The story of Mama Carrollas begins in Omaha, Nebraska where Mama was born, and where she got her first taste of real Italian cooking from the small, family-owned restaurants that were abundant throughout the city. They weren’t so much restaurants as they were just houses where a family would serve meals at a smattering of tables to earn some extra money in hard times. The food was home cooked and authentic – something that Mama hoped to recreate when she opened her own restaurant some fifty years later.
Mama Carollas was almost twenty years in the making – a slow progression of successful businesses that started with Diggity’s Hot Dog Parlor in the shopping plaza at 52nd and Keystone in the early eighties. When Union Station opened downtown a few years later, Mama was there with Yogurt Crossing, a frozen yogurt shop which she co-owned with a friend, that eventually grew into four shops around the city (including one at the Pyramids just around the corner from her second Diggity’s Hot Dog Parlor). But in the back of her mind, she wanted something else. She wanted something more. She wanted an Italian restaurant of her own.
And the creation of Mama Carollas itself was a slow progression, taking nearly two years from the day Mama drove past the stucco house on 54th Street with a For Sale sign in the yard, until she opened her doors in April, 1997. It was a house that she had driven past hundreds if not thousands of times in the twenty years she’d lived in the neighborhood, but on that day she saw it differently – not as a just another house, but as a home for her restaurant.
While contractors added the kitchen and bar to the back of the house, Mama went home to Omaha to talk to the cooks at the restaurants she had frequented as a child. She talked to the Chefs and the owners to try to understand the secrets of making food that people would love. Their answer was simple – cook for your customers as if you are cooking for your family.
As the restaurant began to take shape, Mama spent most evenings in her own kitchen at home, testing recipes, creating much of the menu that is still in place today. And for his part, Papa constructed the entire bar by hand, piece by piece, in his garage. When he finished all of the pieces, he and his sons hauled it to the restaurant and assembled it. Papa purchased the wine rack at auction, took it home, and pulled it apart nail by nail. He refinished and reassembled it, then mounted it as the centerpiece of the bar. So now you can understand why Papa spends so much of his time in the bar at Mama Carollas.
All of the other details of the restaurant were put into place by Mama herself. She hand-picked the paintings and other accoutrements that fill the space, that make the house a home. And there is a special painting located in the little alcove at the back of the house before you enter the bar, a painting of an old man smoking a pipe. If you look real close you will find Mama’s signature at the bottom of that painting, a remnant of a time before she became a businesswoman.
But Mama Carollas wouldn’t be what it is today without the overwhelming support it has received from the neighborhood since the day it opened. Perhaps that is a testament to the fact that Mama Carollas and its sister restaurant, Good Morning Mamas, truly are family-run neighborhood restaurants – with Mama’s entire family living within a few miles. Mama, herself, has lived in the same house only a few blocks away for more than forty years. If there is a single key to their success it would be that simple thing Mama learned a number of years ago – cook for your customers as if they are your family. Welcome to Mamas. Welcome to our family.