Tag Archives: Italian

Food for the Heart

August 28, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Marie Losole still laughs when telling what she calls “the story of our escapade,” a 1967 elopement by train to Idaho, one of two states where 18-year-olds could get married at that time without parental permission.

Fifty years after running away together, Don and Marie Losole are still running—running a restaurant together. Its name, Lo Sole Mio, is a play on words, combining their last name and the famous Italian love song “O Sole Mio.”

Like their love, the restaurant has endured. August marks 25 years for the venture that embodies their passion and lifelong dream.

The couple, who met at Central High School, both come from restaurant families and began their restaurant careers at age 14. Don was head chef at a large country club by the time he was only 21.

In 1975, the couple opened their first restaurant, Losole’s Landmark, a favorite with the downtown lunch crowd. A job opportunity briefly took the family to California a few years later, but they soon realized the West Coast was not a good fit for them.

After their return to Omaha, Don worked on the supply side of the restaurant industry while Marie began creating dishes for delivery, a side business that “pretty soon got so big that we knew we couldn’t keep doing this from home,” she says.

In 1992, the family took a leap of faith that became Lo Sole Mio. Villa Losole, an event venue, followed in 1997.

Both facilities are located near the Hanscom Park area, tucked away in a quaint neighborhood, exactly the sort of location that the Losoles were seeking—a destination. The charming ambiance is a perfect backdrop for the Italian cuisine and family atmosphere.

“We are a family supporting other families…We are very blessed to have some good employees who’ve been here a long time and some loyal customers who have become friends,” Marie says. “I like to walk around and visit with my customers and see what brings them in, just thank them for coming here…I love being a part of people’s memories.”

Lo Sole Mio has employed all six of their children over the years and now some of their older grandchildren (they have 17).

“My mother always used to say to me, ‘as you get older, time goes by faster.’  Well, my summation of that is that time doesn’t go any faster, it’s just taking us longer to do what we used to do,” Marie says.

Sure, the couple boasts some artificial joints between them, and Marie says “my feet ache a little more, my back aches a little more,” but the Losoles are proud to continue maintaining their “old-school” work ethic and hands-on management approach.

“We make sure it’s something we’d want to eat; quality is very important for us,” Marie says. “We are now at the point where we can enjoy life a little bit more without having to be here 80 hours a week or more. But this is still our first priority. We will probably be here until we pass away, I would imagine.”

In fact, she says, “My husband says to me, ‘This is what’s keeping us young.’”

Visit losolemio.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

Mural Man

June 2, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.

“In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just go. I’m not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it’s a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it’s keeping me balanced.”

The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.

Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he’s a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.

Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they’re big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.

“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”

Patience is a virtue for a muralist.

“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you’ve got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”

The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you’d better like people. He does. You’d better like working big, too.

“Once you experience large-scale production, it’s hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there’s also something about doing large work. You can’t help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You’re carrying stuff all the time; you’re up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”

But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we’re channeling the voices of people who can’t do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”

The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.

“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you’re going to be trusted by that community, and the more they’ll open up and allow you in,” he says.

The South O murals feature diverse looks.

“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That’s interesting to me because it’s not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”

They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.

The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.

The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district’s rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.

Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There’s so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.

“With the process-oriented stuff I’m doing now, there’s a huge amount of variety, even though I’m just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.

“When you don’t use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there’s no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it’s actually inexhaustible.”

He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever’s interesting to you.”

New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.

Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.

Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Flour Road Paved with Dough

October 16, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Paul Kulik was a 20-year-old line cook, he knew restaurants would play an integral part of his life; little did he know that he would become a renowned part of Omaha’s culinary history, and one if its innovative executive chefs and restaurateurs.

Adding to his repertoire of restaurants in and around the Old Market, the talented owner of Le Bouillon and Boiler Room teamed up with local bar owner and design expert Ethan Bondelid and graced the public with the May opening of Little Italy’s newest pizza and pasta sensation, Via Farina.

“The appeal of pizza and pasta is very broad. It’s family-friendly, and has a sweet spot for all ages. Pricing our menu accordingly, not being overly pretentious, having fun, and bridging the demographic gap so that it is a place for everyone was important to our success.”

