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There is nothing more delicious than having a meal cooked by an authentic Nonna (aka Italian grandmum), especially when that meal lasts nearly five hours! This is exactly what La Notte Delle Mamme (Mama’s Night) at Cafe Cinquecento (791 King St. West) is all about.

On the last Monday of every month, owner Lili Mancini shuts down her restaurant for 65 lucky patrons to experience a set course created by the grandest of generations. There can be up to five nonnas who takeover the kitchen for this night. Thanks to my co-worker Colin who told me about this event, Plato Putas booked a spot and was invited into the kitchen to meet Lili’s fabulous mom, pictured above with one of her chefs, and below, greeting her guests.

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This special Nonna is 72, makes everything from scratch and basically runs the kitchen. On this night she cooked up the Grilled Vegetables, Eggplant Parmigiana (more on that later), Cookies and the lightest, most sublime Rice Balls I have ever tasted.

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The ambiance and vibe at Cinquecento is part of what makes the experience so memorable. Lili makes guests feel comfortable, neighbouring diners become friends (teasing you when you go up for seconds and encouraging you when you can’t eat another bite), and Nonna visits each table to make sure you’re enjoying the food. Lili was very clear about this special evening: “Eat, drink and enjoy — you’re in our house.”

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The meal started outside “their house” on the front patio with Lamb Skewers. The meat wasn’t gamey at all; we initially mistook it for beef. We then assumed the lamb had undergone some complicated marination process to make it so juicy and flavourful, but the gentleman manning the “Spieducci BBQ Sr.” assured us the only secret was charcoal, good quality lamb and salt. (C.Wong, my trusty dining companion has promised to purchase a Spieducci BBQ Jr. In which case I’ll be over every night!)

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We ate three skeweres each, which we later realized was a big mistake. We had no clue of the quantity of food that was still to come. Next up was a massive Antipasto Bar which included Nonna’s Rice Balls, Melon with Prosciutto, Marinated Olives and Grilled Veggies.

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The tomato sauce that came with the Rice Balls was so delicious, we wanted to drink an entire bowlful. Lili explained that her mother’s secret wasn’t cooking the sauce for hours and hours, but using the best ingredients. Simplicity married with quality ingredients is definitely the Cinquecento way.

We were already starting to feel our stomach’s distend, but the antipasto course extended on, with platefuls of Baked Clams with Seafood and Spicy Prosciutto cured by Lili’s father-in-law delivered to our table.

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I could have married that prosciutto. Thankfully, there would be many more dishes to distract me from what was bound to be a one-sided love affair. Next up was the pasta course — Ravioli smothered in a red pepper sauce.

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Following that was Nonna’s Eggplant Parmigiana. I truly cannot convey in pictures or in words how good this dish was. The eggplant was the perfect texture with more chewy goodness than you’d expect, the fresh parsley provided zings of freshness and that sauce, oh, that sauce. It made me forget about my long-lost lover, Mr. Prosciutto. Once again, we must tip our hat off to simplicity. This goes down as one of the best Italian dishes I’ve ever had.

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By this time, I was unknowingly shooting dirty looks at our waiter every time he approached with more food. Not cause I didn’t like him (the service was impeccable, by the way), but because I was just so full. I was overwhelmed and sleepy. I’m sad to say I barely touched the Red Snapper, which was steamed in foil with wine, olives and tomatoes.

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At this point we had been eating for almost four hours. I knew there was a Dessert Bar coming, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to partake. Then they started bringing out Cappuccinos, Cookies, Tiramisu, Pizzelles, and well, who could resist?

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It was already an extraordinary amount of food to comprehend, but Lili also insisted we take a leftover container to pack up more sweets to take home.

If you don’t have your own Italian grandmother, Notte Delle Mamme is an evening I highly recommend. In terms of quality and quantity, it’s an unmatched experience for $60, with $20 going to a charity that’s close to the restaurant’s heart (such as Sick Kids, autism or a memorial fund).

The event’s on break for the summer, so the next one isn’t until the end of September. Book your spot at least a month early. Until then, drop in for the Rice Balls or Eggplant Parmigiana. Nonna’s normally in the kitchen cooking up a storm three days a week, so pop in and tell her hello!

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