It’s true: we would easily choose our own mother’s cooking every time, every day. No questions asked. We are accustomed and more comfortable with our mom’s version of dishes, as her adobo and sinigang taste like no other. Nothing feels like home more than when she asks, “Kumain ka na ba?” (Have you eaten?) followed by “Sabay na tayo kumain.” (Let’s eat together).
And a mother’s homecooked dish is always best enjoyed in the company of family. Crystal Tremblay-Sison, the Managing Director of Mama Lou’s, knows this to be true.
Crystal is the eldest daughter of Richard and Malou Tremblay. The family’s love affair with Italian food started way back in the late ‘90s when Richard wanted Malou preoccupied while he was busy working a nine-to-five job. Even though Richard did not take up any culinary training, Malou learned all her cooking skills and developed a discerning palate from Richard. After all, he was a well-traveled, French-Canadian whowas raised in a family who loved to cook.
Malou dived in headfirst into cooking that eventually, it seemed like second nature to her. When Crystal was still in grade school, her parents put up a European restaurant called Cafe Francais, where they served Spanish, French, and, mostly, Italian cuisine. Crystal recalls, “They were a couple who loved to eat, cook, and entertain. My mom would be in the kitchen, [while] my dad would be the one to entertain.”
Unfortunately, after ten years of operating Cafe Francais, the family hit a bump in the road and encountered financial problems—and putting a halt to Malou’s passion for cooking wasn’t an option worth considering. Thankfully, they had this house they have been trying to sell for years. Crystal shares, “It was rented out, but nobody bought it. There were only a few inquiries. So, my mom suggested na ilipat yung restaurant sa lumang buhay. [It was] one of the best decisions my parents did because that was the Lord’s plan. Walang bumibili. He intended us to put up a restaurant here, that’s why there’s Mama Lou’s.” (It was rented, but nobody bought it. There were only a few inquiries. So, my mom suggested transferring the restaurant to the old house. [It was] one of the best decisions my parents did because that was the Lord’s plan. No one bought it. He intended us to put up a restaurant here, that’s why there’s Mama Lou’s.”
Mama Lou’s is an Italian restaurant known for its pasta and pizza—and is considered to be one of the South’s must-try pots. The OG Mama Lou’s, which sits in the corner of Tropical Palace and Tropical Avenue in BF Homes, used to be the spare house of Crystal’s family. The skeleton of the house, except the kitchen, remained intact, and as Crystal puts it, “everything [else] just fit perfectly.” The whole ground floor was turned into a dining area, while most of the bedrooms on the second floor were converted into offices. It’s like you’re going into Malou's home, her kitchen, experiencing all of her recipes.
Most of what was once served in Cafe Francais is now offered in Mama Lou’s. One of the pizzas Mama Lou’s is known for is the Spinach & Goat's Cheese Pizza. It's a thin-crust pizza topped with Alfredo sauce, mozzarella, spinach, and honey goat cheese. Alongside this mouthwatering pizza is a serving of arugula and micro-sprouts that you can add on top of your pizza for a tinge of bitterness, a delicious contrast to the sweetness of its toppings.
When it comes to pasta, patrons of the Italian restaurant come back for more of the Mama Lou's Spaghetti Seafood Olio. Mama Lou’s Seafood Olio is an aromatic oil-based pasta that is made with noodles tossed in olive oil, sauteed garlic, and an assortment of fresh mussels, clams, squid rings, and shrimp. It’s no surprise that this noodle dish is a crowd-favorite. After all, it’s an extremely uncomplicated dish flavors working together.
When Crystal talks about her mom Malou, she talks of a mother with overflowing love, admiration, and longing. “Malou is a simple girl. She has a very lively personality. Most of the people that you will talk to that know her [would say that] she has a distinguishable laugh. Alam mo nandyan si Malou, kasi maririnig mo halakhak niya. Nakakahawa. Siya lang yung may ganun,” she says. (Malou is a simple girl. She has a very lively personality. Most of the people that you will talk to that know her [would say that] she has a distinguishable laugh. You know when Malou is there when you hear her laughter. It's contagious. She's the only one who has it", she says.)
