Never mind the Mafia; it's the mamas you have to watch out for. At least that's what Ermelino would have you believe in her zesty debut novel about life in New York's Little Italy from the '40s through the '60s. In an old-fashioned neighborhood where the people who have surrounded you all your life can be depended on to behave in predictable ways, a group of women gather nightly on a Spring Street stoop, mothers willing to protect their children at all costs. There's Teresa, whose young son Nicky loses the power to walk following an accident, only to miraculously regain it at the funeral of the father who abandoned him; Magdalena, the siren from the Old Country, married to an older man with ""connections""; and Antoinette, mother to Jumbo, the largest bambino (at approximately 23 pounds) that Spring Street has ever seen. These women all believe strongly in fate, but when fate needs a little shove, they're more than willing to provide it, particularly when Jumbo, now grown, takes up with a nice Jewish girl. All the women pray to the eponymous black-faced Madonna, a famous statue in Viggiano, Italy, and some see their prayers answered. Ermelino catches the earthy voices of her Italian-American blue-collar paisanos, and she weaves a fast-moving plot that makes up for its thinness with atmospheric detail. Though essentially more a collection of vignettes than a novel, the warmth and humor of this slice-of-lives storytelling are seductive. Agent, Elaine Markson. (Mar.) Forecast: With blurbs from, among others, Fay Weldon, Susan Isaacs and Vincent Patrick, this novel should garner reviewer and reader attention. That Ermelino still lives in Manhattan's Little Italy could prove a useful publicity hook and, if tapped into, her media experience--with TV's Top Cops, at Time and People, and currently at In Style, where she's a reporter--will help sell books. Featuring great roles for character actresses, this engaging novel has TV sitcom potential.