-Paul Kulik

Inspired by living abroad for a year in France during high school, Kulik fell in love with the food-oriented way of European life, the integrity of each course, and the quality of farm-to-table fare.

viafarina1“I had to meander a bit to find my passion,” Kulik confesses of his early adulthood. “But I could not imagine food not being a part of my future.”

A self-described “Francophile,” Kulik has long been obsessed with everything French, but a trip to Italy was the catalyst for his concept of creating an Italian eatery that even an Italian native would appreciate. All of that, he knew, lay in the craftsmanship of the dough.

“The process of making it fresh and of the highest quality is the difference,” says Bondelid, Kulik’s former roommate.

“The appeal of pizza and pasta is very broad. It’s family-friendly, and has a sweet spot for all ages,” explains Kulik. “Pricing our menu accordingly, not being overly pretentious, having fun, and bridging the demographic gap so that it is a place for everyone was important to our success.”

The owners received overwhelming support from the opening day of Via Farina, which translates to “Flour Street” in Italian. Thanks to their impressive collaboration—Kulik’s background in all things food-related and Bondelid’s knowledge of beverages and design—the inviting atmosphere blends an industrial sophistication with an inviting ambiance.

viafarina3The centerpiece of the establishment is their open kitchen’s dramatic wood-fired oven, manufactured in Italy and adorned with Egyptian tile, designed to retain heat. The south wall of the restaurant pictures a giant backdrop sketch of a Vespa’s assembly, modern globe pendant lights hang from the ceiling crisscrossed with natural wood beams, there is a backlit bar, and a DJ spins hits from classic vinyl. Out front is a refreshing patio and a trio of cheery yellow Vespas waiting patiently to deliver gastronomic masterpieces to famished locals. 

The menu features 11 unique pizzas, six pasta dishes, and an authentic selection of Italian appetizers. Patrons can expect to be impressed by the locally sourced meats, cheeses, herbs, and vegetables. The sauces, dough, and pasta are all made in-house using a unique process. Each menu item also features wine recommendations, chosen with Bondelid’s expertise.

“We’ve been very fortunate Via Farina has struck a positive chord with the public,” says Bondelid. Kulik adds, “We want to make sure we continue to accomplish the quality we’ve been providing since our opening. Restaurants are living, breathing things, and you always have to improve and evolve.”

Via Farina welcomes guests on Mondays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Visit goviafarina.com for more information.

Encounter

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Avoli Osteria

June 13, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Throughout American history, Italian food has been one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in the states. Like in America, Italy has different agricultural and culinary regions. Southern Italian food is typically what we see here in America. Dishes like pizzas, pastas with zesty marinara sauce and eggplant parmesan are what most Italian restaurants in America feature. The north of Italy is more mountainous and is close in proximity to France. This area is known for its meats, sausages, cream sauces, butter sauces, and hard cheeses. Personally, I have always preferred the food from the North and find it more interesting and diverse.

True Northern Italian restaurants are not nearly as well represented in America, especially here in Omaha. When Chef/owner Dario Schicke and Chef Ben Maides opened Avoli Osteria in Dundee, they brought true Northern Italian cuisine to Omaha, and they did it right. It is obvious to this reviewer that a lot of painstaking research, planning, and extensive travel went into the opening of this nationally acclaimed restaurant.

The designers also knew what they were doing since the restaurant is very handsome with its painted cement floors, marble tabletops, and black wooden chairs. I particularly enjoyed the eccentric collection of formal chandeliers randomly hanging from the ceiling. For me, combined with the tea candles, they give the restaurant a classy yet funky look. I would be willing to bet that you could find a restaurant in Piemonte that closely resembles this one because it does have a true Northern Italy feel.

Enough of the fluff, let’s talk about the food, because that’s where this restaurant really shines. On a recent visit, my dining partner and I started off with their Beet Salad, $9. This delicious salad features arugula, ricotta cheese, and eggplant. We also had the Roasted Eggplant Bruschetta, $11. I am a big fan of bruschetta and this might be some of the best I have ever tried. We also sampled the Ravioli di Zucca, $15. This incredible dish featured hand-made ravioli stuffed with butternut squash in an amazing brown butter sauce with pumpkin seed and fresh grated parmesan. For the second course we had the Grilliata Misto, $31. This platter featured a melt-in-your-mouth hanger steak, a savory house-made sausage, and a perfectly prepared portion of fresh mackerel. This is a selection to get if you really want to see what Northern Italian cuisine is all about. We also tried the Mezzaluna Tirolese, $13. These delicate half moon shaped pastas were stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese, tossed in a light broth sauce, then topped with a tomato concasse and fresh grated pecorino Romano. As if all that was not enough we also indulged in the Whiskey and Honey Chocolate Cake, $8. This delectable dessert also featured an olive and Sea Salt Gelato. All I can say is that if they have this dessert when you are there, don’t even hesitate, just get it!

