Tag Archives: restaurants

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.

La Famiglia di Firma

August 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Like a good book title, the names of the Firmature brothers’ bars and restaurants could almost paint a picture of what awaited customers.

At The Gas Lamp, you could savor a prime rib and listen to a live ragtime band from your marble-top table (provided you wore a suit or a nice dress during its early years of operation). A Sidewalk Cafe offered diners a chance to people-watch at Regency while they ate a crab salad. The Ticker Tape Lounge gave downtowners a brief respite from work and prominently featured an antique stock market ticker tape. And if you really had a rough day, you could always drop by Brothers Lounge, get a cocktail, and flop down on a couch or a rocking chair.

With the exception of Brothers Lounge at 38th and Farnam streets, none of these places exist anymore. When Robert Firmature turned Brothers Lounge over to current owners Trey and Lallaya Lalley in 1998, it ended nearly 70 years where the Firmature family had a major presence in the Omaha restaurant community.

In the early 1930s, Helen and Sam Firmature opened Trentino’s, an Italian restaurant, at 10th and Pacific streets (which would later become Angie’s Restaurant). The restaurateur family also consisted of Sam’s brother, Joseph, and his wife, Barbara, along with their three sons: Robert “Bob,” Jay, and Ernest “Ernie.”

Ernie cut his teeth bartending at Trentino’s and at a motor inn (The Prom Town House, which was destroyed in the 1975 tornado) before he opened The Gas Lamp in 1961. He also briefly managed a club called the 64 Club in Council Bluffs.

Located in the predominantly middle-class neighborhood of 30th and Leavenworth streets, The Gas Lamp was a destination spot for anniversaries, promotions, and proposals. Flocked wallpaper, antique lamps, and Victorian velvet furniture was the décor. Live ragtime was the music. Prime rib and duck à l’orange were the specialties. In an era where female roles in restaurants were still primarily as waitresses and hostesses, The Gas Lamp had two women with head chef-style status. Katie Gamble oversaw the kitchen. And Ernie and Betty’s son, Steve Firmature, and daughter, Jaye, were routinely corralled to help with clean-up—the cost of living in a restaurant family.

The Italian family name was originally “Firmaturi.” A popular account of the spelling change involves a bygone relative trying to make their name more “Americanized.” After researching family history, Steve suspects the name changed as a result of a documentation error—a mistaken “e” in place of the final vowel. Steve says those style of errors were common back then (due to errors in ship manifests or as depicted in a scene from the movie The Godfather: Part II).

Before she was even a teenager, Jaye Firmature McCoy was tasked with cleaning the chandeliers and booths. While cleaning, she would occasionally dig inside booths for any money that may have accidentally been left by a customer. At 10, she was promoted to hat check girl. At 14, she was the hostess. Steve did everything from bus tables to help in the kitchen.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have titles for people that cooked. Today, I think we’d call them a sous chef and a chef. We had two cooks,” Steve says with a laugh.

In the early ’60s, Ernie enforced a dress code for customers.

“When we first started, a gentleman couldn’t come in without a coat and tie. A woman couldn’t come in wearing pants [dresses only],” Jaye says.

The dress code (which eased in the late ’60s) may have been formal, but the restaurant retained a friendly atmosphere where some patrons returned weekly.

William and Martha Ellis were regulars. Speaking with Omaha Magazine over the phone from their home in Scottsdale, Arizona, they recalled going to The Gas Lamp almost every weekend. They became good friends with Ernie, to the point where all three of their children eventually worked for the Firmature brothers (mainly at A Sidewalk Cafe).

“Ernie wanted you to think he was this sort of tough Italian mobster, but he was really sort of amusing,” Martha says.

The Gas Lamp came to an abrupt end in 1980 when a fire destroyed the restaurant. It was ruled as arson, but a suspect was never caught. Instead of rebuilding, the family decided to “transfer” some of the signature dishes of The Gas Lamp to A Sidewalk Cafe. The Firmature brothers had purchased the restaurant from Willy Theisen in 1977.

