Neither donkeys nor doughnuts were on the menu as Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares relaunched Brooklyn restaurant Mama Maria’s last night. Ramsay’s restaurant takeover show heads into its sixth season this fall, and, judging from Mama Maria’s Yelp page, the family business fits squarely among the troubled restaurants Ramsay has endeavored to turn around since the series’ 2007 debut.
Anyone who’s seen even a single episode of Kitchen Nightmares knows the show invades a flailing eatery for a few days, rejiggers its cuisine and décor, then welcomes diners to critique the new and improved restaurant. On the night of the re-opening, patrons are generally treated to a prix fixe of ready-for-reality-TV drama: An aperitif of nervous hope, an appetizer of early-evening success followed swiftly by a main course of server blunders and behind-the-scenes bottlenecks, then a long wait while the imperiled staff attempts to regain its composure, and finally the sweet dessert of redemption. As I headed into the restaurant for an early evening seating, I worried I might be stuck in the smooth sailing portion of the night. Would there be no Nightmare for me?
I can only speak for my party’s experience, and it’s impossible to say how the show will spin the service for its final cut, but I can say that — after two hours and four entrees — my fears were unfounded. From the minute we walked in the door, the jittery staffers obviously wanted to appear attentive. However, their constant check-ins only confused the kitchen. From forgotten drinks to incorrect orders, I got the full Nightmares experience in living color. Our server (well, one of our servers) didn’t bat an eyelash before revealing that she had been subjected to Ramsay’s trademark bellow more than a few times during filming. Apropos of that, you could almost see the exhausted dejection in the eyes of Mama Maria’s owner John, who is fighting to keep the nearly 80-year-old restaurant afloat.
Unfortunately, judging from what I was served the food is unlikely to help him in that pursuit. Servers touted their homemade pasta, but an order of cavatelli with short rib ragu was short on cavatelli and sloppily presented. Signature thin crust pizzas were oily, flaccid, and flavorless — a surprise to a friend who had lived in the neighborhood and vouched for the pizza from Sal’s, Mama Maria’s adjoining sister restaurant. Eyeing other patrons’ desserts, we decided to skip the final course altogether. Of course I wasn’t expecting Mario Batali-level cuisine going into Mama Maria’s, but in Italian-heavy Carroll Gardens on a street lined with red sauce-slinging ristoranti, it will take more than a little TV magic to keep this joint alive.
Probably the greatest disappointment of all, though, was Ramsay himself. The celebrity chef flitted around, ever-present but eerily quiet, throughout the night. Clearly he saves his rage for behind closed doors. I guess I’ll have to wait until Fourth of July for fireworks this year.
Kitchen Nightmares premieres Sept. 28 on Fox.