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San Fermo brings Italian food to an unexpected home on Ballard Ave. Photo via the San Fermo Facebook page.

Mama's Mexican Kitchen closed March 31, but Belltown’s venerable destination for massive burritos and questionable decisions is back with a new owner, a slightly new name, and a room that’s still decidedly Mama’s, just a little cleaner. 

Marcus Charles, who owns Local 360 across the street and Bell and Whete a block down, not to mention the Crocodile, stepped in after the building was sold and Mike and Marla McAlpin, who ran the restaurant since 1974, decided it was time to retire. Since the McAlpins knew and trusted Charles as a fellow denizen of the neighborhood, they decided to remain partners, allowing a vestige of the longstanding Mexican restaurant to live on as Mama's Cantina.

And it will live on even after the building is sold and eventually redeveloped. No one has any idea when that will actually happen—there’s a thicket of preservation and planning questions to wade through—but when it does, Charles already has a lease for whatever gets built here. 

“I didn’t want that process to go along with a boarded-up building,” says Charles of his decision to reopen Mama’s in its current iteration, even if its days are technically numbered. His crew spent a month sprucing up the space, pulling down ceiling tiles, pulling up carpet, and transforming the weird warren of rooms into a more open layout with a proper (and well-stocked) bar up front. The bartop is made of laths from the old ceiling, and Charles installed something I didn’t realize Mama’s desperately needed: a frozen margarita machine. 

The Elvis room remains, and booths and decorative tchotchkes are rearranged for better aesthetics. “Everything was here,” says Charles of the decor. “We just played Tetris.” 

If the space is a subtle evolution of Mama’s, the menu is markedly different. Chef Jenny Izaguirre, who also oversees Bell and Whete, but together a menu of halibut poke tostadas, pork mole burritos, and tortilla chips with five salsa options. She drew inspiration from street food via LA, Mexico City, and even Korea; Charles is especially fond of the so-called Korean quesadilla, stuffed with kalbi and kimchi. 

Mama’s Cantina is up and running with the Facebook page and website to prove it. 

Meanwhile, on Ballard Ave: It’s not technically a restaurant being reborn, but a pair of conjoined nineteenth-century houses will see new life as a trattoria. San Fermo opens on Monday, May 16, blending straight-up regional Italian dishes with their cheese-laden red sauce permutations we’ve come to love to much here in the U.S. Think duck and ricotta ravioli with sage, but also giant chicken parm sandwiches. 

Chef Sam West came over from Percy’s down the street; the restaurant is the work of Tim Baker and his partners Jeff Ofelt and Wade Weigel, who just happen to be the guys behind Percy’s, as well as Bimbo’s, Cha Cha, Rudy’s barbershops, and the Ace Hotel. This is an aesthetically savvy crew that took on a massive conversion project; I’m looking forward to seeing the space. 

San Fermo will be open nightly for dinner and run a weekly lunch counter on weekdays. Here’s everything you could possibly need: website at sanfermoseattle.com, and the Facebook page, and Instagram

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