You may know chef Jamie Mammano from high-end restaurants such as Mistral, Sorellina, Teatro, and L'Andana. Now he is focusing on something more basic but just as hard to get right: tortillas.
Mammano just opened Tortilleria La Nina, a for-real tortilla bakery in Chelsea. "It's really cool," he says. "It's the only tortilleria we know of north of New York City making them from 100 percent corn. In every market and every restaurant in New England, the vast majority are made from Maseca, which is like a brand name Aunt Jemima mix."
You can smell and taste the difference. Open the paper wrapping around a stack of La Nina's tortillas, still warm, and a toasty aroma of corn wafts out. Their pebbly surface is charred in spots. And they taste quite different from the bagged version you may be accustomed to buying at the market -- like real corn. A pound costs $2.50.
Mammano was motivated to open a tortilleria because his wife, Monica, who is from Mexico, had long complained about the tortillas in Boston. (The nina on the tortilleria's logo is daughter Paola.) Monica's mother would FedEx them tortillas. A year ago, Mammano was visiting Tijuana and went into the bakery where his family buys fresh tortillas several times a week. The owner gave him a tour. "I was thinking about opening a Mexican restaurant last year, but I can't make food as good as my mother-in-law's, so I'm not going to bother. But I could produce tortillas, which nobody is doing in New England."
What goes into La Nina's tortillas? Dried corn, ground lime, and water. "We cook corn in 600 pound batches in water and lime, scoop it out by hand, rinse it, put it through a volcanic stone grinder, and it plops out underneath. That's it. No preservatives. It's all natural. We are creating daily bread for the Hispanic population in Chelsea." La Nina sells the masa, or dough, for tamales, as well as its own tortillas, chips, tostadas, guacamole, and pico de gallo.
Mammano's company employs many Latinos, and he wanted them to have a place to get real tortillas. "A lot of the immigrant population in New England grew up walking down to the tortilleria when their mothers sent them to get tortillas fresh out of oven. It's a cultural thing. It's a memory. It's something they're not able to experience after moving to the States. I made a small batch and gave them to my employees, and they tasted them, and they're like, 'Oh my God, that taste reminded me of home.' It's such a romantic thing."
Expect to see Mammano's tortillas in local restaurants soon. The Chelsea tortilleria is retail only, but Mammano bought a building in Everett for wholesale operations. "Let everybody else open a Mexican restaurant," he says. "I'll sell 'em tortillas." He's approached chefs such as Ken Oringer at La Verdad and Michael Schlow at Tico. Today, Joanne Chang at Myers + Chang tweeted that she was tasting some to use in the restaurant's Asian-style short rib tacos.
"The look on customers' faces when they smell it and taste it is amazing," Mammano says. And, of course, his wife loves the tortillas, too.
Tortilleria La Nina is at 181 Washington Ave., Chelsea. It's open Mon-Sat until 7 p.m. and Sun until 4.
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