me about the experience of eating at Mama’s Way during the day. You just turn up, grab one of those three seats and let them look after you. He even compared it to José, the tiny but legendary tapas restaurant in Bermondsey. “For fuck’s sake, don’t go telling everybody” he said, almost immediately after waxing lyrical.
Looking back I wonder what took me so long to try it out, but better late than never. And this week’s review is the consequence of providence and opportunism. Zoë and I were strolling into town on a Saturday lunchtime, we approached Mama’s Way and – could it be true? – the seats inside were all unoccupied. It felt like fate, so we went inside, waited for the customers standing at the counter to finish their business and plonked ourselves down (there’s enough room for Mama’s Way to have customers eating in and customers buying stuff over the counter, but only just).
The menu looks wider than it is, because it contains plenty of variations on a theme: you can have one of five types of pasta with the sauce of your choice, from a range of ten, giving a dizzying range of options. Similarly they serve pinsa – a Roman variant on pizza made with a particular blend of flours and praised for its airiness – and that too lends itself to many combinations. It’s a clever way to offer a lot of choice from a core of ingredients, but there are also some salads, soups, a handful of main courses and other options which make use of the wealth of produce they have to hand.
I was struck by how reasonable the prices are – pizzas are just over a tenner, most pasta dishes clock in around the same price and some dishes, as I discovered, are a real steal. This was especially confusing because the price gulf between eating in and ordering on Deliveroo is considerable, with a huge uplift on some dishes. Up to a hundred per cent, in fact, in some cases. Similarly the prices on the menu on Mama’s Way’s website bear no relation to those on the menu I saw.
It may be a version control problem, it may be that they’ve decided to slash their prices to be competitive, but the overall impression is confusing. On the plus side, it makes eating in a comparative bargain – and good for them, I guess, for not taking a huge hit on their Deliveroo orders: heaven knows the delivery companies take a hefty, almost punitive share for doing not a lot.
The thing I was drawn to on the starters section was the “selection imperiale”, a range of cheese and charcuterie to share for two people. When I ordered this at the counter, the lady told me I could pick three of each and I looked at the embarrassment of riches under the counter, almost unable to choose. It looked, to me at least, like as wide a selection of cheese and cured meats as you’d find anywhere in Reading, and although the Grumpy Goat does something similar they limit your choice to a fraction of the cheeses they sell.
Prose is all very well, but sometimes you need a picture: just look at what we got.
How appetising does that look? I was truly impressed by the quantity and range and sipping a glass of white wine, watching this gradually take shape behind the counter, I wondered whether the small bar I’d always wished Reading had, serving wine, cheese and charcuterie, had been here all along. The wine, incidentally, was a wonderful Italian chardonnay straight out of the fridge and newly opened, with just enough freshness and complexity for everything that followed.
Everything we had was excellent, and most of it was truly great. I’ve had Mama’s Way’s finocchiona – fennel salami – before, so it was a known quantity but one I found hard to resist. Their coppa was also terrific, dry, salty and superbly savoury. And I was drawn to the speck, a smoked ham made close to the Austrian border, but then I spotted the culatello – one of the very best of the best of Italian salumi – and my decision was made.
Even in this company it was outstanding, sliced almost thin enough to be translucent and quite extraordinary. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve eaten cured meats, even at places like the Tasting House that prided themselves on such things, with that glossy sheen of something kept in captivity, sandwiched between environmentally unfriendly leaves of plastic. This, by contrast, was absolutely the real deal, and I felt extremely fortunate to find it in Reading.
But the cheeses, if anything, were even more exquisite. First up, Fiore Sardo, a hard Sardinian cheese a lot like pecorino. I didn’t realise this was a smoked cheese, and nothing prepared me for that whack of woodsmoke. It felt like being catapulted back to winter, wandering through the Village, seeing my breath in the air and smelling the woodburning stoves of my more prosperous neighbours.
I loved it, but the other two were even better. Caciobufala was hard, moreish and studded with pistachio, and we liked it so much that Zoë picked some up afterwards to take over to her mum as a present; it does make you think, that the Italians put pistachio and truffle in their cheese and we have to settle for Wensleydale with fucking cranberries. And last of all, a really indulgent buffalo milk cheese from Lombardy which reminded me of a triple cream, the core still firm and fresh but a million miles from bland. We broke off shards of music bread, we loaded cheese or meat on to them, we sipped our wine and we thanked our lucky stars.