Along with the three brothers, another Firmature, Jim (Helen and Sam’s son), was also a partner in owning A Sidewalk Cafe. Bob spent much of his time managing Brothers Lounge. Ernie managed A Sidewalk Cafe until he retired. Jim and Jay also helped manage the place. Jay (who is the only surviving member of the three) primarily worked in the business area. He was brought in by Ernie from Mutual of Omaha.

“He always said, ‘I should have stayed at Mutual,’” Steve says with a laugh.

Though not as formal as The Gas Lamp, A Sidewalk Cafe was still a destination spot. Located in the heart of the Regency neighborhood, the cafe aimed to pull in people who may have assumed Regency was out of their price range. Still, the cafe maintained an upper-end dining experience. DJ Dave Wingert, who now hosts a morning show on Boomer Radio, would routinely take radio guests to the Sidewalk Cafe in the ’80s. One guest was comedian and co-host of the NBC pre-reality show hit Real People—the late Skip Stephenson.

“I remember the booth we were sitting in, and telling him about being shot at Club 89,” Wingert says.

Since A Sidewalk Cafe closed its doors in the late ’90s, Omaha’s food scene has only grown in regard to available dining options and national recognition. Wingert says A Sidewalk Cafe would fit with today’s culinary landscape. Jaye agrees.

“It was probably the one [restaurant] that was the most survivable, I think,” she says.

Jaye has left the restaurant business. She is now owner and president of FirstLight Home Care, an in-home health care business. Though the industries are vastly different, Jaye says much of her experience with the restaurants has carried over to health care.

“Restaurants and bars are something that get into your blood,” she says. “It’s about the people and taking care of people.”

Find the last remnant of the Firmature family bar and restaurant empire at @brothersloungeomaha on Facebook.

From left: Ernie, Robert “Bobby”, and Jay Firmature

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

Reducing Food Waste

October 4, 2016 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

The night of the Jimmy Buffett concert could not have been more perfect, weather-wise: a calm, near-cloudless 70-degree evening. Packs of Hawaiian-shirted Parrotheads meandered the Old Market’s cobblestone streets in search of 5-o’clock somewhere, food, and drink.

Major shows at CenturyLink are routine for downtown Omaha, but for the city’s restaurants, event schedules are just part of the unscientific guessing game to determine how much food to prepare for the nightly dinner rush.

Sometimes the indicators to make more food—a concert, a beautiful night outside, and an upcoming holiday—are the same indicators for restaurateurs to make less. Restaurants deal with this guessing game all the time. Wasted food impacts their bottom line. Any unused food usually means lost revenue. Environmentally, repercussions stretch across the entire cycle of food production.

Three restaurant owners gave their estimates on what they threw out each night: Ahmad Nazar, owner of Ahmad’s Persian Cuisine, estimates his restaurant fills a 45-gallon garbage can for a standard dinner service. Clayton Chapman, chef and owner at The Grey Plume, says his restaurant fills an 18-gallon garbage can per night. David Mainelli, co-owner of Julio’s, says his restaurant fills an entire dumpster in a week.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that 133 billion pounds of food went to waste in 2010. “The statistics are 40 percent of food that’s produced ends up in the landfill,” says Beth Ostdiek Smith, president and founder of Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue.

Since its founding in 2013, Saving Grace has delivered more than one million pounds of food to local non-profits. The majority of the food comes from grocery stores, caterers, and convenience stores.

“When I started this, I thought that (restaurants) would be our top food donor. That’s not the case,” Smith says. “Our restaurants have learned to manage their food, and it’s more made to order, so there’s not as much waste from restaurants as maybe there once was.”

Different restaurants around town tackle the food waste problem with different strategies. At Ahmad’s, Nazar says his 26-plus years of experience have taught him about portion control. “I’ve learned how people want it, especially business people who travel. They don’t want too much food. It’s hard to judge, so I have a portion ready for everyone,” Nazar says.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that 133 billion pounds of food went to waste in 2010.