As you might expect the well-curated wine list features labels from the northern growing regions of Italy, including wines from the Piemonte, Toscana, Fruili, Veneto, and Alto Adige regions of Italy. If you are not familiar with these wines, fear not, as the servers are all very friendly and will happily guide you through the list. Speaking of the service, it also receives my top marks. I was blown away with the depth of menu and wine knowledge my server possessed and her attentiveness was also appreciated.

These days, Omaha’s restaurant scene is at the highest level that I have ever seen it. There are so many great restaurants here for us to enjoy that it sometimes makes choosing difficult. That being said, I consider Avoli Osteria to be the most important new restaurant in our area and one that every Omahan should be sure to check out. Cheers!!

Now That’s Italian

January 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s a bustling Thursday afternoon at the Sons of Italy hall on South 10th Street. The hum of conversation is punctuated by greetings from the regulars, and by 11:15 a.m. the hall is near capacity. Downtown business professionals mix elbows with construction workers at family-style tables. During campaign season, the Thursday lunch draws politicians like flies to honey—make that cannoli.

They are all here for the traditional Italian fare served up with a genuine smile and occasional wise-guy crack. Today’s menu: spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and fresh bread. Quintessential Italian but far from ordinary. The sauce has been simmering for over 24 hours, its seasonings taking on a richer, more complex flavor, just like the neighborhood. The troupe of volunteer cooks never work off a recipe. Rather, the sauce is a happy combination of a few family recipes adapted over the years. Over 240 gallons are made for these Thursday lunches, a tradition that dates back 50-plus years. The men have cut over 200 pounds of lettuce for the salads and hand-rolled 2,000 meatballs. And if the early crowd is any indication of the late lunch numbers, they will need every morsel of this copious amount of food.

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The Sons of Italy is not much to look at from the outside. The only nod to its Italian heritage is the green, white, and red striped awning over the front door. But once inside, the hearty aroma of tomato sauce, the cheery red and white checked tablecloths, and ever-present laughter make you feel like you’ve walked into an Italian family reunion.

“It’s like coming home to Nana’s kitchen,” says Rich Mengler, who has been working the Sons of Italy lunches for 14 years. “I’m the kid here,” the 77-year-old quips. And if the name Mengler sounds more German than Italian, it is. “I’m an IBM,” he jokes, “Italian by Marriage.”

 Settlement Days

The first wave of Italian immigrants arrived in Omaha in 1893. The railroads, stockyards, and meatpacking plants provided the promise of work. Most came from Sicily—in particular, Carlentini—and settled in the area bounded by Pacific and Bancroft streets to the north and south, respectively, and from the river to 13th Street. They built businesses and wrote to family in Italy to come to the American Plains’ burgeoning Italian community.

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By the time immigration from southern  and eastern Europe was cut off, more than  5,000 Italians called Little Italy home. “It was almost like a separate small town” within the larger city of Omaha, says Mike DiGiacomo, member of the Santa Lucia Festival committee and trumpet player in its marching band.

Ties to the old country were strong, so strong that residents turned to their heritage to stave homesickness for Sicily. In 1925, Little Italy residents hosted the first Santa Lucia Festival, a New World version of the centuries-old festival held each year in Carlentini. They managed to raise an astounding $2,000 to replicate the statue of St. Lucy in Sicily for use in the Omaha festival.

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The Santa Lucia Festival gradually evolved into a three-day party, including Mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, a parade down 10th Street, music, rides, games, food, and the crowning of a queen at Lewis and Clark Landing. It is one of the Midwest’s oldest festivals, running continuously for 90 years, save the four years of World War II.

