Meet the (Mostly Italian) Team Behind the Fastest-Growing Restaurant Group in France
Tracking the color-drenched design and fresh culinary vision of Big Mamma Group through the arrondissements of Paris.
February 6, 2018
By Olivia Ware Terenzio | Photos courtesy of Big Mamma Group
It’s 7 p.m. in Paris. The sidewalks are wet with rain.
But no matter: outside Italian restaurant Mamma Primi, the line is already 40-or-so deep. A cheerful, apron-clad man stands in front of the crowd and waves his arms like a conductor, leading hopeful guests in a chorus of “Buona sera!” They laugh, the wait seemingly forgiven.
Inside, two men brandish copper cocktail shakers and crank out espressos behind the bar, their conversation half-drowned out as Amy Winehouse’s coquettish wails unspool from the speakers. Servers greet newcomers in sing-song Italian. Menus ring with a tongue-in-cheek tone, where one pasta is dubbed “Gnoc Gnoc Gnocchi on Heaven’s Door.” A screaming-hot oven blisters stretchy pizza dough topped with oily olives and oyster mushrooms. A five-euro glass of wine makes a good partner; a Negroni, even better.
Thousands of Italian restaurants exist in Paris, and many are very good—even the cheese-proud French appreciate the singularity of good burrata. But Mamma Primi is different.
“When we first told our friends that we wanted to open an Italian restaurant in Paris, they made fun of us,” says co-owner (and Frenchman) Victor Lugger. “Our aim was to prepare simple but very tasty food at a reasonable price. We really believe that these factors should be basic requirements in the restaurant world.”
To say the formula worked would be an understatement. That first restaurant, East Mamma in the ultra-chic Bastille neighborhood, launched the Big Mamma Group, now the fastest-growing group in France. Together with a team of more than 400 employees—386 of whom are Italian—the group now comprises six restaurants, with another one (set to be the largest restaurant in Europe, at 3,000 square meters) on the way.
There’s Ober Mamma near Oberkampf, known for Neapolitan pizzas and a build-your-own Negroni menu, and Mamma Primi in the Batignolles, starring fresh, handmade pasta. The Marais is home to brunch and coffee-centric BigLove Caffé, where staffers roast beans in an old-school Italian machine. In the second arrondissement, a pizza margherita at Pizza Popolare costs five euros, while the four-story Pink Mamma serves Tuscan grilled steaks paired with Chianti (and hides an Italian-style speakeasy, No Entry, inside). Each one is never without a line of people outside.
Lugger and Seydoux.
Lugger and Seydoux met in business school, where they discovered a shared passion for artisan salumi and Italy’s particular brand of dolce vita. In preparation to open their dream restaurant, they set off for Italy in search of the country’s best. A San Marzano tomato grower pointed them in the direction of 24-year-old Naples chef Ciro Cristiano, who’d been honing his pizza chops since the age of 12, when he’d stand on a box to reach the wood-burning oven.
“In Italy, everyone can spot a good or bad cacio e pepe,” says Cristiano. “[But] in France and abroad, Italian cuisine has been forever revisited and transformed.” For Parisian guests used to generic tomato sauce, true ragu pasta tossed with Tuscan sausage, fennel, and real San Marzano tomatoes would be “a revelation.”
Person by Italian person, the trio cobbled together the fledgling culinary and hospitality team that would power East Mamma. To mimic the atmosphere of a real Italian trattoria, young, boisterous Italians were brought into the mix. (When it comes to service, everyone’s got a cousin or brother they can recommend; when Big Mamma first went into business, Lugger and Seydoux rented 20 apartments in Paris to house their staff.)
Not only do Big Mamma’s people come from Italy, but its products do, too—loaded up on trucks that make three round trips every week from Milan and Naples to Paris. The team buys ingredients directly from 180 producers across the country: charcuterie and cheese makers for coppa and mozzarella di bufala, vegetable and herb producers, and enough wine to stock the cellars. Even Big Mamma’s Instagram-famous painted ceramics are made in Deruta.
Chef Ciro Cristiano, center.
As a whole, the restaurants are decidedly un-French. Italian cuisine favors bold flavors and generous plates, compared to the subtlety and specificity of French gastronomy – and hospitality follows a similar parallel. A typical brasserie offers intimate tables, low voices, and a respectfully distant staff; trattorias are crowded with noisy groups and playful, borderline performative service.
“Don’t be surprised if you get a glass of red Italian wine instead of a water jug,” Lugger jokes. “Not everyone speaks perfect French, but being Italian, talking with our hands can sometimes be a good alternative!”
The Big Mamma team aims to bring a certain warmth to the Paris restaurant scene: big smiles and homey atmospheres in place of the formalities that govern French culture. Compared to the reserved manners, high check averages, and general seriousness, it feels joyously subversive.
The problem of how to be profitable in the restaurant business has long plagued operators in cities like New York and San Francisco. Paris is no different, except that food and experience tend to take priority over the bottom line. Big Mamma touts its affordable prices proudly, counting on those lines at the door to pay the bills instead of bigger tickets; they serve over 3,500 guests per day across the six restaurants. None of the restaurants accept reservations, preferring the come-when-you-feel-like-it vibe of a trattoria (and avoiding expensive no-shows in the process).
On that rainy Monday night at Mamma Primi, the dining room fills immediately. It will stay that way until closing; most other restaurants in the neighborhood won’t fill up until almost nine. As Lugger told the Financial Times, “The restaurant industry is not about margin, it’s about volume. In France, no one seems to understand that.”
Maybe it is not surprising that in the city boasting more Michelin stars than any other in Europe, the latest crop of restaurateurs is thinking about dining as a real business. We’ve seen the same swing in the U.S., from the fine-casual revolution to Series C-backed coffee companies, as rents soar and labor costs demand restructuring and restaurants everywhere struggle to keep up.
What is more surprising about Big Mamma’s rise, perhaps, is how the French have embraced it: they who anecdotally distrust commercialism and celebrate tradition and standards. They may complain about waiting in hour-long lines for pizza (just read the reviews), but they also keep coming back because the food is high-quality, the atmosphere’s fun, and they don’t have to hold out for a special occasion.
The democratization of dining means that good food in a stylish setting is accessible, with nostalgic glimpses of the cerebral and bespoke. Shouldn’t the future of the industry be built on pragmatism as much as ideals?
After all, it’s still D.O.P. Parmigiano, still made by hand, still straight from the source, any way you slice it.