Like many college students, Stevie Stacionis started working in restaurants in order to pay her way through school. It was while working in a restaurant that she met her husband and business partner, Josiah Baldivino. Both studied wine seriously, and Baldivino pursued a career as a sommelier, eventually going on to run the wine program at Michael Mina. Stacionis worked as a food and wine writer, but her heart kept drawing her back to the hospitality business. (Not to mention the Great Recession of 2008.)
"I tried to escape hospitality to go have a 'real' job as a writer, and it was in my blood — I couldn't really leave," Stacionis said.
Stacionis inherited her sense of hospitality from her grandmother, Maria Germano Stacionis, affectionately known as Mama. Originally from Abruzzo, Italy, Mama immigrated to Rockford, Illinois, where she hosted dinner parties that exuded both elegance and warmth.
"She was always dressed kinda nice, always had some kind of food on the stove or in the oven, always had a dining room table fully set properly," Stacionis said. "But not a fancy feel — very relaxed and convivial." And no matter what the main feature for that night was — pot roast, turkey, or ham — there was always a pot of sugo bubbling on the stove.
Mama, the Adams Point restaurant that opened in July, is like a sleeker version of those family dinners. The $29.95 three-course prix fixe menu only offers two options for each course in a move that's meant to cut food waste and cut costs, resulting in higher staff wages. The menu constantly changes depending on what's in season, and accommodations can be made for vegan or gluten-free diets. But just like at Mama's house, spaghetti with sugo is always on the menu, as are her meatballs. The décor is an on-trend throwback to the '70s with its peach-pink banquettes, its yellow glass chandeliers, and abundance of both faux and live plants — but there are authentic touches straight from Mama's house, too, like the painted portraits of Stacionis' grandmother, grandparents, and great-grandmother that hang on the wall.
Mama also offers a better wine list than you'd find at your nonna's house. Stacionis and Baldivino are also the owners of Bay Grape, a wine bar and bottle shop just four doors down. It's an excellent place to drink wine while you wait for your table, since Mama doesn't accept reservations. But the mostly affordable, small producer-focused wine list at Mama doesn't overlap with Bay Grape at all. It's four pages long and represents not just Italy, but also France, Portugal, Germany, Hungary, Greece, and California. For inexperienced wine drinkers, it's an easy-to-navigate list divided into reds, whites, and a $100-bottle plus "Baller List" (decorated with Air Jordan logos for maximum baller status). Icons like the Kool-Aid Man (signifying fruity, juicy wines) and the monster from Where the Wild Things Are (indicating a wild, natural wine) make it easier to pick out a wine.
After selecting a wine, diners can take their pick between one of two appetizers. I tried the minestrone with cranberry beans, eggplant, and roasted red bell peppers along with the standard tomato, celery, and carrot. Though the broth lacked the depth I'm accustomed to — probably because it was vegetarian — the beans and roasted veggies had plenty of bite to them, and I enjoyed the subtle caramelized flavors from the roasted bell peppers.
On offer was also a little gem salad topped with sweet, fresh corn kernels and sliced yellow heirloom tomatoes with a creamy herb dressing. This, too, was inspired by the simple tossed salads Stacionis's grandmother used to serve, with a more creative twist. Though the salad was simple, it allowed each of the ingredients — the firm, juicy tomato slices, the crisp corn, the fresh herbs in the dressing — to shine.
The second course at Mama is always a pasta, and sugo is always available. What arrived was a classic-looking, moderately sized portion of spaghetti with a bright, well-balanced tomato sauce. While I didn't detect the pieces of pork shoulder that were listed on the menu, I loved the chunks of tender, fall-apart short rib, which added heft and decadence to the dish. Stacionis said it's the same recipe her grandmother learned from her mother, and the recipe dates back generations. In fact, when she visited Abruzzo, she walked into a house full of distant relatives she'd never met, and encountered a familiar smell — the same sugo recipe bubbling away in the kitchen. "It was the most incredible feeling to be on the other side of the world with all these people that I don't know that are my family, and eating this dish that's so nostalgic and personal for me," Stacionis recalled.
The other pasta option was a warm pasta salad with linguine, topped with Castelvetrano olives, cucumbers, Sungold tomatoes, and goat cheese. I enjoyed the contrast of the crunchy raw cucumbers with the warm tomatoes, and the goat cheese added a little creaminess and bite. But the dish lacked cohesive flavor.
For dessert, I tried the olive oil cake topped with mascarpone and pluots, which was drizzled with tarragon olive oil. Though the olive oil flavor was bright and fruity, the cake was a little dry, even with the mascarpone on top. But the fresh cream gelato with pluot compote and spicy-salty nuts — based on one of Mama's favorite desserts — was stellar. The cashews and pistachios were crunchy and savory with just a hint of heat, making the cooling, rich gelato even more refreshing.
The portions at Mama are healthy yet not over-the-top, so those with big appetites will want to supplement their meal. As a starter, the warm As Kneaded birote bread with butter and anchovies was stellar: the anchovies were briny and fishy, while the creamy butter helped tame their flavor. The meatballs — also one of Mama's recipes from Abruzzo — were also a must-order, light in texture yet full-bodied in flavor.
The add-on menu also offers guests the option to purchase a "six-pack of beer" for the kitchen for $6, which actually goes to back-of-house staff as a gratuity. Along with calling guests' attention to the hard work that back-of-house staff performs for relatively low pay compared to the front-of-house, Mama wants to work toward building a more equitable restaurant industry with more upward mobility. Experience isn't a requirement for employment; only a sense of hospitality. At Bay Grape, Stacionis and Baldivino created a curriculum aimed at training staff in all aspects of running the business, and at Mama, they'll implement a similar program where staff can switch from back-of-house to front-of-house if they wish, or learn the ins and outs of starting their own business.
"The intention is to quite literally create the next generation of top hospitality professionals," Stacionis said. In doing so, Mama's legacy of hospitality will carry on.