DiGiacomo says tradition and heritage have kept the festival afloat: “While many of these types of festivals have died off, the Santa Lucia Italian Festival has continued to defy the odds. The people who grew up with it, who are part of it, are so dedicated to St. Lucy and what the festival stands for. This festival is what gives the city character, a sense of community.”

 New Development with a Historic Foundation

The passing of time brings change. It’s inevitable. One of the neighborhood’s revered institutions, Caniglia’s, closed its doors in 2006. And when Frank Marino decided to finally retire at 80 and close the 13th Street grocery store his father had started 88 years prior, people lined up to buy the last of his homemade Italian sausages and ravioli.

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But there is also continuity in Little Italy. Orsi’s Bakery, at 7th and Pacific, is still going strong. Owner Jim Hall spent much of his childhood at the bakery. His Little League coach was a driver for Orsi’s, so Hall would help him make deliveries on the weekends. In 2010 Hall purchased Orsi’s with his wife, Kathy. “It has such a longstanding history. I didn’t want to see it close,” he explains rather matter-of-factly.

Orsi’s offers a variety of Italian meats, homemade Italian sausages, pastas, and olive oils, but bread from old Orsi recipes is the foundation of the business. Pizza is take-out only, or as old Mr. Orsi used to say, “Get it and hit it.”

Hall now sees a revitalization of Little Italy. DiGiacomo concurs: “While there was a feeling that the neighborhood was deteriorating in the late ’80s and ’90s, that feeling is no longer present. Recent development has helped the neighborhood grow again and redevelop that sense of community.”

The Santa Lucia Hall is under renovation. Out of the ashes of Caniglia’s Steak House has risen a community of town homes called The Towns, developed by Bluestone Development. Its clapboard exterior recalls the siding popular with most of Little Italy single-family dwellings. Driveway names like Lucia and Caniglia Plaza acknowledge the neighborhood’s heritage. Twenty-something urbanites gravitate toward Bluestone’s apartment complex at 8th and Pacific.

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The neighborhood’s price point and feel are appealing, says Bluestone’s Christian Christensen. “The vibe of Little Italy is very connected,” he says. “It’s a longstanding neighborhood and eclectic with 25 to 55 year-olds hanging out together.”

To wit: Fork Fest, a neighborhood festival centering on music, a bocce ball tournament and scavenger hunt, camaraderie, and food (of course). Andrew Marinkovich is one of Fork Fest’s founders. Its success, he asserts, is a communal effort. “You become part of the neighborhood’s fabric” when you move there, Marinkovich says. “You are so close to everyone, you are forced to interact.”

A tight-knit, historic neighborhood is what Michael Giambelluca and his wife, Donnamaria, were seeking when the couple relocated to Omaha this past summer after Michael accepted a job as Creighton Preparatory School’s new president. “Little Italy still seems to have that old-fashioned neighborhood feel that Donnamaria and I had growing up in our own respective areas of New Orleans,” he says. “People know each other and look out for each other. And people have a real pride in the place, that it has deep roots, and wonderful tradition.”

The Vesparados

August 26, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

They call themselves the Vesparados and they are, indeed, a wild bunch—wild about their Vespa scooters.

About 20 owners of the iconic Italian scooter belong to a loosely knit social group that meets at least once a week, sometimes more in good weather, to tool around Omaha and enjoy the freedom of the outdoors. Rides usually end with libations, dinner, or both.

If the name Vespa doesn’t ring a bell, think Gregory Peck vrooming through the crowded streets of the Eternal City with a laughing Audrey Hepburn on the back of his scooter in 1952’s Roman Holiday. Thanks to the Oscar®-winning film, Americans fell in love with the Vespa.

First manufactured by Piaggio & Co. in 1946 for easy and economical transportation in decimated post-War Italy, the Vespa remains better suited for boulevards and byways, not highways.

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“Most Vespas can reach 80 miles per hour,” says Gil Cohen, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Omaha Magazine. “But I wouldn’t suggest keeping it up there for very long. We don’t travel on interstates.”

The Vesparados come from a wide range of professions. But when the helmets go on, each rider assumes their Vespa persona.

“Everybody has a handle,” explains Cohen. “I’m ‘Jersey.’”