In 2012, after two years since Mama Lou’s opened, an unfortunate event happened: Malou passed away because of cancer. She was 45 years old. Losing one’s mother is by no means a chapter in your life you can easily move on from, but Crystal would rather look at the bright side that her mother was still able to see Mama Lou’s, even if it was for a brief moment. She shares that, “Kinikilig siya pag naririnig niya, 'Mama Lou’s! Mama Lou’s!' kasi pangalan niya.” (She gets butterflies in her stomach whenever she hears, 'Mama Lou's! Mama Lou's!' because it is her name.)
Along with losing one’s mother is missing her comforting voice and assuring presence. For Crystal and the rest of the family, losing their mother also meant that they will no longer be able to share a homecooked meal made by their mama.
One particular Mother’s Day, Crystal will never forget is when she ordered Mama Lou’s Seafood Olio, her favorite pasta dish, and she couldn’t help but tear up at first bite, “Na-i-imagine ko na siya pa rin yung nagluluto.” (I can still imagine her cooking this.) Despite being surrounded by Italian food on a daily basis, Crystal adds, “Every time when it’s my birthday, October 11, I make my mom cook Pinoy spaghetti. Kahit yung pinakbet at tofu dish niya, miss na miss ko.” (Every time when it’s my birthday, October 11, I make my mom cook Pinoy spaghetti. I really miss her pinakbet and tofu dish)
Crystal claims that she does not how to cook, unlike her mama Malou and her Ilocana grandmother. Thankfully, she has her loving husband David on her side. David Sison, President of Mama Lou’s, did not know how to cook a delicious meal until he met Crystal. You can chalk it up to coincidence, but Crystal likes to playfully joke that her mother’s spirit and passion for cooking was passed on to David—and not to Crystal nor her younger siblings, Jean Claude and Celine.
David is the type of guy who holds the same family values as Crystal does. Even though Crystal and David weren’t married yet, when he saw an opportunity to expand Mama Lou’s, he wanted to continue upholding the importance of family while highlighting his and Crystal’s love for fresh pasta and pizza with a new restaurant called Nonna’s.
Nonna’s, is an Italian word for grandmother. According to David, “She’s like your quirky grandmother. So even if lola siya, she's the hip type of lola.” (She’s like your quirky grandmother. So even if she's a grandmother, she's the hip type of grandmother.) What sets Nonna’s apart from Mama Lou’s is that Nonna’s serves fresh pasta and Neapolitan pizza made from scratch.
The couple eventually took up classes with AVPN (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) in Naples, Italy—where Neapolitan pizza originated. One of the most important lessons they learned in AVPN that they applied to all of Nonna’s Neapolitan pizzas is having the right ingredients.
Achieving that perfect thin-crust Neapolitan pizza, David explains in detail, “So, that’s double-zero flour, fresh yeast, and olive oil. You have to use the ingredients strictly, the fresh yeast is what provides that cornicione. The cornicione is the thick portion at the end of the crust and the leopards are the dark spots that you see at the end of the pizza dough so the more leopard [spots] that you get, the nicer the pizza will come out.” Since Neapolitan pizza has a thin crust, David points out that one can effortlessly eat one whole pizza and not feel so bloated afterwards.
Nonna’s handmade pasta include the ravioli, lasagna, and radiatore. Their radiatore is a semolina-type of pasta that resembles the ridges of a radiator. The radiatore that they make at Nonna’s open kitchen on a daily basis comes in three distinct flavors: Spinach, Carrot, and Pumpkin. According to David, the sauce can easily make its way in between the radiatore’s ridges which makes eating it a more pleasurable experience when you bite into it.
Even though Mama Lou’s and Nonna’s have differences in the dishes they serve, all of their dishes show how much a mother’s love can make a huge difference in the way we experience our food. It’s not simply pampalipas gutom—these dishes hold more power than that. A mother’s homecooked dish can make you feel at home, instantly brighten up your day, and it definitely brings the family closer together. As David puts it, “There's no better person that will unite your family than your grandma.”