After 26 years of business the typewriters have fallen silent on the once buzz-worthy MoMo Italian Kitchen. In 1992 D Magazine called MoMo Italian Kitchen (then MoMo’s Italian Specialties) one of the first establishments in Dallas to “try to teach us what Italian food is to the Italians,” but since those early days they’ve become known as “Dallas’ best-kept secret” by customers. While they have hitherto espoused the label, this hush-hush approach is being met with disquietude from third-generation owners and brothers, Darwin and Matteo Gattini.
The Dallas food scene has morphed tremendously since MoMo opened in 1986, but the restaurant has changed little. Many recipes from the Gattani’s grandmother, Fernanda Gosetti, author of many cookbooks and a culinary magazine, are still used today. The food at MoMo is steeped in this culinary tradition—one tried and true in a day much different than today.
“Before girls got married in Emiglia-Romagna [a region of Italy] in her times they had to demonstrate that you could roll pasta so thin that it would be translucent. It’s kind of like along with your dowry you had to demonstrate that you had cooking skills to your husband. Before [World War II] they owned a grocery-deli type store and after the war she and her sister bought a magazine [La Cucina Italiana] that was already defunct at that point. I think she really laid her teeth in that and by the time she had come to writing books she had already experienced being in test kitchens and all that. She did several volumes of regional culinary differences in recipes to books about the most basic things that you want from appetizers to dessert,” Darwin explained.
Traditions have also taken root since Antonio “MoMo” Gattini, the brothers’ father, first opened the restaurant’s doors. When the restaurant relocated, it only moved less than a mile down Forest Lane to make sure that regular customers wouldn’t be cut off from their restaurant. It is truly “their restaurant,” especially for 14 regulars who will soon be honored with plaques designating their usual tables. Throughout the last quarter-century MoMo has fed generations of these customers.
“Because we have regulars that have been coming in for generations at this point, I understand that we’re really feeding these people. To give them wholesome things is meaningful to us just as it would be to feed wholesome things to your children,” Darwin said.
Italian meals are customarily eaten slowly as “a celebration of life,” with appetizers, a first course of starches, a second course of protein, dessert “and it only gets more complicated from there,” Darwin said. This type of relaxing repast wasn’t originally well-received in Dallas . Hence, the menu was slightly ‘Americanized’ to fit the salad, pasta and dessert paradigm of Italian food that Americans have become accustomed to. However, each dish is still heavily influenced by Gattini tradition.
Appeasing different cultures has always been tricky, but the Gattini’s gradmother, Fernanda’s upbringing in the Emiglia-Romagna region of Italy was a true crossroads of cultures. Emilglia-Romagna’s placement near the middle of Italy made it a bridge between the culinary gap between Northern and Southern Italian cuisine. Buttery, Northern Italian dishes met Southern olive oil.
Even styles of making pasta differ between regions, with Southern Italians making pasta with just flour and water and Northern Italians using more flavorful bleached flour and eggs. MoMo offers both Southern and Northern styles. The pasta is made on Italian machines and some, like the spinach gnocchi, is handmade. Darwin explained that he would love to make pasta by hand, but this is an added extravagance that works against what the Gattinis’ vision for MoMo: traditional, wholesome food at prices families can afford.
“We could charge $30 or $40 a portion, but then you’ve got a restaurant full of people you’ll never really see. You don’t know who they are. We’ve got a restaurant full of friends and it’s so much more meaningful for us,” Darwin emphasized .
Notably, with the exception of most pastas and the restaurant’s ice cream, everything else is made by skilled hands. “We want to have the tightest control with everything that we make—from the very beginning to the end—and we want to go one step further with sourcing from local farmers,” Darwin said.
Sourcing locally hearkens back to a day when cooks sourced from their own gardens. It’s the next logical step forward that is in a way backward. Other than this, the Gattini brothers have tried to change as little as possible, leaning on the culinary inheritance that has brought them thus far.
“All of the hard work has done for us—literally, two-hundred years. You can go in my grandmother’s books and find Victorian recipes for food that are still being made today. If anything, it’s a little bit of tweaking. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Darwin said.
Sitting underneath a photo of himself at the restaurant as a boy—with the chairs in the photo still existing today—Matteo expressed how he gratefully carries the burden of tradition.
“I was a little skeptical of changing many things with so many people before me—my grandmother, my dad—I didn’t feel like I had the qualifications to change so I just tried to keep what we had and make it the best we could,” Matteo said.
Growing up in a family business can be challenging for children who often want to choose their own path, and the Gattinis have gone through phases of love and loathing. Darwin says he and his brother are currently in the “smitten phase,” and it’s easy to see why. MoMo’s new location, with a patio outdoors and a fireplace inside, is the perfect place for the intimate gatherings he describes. With large signage out front, it looks like “Dallas’ best-kept secret” is out.