On a recent summer evening, the South Jersey native sat astride his red Vespa GTS 250 waiting for others to gather at a Fiat dealership at West Dodge and 180th streets for a cool, twilight ride along the nearby Lincoln Highway. Cohen’s GTS series scooter features Vespa’s trademark pressed-steel unibody, flat floorboard, and prominent front, but with today’s technology. True to the original premise of economy and affordability, the Vespa averages about 65-70 miles-per-gallon and costs around $7,000 tops, with smaller scooters in the $3,000-4,000 range.

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Ten riders eventually joined Cohen, including new Vesparado Todd Lemke, breezing in on a GTS 300 scooter.

“I had to have a bigger bike than Gil’s,” laughs the publisher of Omaha Magazine, who hasn’t gotten a handle on his handle yet. Lemke has always loved “anything with two wheels and a motor,” and finds the Vespa a natural extension of his motorcycle and dirt bike hobbies.

The parking lot, now filled with Vespas in hues of blue, red, green, and brown, crackled with laughter, indicating long-standing friendships among the participants. Husband-and-wife dentists Bill and JoAnn Kathrein, a.k.a. “Tito” and “Cupcake,” shared good-natured ribbing with longtime friend Dr. Bill Bucy, a dentist who lives in Auburn, Neb., and stores his Vespa in Omaha.

Joining in on the conversations were Spencer “Dragon” Jacobs of Badger Body and Truck and his girlfriend, Kathy Anthes; Dr. George “Doc” Perlebach; Wells Fargo Financial advisor Denis “Ballanca” Roberts; Omaha attorney Dan Smith, clearly enjoying his first Vesparado outing; architect Steve “Itchy” Ginn (no question asked, no explanation offered), whose new GTV series “retro” scooter has the headlight attached to the front fender; and David “Blazer” Parsow, looking very dapper in a crisp, white shirt and black sport jacket. “It comes from being in the clothing business,” deadpans the president of Parsow’s Fashions.

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The riders motored single file down the Lincoln Highway toward Elkhorn and stopped at a plaque commemorating the centennial of the transcontinental roadway. Placed neatly side-by-side, the scooters looked like a multi-colored, metallic chorus line; their owners looked like they were having a blast.

Vespa may mean “wasp” in Italian, but to the Vesparados it means “let’s buzz around.” 

Italian Contemporary in the SoMa Lofts

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It was the Old Market specifically that sold Ros Mercio into moving to Omaha from Buffalo, N.Y. “It has a nice vibe and restaurants and art and culture,” she says. “It was just cool.”

Mercio settled into one of the 15 SoMa lofts at 11th and Leavenworth streets in December 2011, scaling down from a large house with three bedrooms, two and a half baths, and a den. “I’m an empty nester,” she explains, “and I didn’t want to take care of a house, and I knew I wanted to be downtown.”20130326_bs_9165

Friends in Toronto had inspired her to try the condo lifestyle for herself. “I wanted to get away from managing a lawn,” she says, “and I don’t have to drive on the weekends. I can walk everywhere.” She has about a 20-minute drive to her job as director of sales at Journal Broadcast Group in West Omaha.

Her SoMa loft is nestled back in a quiet courtyard, past the community garden with its once-a-week wine tastings. The nearby railroad can cause some noise, but she’s used to it. She shares the 1,050-square-foot condo with Tessa, a tiny, gray-and-white rescue cat from Buffalo. They’ve been together for three years, and Mercio says she still couldn’t say exactly who rescued whom.20130326_bs_9196

Something else that’s made several moves with Mercio is one particular framed photo of her family’s farm in Tuscany. She has uncles and cousins there whom she visits every year. “It’s my happy place,” she says, noting that her favorite times to go are in May or September.

Of course, the trips make it easy to supplement her contemporary Italian décor. Carnival masks from Venice decorate the entertainment center, the light fixture in the bathroom is Venetian glass, and the blue-glass plates on the dining table are also Italian. But don’t be fooled. Though the table has a contemporary Italian look, it’s actually from Nebraska Furniture Mart along with the rest of the condo’s furnishings.20130326_bs_9185

Aside from new furniture, Mercio only made a couple changes to the loft when she moved in. Local designer CKF put granite and quartz countertops in the kitchen and marble in the bathroom, as well as a stainless-steel backsplash behind the kitchen sink. Mercio laughs and says the stainless steel shows water stains like mad. She says she knew it was impractical but couldn’t get it out of her head after she saw it in the showroom. “Every time I look at it, it makes me happy,” she confesses. “I don’t have any regrets.”

