The term “casino” is born of Italian origin with the root word being “casa” or house. Tropicana Evansville is getting back to its roots with its latest Italian restaurant, Mama Mia’s, which opened in December 2013.
Mama Mia’s became the first Italian restaurant to be housed in the casino since Passaggio Italian Gardens occupied the same space beginning in 1996. Tropicana Evansville, originally named Casino Aztar, was opened by the Aztar Corp. in 1995 as Indiana’s first casino riverboat on the Ohio River.
Passaggio Italian Gardens exited in 1999, but not for lack of love. It was very successful but as the casino is continually trying to update and present new restaurants and options to visitors, the restaurant bid its farewell, according to Stacey McNeill, director of marketing at Tropicana Evansville. There also is a Passaggio Italian Gardens that currently operates in Tropicana Laughlin in Nevada, around two hours outside of Las Vegas.
For the next update, the Evansville casino decided to go with a known-favorite: Italian. Having Mama Mia’s fill the Italian void has been a welcome addition at Tropicana, located at 421 N.W. Riverside Drive. Moving in next to Max & Erma’s in Level One of the Riverfront Pavilion, Mama Mia’s replaced Riverside Cookery.
“Back in the beginning days of the casino, they had an Italian restaurant,” says Chuck Belanger, director of food and beverage services at Tropicana Evansville. “We went back to an original. Italian is one of those fun foods that everybody loves.”
Mama Mia’s offers a quiet getaway from the hustle and bustle of gambling on the riverboat named “City of Evansville.” With low lighting and dark wooden furniture, the restaurant offers tables and booths lined with white and red checkered table cloths and an open wall window view into the kitchen to watch the hand rolled pizza dough come together that’s made daily.
The extensive menu was created by executive chef James Weflen and kitchen manager Ryan Herbertz, who jokes that they are currently in the “beta run of the menu,” discovering what are crowd pleasers and what to go back to the drawing board on. So far, the response has been sensational.
“We built the menu from scratch, and now here we are,” says Weflen, who has been with Tropicana for more than two years. Herbertz began working with Tropicana in April 2013 and opened the kitchen at Sports Book Bar & Grill in September 2013 before moving on to open Mama Mia’s.
“It’s been very popular. Guests and employees are excited about the new restaurant and the great food. They are excited to have Italian back,” says Weflen.
Fresh ingredients and fresh products allow the two chefs to run wild creating garden salads or the Mia Caprese, which readies your Italian palate. I started with the Mia Caprese salad and enjoyed its fresh mozzarella sliced on ripe tomatoes with basil, extra virgin olive oil, and aged balsamic vinegar.
We advanced to one of Mama Mia’s top sellers, which is its pizza, including the Full House, a specialty pizza named for its casino ties and loaded with all the toppings in the house. The chefs agree its crust is what sets the restaurant’s pizza apart from others.
"It seems like Evansville is prone to that thin, cracker crust, and we aren’t going for that,” says Herbertz. “We have the New York-style. We still have that crispy crust, but it isn’t cracker thin.”
Mama Mia’s allows guests to create their own pizza, choosing the individual sauces, cheeses, and toppings and in sizes ranging from personal, large, and by the slice. Specialty pizza options include the Chicken Buffalo, Philly Beefsteak, Margherita, Florentine Fromaggi, and Double Deluxe. The chefs have been known to create their own unique pizza flavors from nacho cheese to hamburger. Mama Mia’s also offers four varieties of calzones.
Other popular sellers include entrees such as the chicken Parmesan, chicken Fettuccini Alfredo, and the spaghetti and meatballs. As I dined on the chicken Parmesan, Weflen says the dish isn’t “swimming in sauce” which may be different from what customers are used to. Because Mama Mia’s sauces are homemade, “there is a lot more sweetness to it and it coats the pasta, but doesn’t drown it.” It was a welcome change for me. I paired it with the garlic bread appetizer made from rustic Italian bread rubbed with garlic and topped with mozzarella cheese, which was mouthwateringly good.
The chicken Parmesan is made from breaded chicken breast, baked with mozzarella and tomato sauce, and served with a side of spaghetti and a breadstick. All entrees are served with a bowl of garden greens salad and a house dressing.
Mama Mia’s offers dine-in or carryout. Desert selections include New York-style Cheesecake, Tiramisu, or ice cream. Guests also can choose to complement their meal with a glass or bottle of wine, in addition to beer choices and Coca-Cola products. As the fall continues on, the chefs say they will experiment with more seasonal options.
“We have a lot of family dishes, but we wanted to try to reach out,” says Weflen. “We have a captured audience and there is so much potential here.”
Location: 421 N.W. Riverside Drive, inside Tropicana Evansville on Level One of Riverfront Pavilion
Dining and Bar Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Adult Beverages: Yes
Payment: All major credit cards accepted.