Mainelli says Julio’s kitchen staff tries to minimize waste by boiling the parts of the chicken that do not reach a customer’s plate and making it into a stock. Onion skins are used for barbecue sauces. Still, Mainelli believes his restaurant could do better in managing food waste. For example, cooked rice IS an item that has a short lifespan, as it cannot be reheated for a restaurant-quality dish. “Sometimes, we’ll throw out an entire batch that could serve 50 people,” he says.

The Grey Plume is renowned for being one of the most environmentally friendly restaurants in the nation. In addition to using recycled materials for their drywall and steel framing, Clayton Chapman says the restaurant uses a three-step process to reduce food waste. The first step involves using as much of the ingredient as possible (when carrots get cut up, the remaining carrot pieces get pureed into a base).

“Not everything has a second life, but most things do,” Chapman says. The second step includes composting any leftover and eligible ingredients. The final step is to prepare everything to order so that reheating isn’t necessary.

Along with internal quality control, Ahmad’s, Julio’s, and The Grey Plume have donated food and resources to charitable organizations like Siena/Francis Homeless Shelter and Youth
Emergency Services.

In 2012, after recovering from an undiagnosed lymphatic illness that left him bedridden, Mainelli was inspired to start Feedback Omaha, an organization that works with local restaurants and nonprofits to feed those in need. In addition to donating food to the needy, Feedback Omaha organizers also perform a standard restaurant-style dinner service.

In July, the organization provided its first service for YES, which featured a taco bar for about 100 kids. In October, Feedback Omaha served about 250 people at the Lydia House with Mama’s Pizza and All Inclusive Catering providing food for the event.

The standard for what can be donated is a simple (but inflexible) rule: whatever is cooked, but does not go out to a customer, can be donated. For example, a cooked pizza in a restaurant kitchen is ripe for donating. However, if it goes out into the restaurant dining area, it’s no longer a candidate for donation.

“If it’s in the buffet, it cannot be rescued. If it’s in the back, we can still rescue it,” Smith says.

Visit savinggracefoodrescue.org or facebook.com/feedbackomaha for more information.

Encounter

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Now Serving Omaha

February 10, 2015 by

Ranked as a Top 10 Foodie City by Livability.com, Omaha’s reputation as a great dining destination continues to grow. In choosing Omaha, Livability.com raves, “Innovative chefs throughout the city are creating sensational menus that surprise many visitors.” The Grey Plume and Boiler Room are constantly receiving high praise from national food critics. Open Table’s “100 Hottest Restaurants in America” list includes Pitch Pizzeria in the Dundee neighborhood, and the Food Network has featured Big Mama’s Kitchen, California Taco, and Brewburgers on its national broadcasts.

To capitalize on the growing interest and to increase awareness about Omaha’s culinary landscape, the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) just started its own web series called “Now Serving Omaha.” Each month a new restaurant is featured in a short video webisode that is distributed to more than 165,000 people from all over the country via the CVB’s social media network. There is also a dedicated webpage featuring all of the videos at visitomaha.com/nowservingomaha.

In addition, the Omaha CVB partnered with Food and Travel magazine, a national publication with a readership of more than 81,000, to create a full-page editorial showcasing many of Omaha’s beloved restaurants such as The Drover, Piccolo Pete’s, Dundee Dell, Johnny’s Café, Crescent Moon, and Blue Sushi. Thanks to a Nebraska Tourism-sponsored media tour, Omaha restaurants have also received media coverage in magazines in Austin, Texas, Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo.

So is all the attention focused on promoting Omaha restaurants worth it? Consider this: Research shows out-of-town visitors spend more than $274 million a year dining out in Omaha restaurants. So the answer is a resounding yes—Omaha is serving up travel-worthy food and visitors are eating it up.

Dana Markel is Executive Director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau. Questions or comments? Email the Omaha CVB at info@visitomaha.com.