The kitchen includes an island with a stovetop and Jenn-Air range hood. Mercio says it’s just one more example of the extra thought the developers put into the SoMa Lofts. After having built three homes of her own, she says she knows what it looks like when someone’s cut corners. “It’s a solid feel,” she says. “You don’t hear people walking around. It doesn’t feel like an apartment.”20130326_bs_9169

Though she does love to entertain, she admits she doesn’t use the kitchen to its fullest because “that’s the thing about living downtown…I find myself eating out more.” Mercio doesn’t particularly have a favorite, but she does like walking to J’s on Jackson by herself. “But they know me at Stokes; they know me at Ahmad’s.”

The floorplan of the condo is small but open. The high ceilings and lots of windows keep the overall feel airy, set off with muted blues and grays. Mercio compliments the developers with making great use of the space with clever cabinets everywhere. The only area that she’s contemplating renovating is an odd workspace nook in the condo’s entrance. It looks ready to house a 10-year-old desktop computer. “That was the only thing I think they missed on,” she muses. She plans to expand the empty, dimly lit square to add on to her pantry, which currently houses a modest collection of shoes instead of cereal boxes.20130326_bs_9208

She does have an extra storage room down the hall, in addition to her double, heated garage. “You don’t realize how important it is until you have one,” she says with a laugh. “They did a lot of little extra things that maybe other builders wouldn’t have done.”

Every once in awhile, she’ll see a larger condo and wonder why she didn’t opt for more space, “but then I remember the whole point was to simplify my life.”

Malara’s

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Two elderly gentlemen are just getting up from the table. “We don’t work here,” the one in the knit sweater says gallantly, “but we could probably seat you.”

They probably could at that, if they’re some of the regulars who have been gracing Malara’s Italian Restaurant since it opened on 22nd and Pierce streets in 1984. Caterina Malara, an American by way of Argentina by way of Italy, first put her name to a small carryout shop as a way of providing for her young family. “There weren’t any tables or anything,” says her daughter, Maria Szablowski. “We mostly served sandwiches then.”

Decades later, Malara’s has expanded in both size and menu, and Szablowski is now the restaurant’s manager. “We make pretty much everything ourselves,” she says. Her favorite is the fried cheese ravioli, though her niece, Ashley Gomez, is torn between her grandmother’s lasagna and the Italian cheesecake.20130204_bs_5079 copy

Malara’s serves strictly Italian comfort food, and the food is prepared accordingly. “We’re casual, you know, spaghetti and meatballs,” Szablowski says. Recipes are vague, if there are any at all. “It’s a pinch of this, a pinch of that.” Gomez adds that when Malara teaches her kitchen a new recipe, she’ll say, “No cups! You judge yourself.” With such a home-style method, dishes are surprisingly consistent.

Szablowski says that if Malara had her way, the menu would be constantly filled with new items. For the sake of the staff, they introduce one or two new dishes every so often while keeping on staples like the homemade cheesesticks, chicken parmesan, and ricotta cannoli.

Still, the matriarch is very much present in her restaurant. “She’s here everyday,” Szablowski says. “We can’t keep her away.” Malara still cooks a bit, but is less hands-on. “She watches you like a hawk,” Gomez says with a laugh, but adds that Malara is very patient, especially with her great-grandchildren, a few of whom work in the kitchen.

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The fact that the restaurant is family-run is inescapable, from the daughter waitressing on weekends to the photos of great-grandkids on the wall. Even if staff members aren’t family strictly speaking, they may as well be. Szablowski and Gomez compare notes on which employees have been with them the longest: “Maki, the bartender, has been here for 22 years. Then there’s Marilyn, the cashier, she’s been here for 20. And Amy and Kathy and…”

If all you need to enjoy the cozy ambience is a dessert and a drink, consider having a sour crème puff under the original tin ceiling at the bar. Though Malara’s serves a full bar, wines and beers carry the day. Especially for Malara herself. “Mom loves her glass of Lambrusco every night,” Szablowski says with a smile.

Malara’s Italian Kitchen
2123 Pierce St.
402-346-8001