And here’s the crazy bit – all of that was something like fifteen pounds. The menu also says it’s for two people, but at that price I think you could do a lot worse than grab a stool, order a drink, order this and treat yourself; I’m already wondering when I could get away with doing so. Before this, the best sharing board I’d found in Reading was Buon Appetito’s, but although I still absolutely love that place Mama’s Way utterly puts it to shame.
Even if our mains had been a let-down, this would still be a positive review. But here’s the thing: they weren’t at all. Zoë had gone for the low carb option, pollo Milanese, and it was more than respectable – two pieces of chicken breast, beaten flat, coated, cooked and served with a well-dressed pile of leaves. I’ve had a lot of pollo Milanese which is dried out and entombed in a thick permacrust of breadcrumbs. This, on the other hand, was light and tender, subtle and delicate. The menu says that it’s baked rather than fried, which I can believe; I didn’t order it, but I tried to trade as much of my pinsa as I could for another forkful. Eight pounds fifty, would you believe: again, there could be worse sunny evenings than sitting at that ledge with this and a crisp white wine.
On to the pinsa. Now, I have to be honest and let the cat out of the bag: as we were sitting there a delivery man came through the front door carrying a big cardboard box with the words PINSA ROMANA on it, so we can be pretty sure that Mama’s Way aren’t making these bases in their kitchen out back. But I also have to be honest and say that when they’re as enjoyable as this I don’t give two hoots. The base genuinely did have the airy fluffiness I was hoping for, and stayed light throughout. I think it helped that I’d chosen a white pinsa, not soggy with tomato, but it genuinely was a pleasure from start to finish.
I’d gone for smoked provola, Italian sausage and potato, a combination I first encountered a couple of doors down in Madoo’s fantastic panuozzo, and it really didn’t let me down. The cubes of potato added a floury joy to proceedings, the dense nuggets of sausage, resplendent with more fennel, gave little spikes of porky delight. And the smoked provola – well, it wasn’t quite as intense as the Fiore Sardo I’d had before but it cast a spell on the whole affair, bringing it together. You could imagine that the potatoes, the sausage had been cooked in the same fire, infused with the same smoke.
This was something like twelve pounds, and again perfect for sharing, thoughtfully cut into rectangles. I absolutely adored it: my favourite pizzas have always involved the holy trinity of tomatoes, anchovies and capers, but if anything could displace them in my affection it would be this.
Just as Mama’s Way is the smallest place I’ve eaten, that also means it has the highest concentration of serving staff to customers: one to two is a ratio that could easily beat any Michelin starred restaurant you care to name. And the woman looking after us was just fantastic – so friendly, enthusiastic and attentive, so skilled at juggling these two oddballs perched at their window ledge, the steady stream of punters buying goodies and the occasional driver turning up, giant Deliveroo coolbag on his back, ready to take their food out beyond the town centre.
Everything we ate, along with those two glasses of wine, came to something like forty-seven pounds, not including tip. And our server seemed genuinely surprised when we did tip, which in turn took me aback and, in truth, slightly saddened me. Excellent service is not proportionate to the distance you have to travel from the kitchen to the table, and the welcome we got at Mama’s Way put countless larger venues to shame.
I had a proper warm glow from eating at Mama’s Way, and I was kicking myself for leaving it so long after that tip-off from Glen Dinning. He may regret telling me, and I may regret telling you, because if there’s any justice in this world the occasions where I walk down Duke Street and see those seats vacant may get scarcer and scarcer in the months ahead. But really, I hope they do. I can’t think of anywhere like Mama’s Way in Reading, anywhere so fun and free-spirited, anywhere that, rather than wanking on about how carefully they source their produce just, well, does it.
In an ideal world, Reading would be a very different place. Clay’s would occupy the space that’s wasted on Bill’s, Tampopo would never have been sent packing from the Oracle. The 3Bs would never have left us, and we certainly wouldn’t have the Pantry there. The Market House site would have been properly done and occupied by someone who actually wants to serve decent food. We would have said farewell to John Sykes instead of Dolce Vita. And in that ideal Reading, Mama’s Way would be the size of Veeno and Veeno the size of Mama’s Way. We don’t live in that Reading, I’m sorry to say. But a Reading where Mama’s Way exists – small, plucky, eccentric and crammed with beautiful things – is definitely the next best thing.
Mama’s Way – 8.2
10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU
One thought on “Restaurant review: Mama’s Way”
Thank you, Edible, for a lovely, thoughtful and celebratory review. I moved from Reading to Exeter three years ago, and whilst I love the life style in Devon, its good to hear that Reading continues to attract small, quirky businesses, and embraces them. If you ever come to Devon, I’d be happy to offer a few recommendations. Exeter is less than two hours away on GWR. Xx