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Sauce Sensations

February 6, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I should start out by disclaiming that, despite my Kansas City roots, I haven’t always been barbecue’s biggest fan. I grew up an extremely picky eater, despite being ribbed by my various family members, so it wasn’t until fairly recently that I really started to develop a taste for KC’s different flavors. After a particularly scarring childhood experience at Arthur Bryant’s, in which there was chewed food on my fork and I refused to touch my meal (which my uncle still makes fun of me for to this day, by the way), I swore off barbecue for life—despite it being the meal of choice at every, and I do mean every, family reunion.

If I’d grown up in a place with less tasty barbecue, I maybe never would’ve developed a liking for it. But being surrounded by the country’s best barbecue joints, I consider myself lucky enough to guide my non-local friends on their paths to discovering the food my city is most loved and well-known for. I’ve come to associate even the perpetual smell of barbecue in the city air with the most poignant sense of nostalgia, and if you ask any local native, they’ll probably tell you that barbecue is an unspoken part of Kansas City life.

With that introduction, I have a few recommendations. Whether you’re headed down south for a Chiefs game or road-tripping for a night out on the Plaza, here are four of Kansas City’s top barbecue restaurants you don’t want to miss the next time you’re in town.

Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Que
(now Joe’s Kansas City)
Opened: 1996

Top pick: There seems to be an ongoing debate about whether the ribs, pulled pork, or brisket is the Joe’s must-try. No harm in trying all of them.

Opinion: Voted by critics as Kansas City’s best barbecue restaurant this year, the newly christened Joe’s Kansas City has yet to receive a poor Yelp review from BBQ fanatics.

oklahomajoesbbq.com

Gates Bar-B-Q
Opened: 1946

Top pick: A meaty slab of ribs is most commonly ordered in my house, and always with extra helpings of sauce.

Opinion: They’ll give you their famously enthusiastic “Hi, may I help you” shout-out the very moment you cross the threshold—but rare are the times you’ll leave
Gates dissatisfied.

gatesbbq.com

Jack Stack Barbecue
Opened: 1957

Top pick: My personal favorite is the pulled pork sandwich, but the lamb ribs are perhaps more famed.

Opinion: Jack Stack is always my first choice when introducing non-Missouri natives to the realm of KC barbecue. I have yet to hear a complaint.

jackstackbbq.com

Arthur Bryant’s
Opened: 1930

Top pick: Although Arthur Bryant may have been the King of Ribs, the pulled pork sandwich is a prime second best.

Opinion: Even though you may have to root around to locate a clean fork, the full experience of both good barbecue and an environment rife with KC history
remains intact.

arthurbryantsbbq.com

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Amy Mather

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“People fascinate me.”

So says Amy Mather, adult program manager at Omaha Public Library and host of the podcast
“Whatever Mathers.”

Friends and acquaintances had been telling her to post her knowledge of the city, about the food, the art openings. “A lot of people told me I should blog, and I really hate writing,” Mather says, “I overthink it, whereas if it’s coming out of my mouth, it comes out once.”

When fellow Design Alliance Omaha board member Bryce Bridges told her she should do a podcast instead, “it took about six months for me to really consider it seriously,” she says. But after the first episode aired in September 2011 with the help of Clete Baker of Studio B, Mather embraced the idea of documenting what’s happening in the city now. “I think of it as curating Omaha,” she says with a smile.

“I find people super interesting. There is a creativity explosion happening here. It’s an important thing to capture.”

Bridges, who has a family background in radio, finalizes the themes and gathers the guests for the podcast’s three-speaker panels as executive producer of “Whatever Mathers.” “I wanted to sit people at a table and poke and prod and ask why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Bridges says of the podcast’s raison d’etre, “The only thing missing is alcohol.” He adds with a laugh that such lubrication is unnecessary thanks to the way Mather handles the hour-long conversations. “Amy has a great way of letting people just be honest. When we sit people around the table with her, good things happen.” He adds that there’s not even much editing, just a few outtakes of jokes at a podcast’s end.

“I find people super interesting,” Mather admits. “There is a creativity explosion happening here. It’s an important thing to capture.” She typically asks three questions of her podcast guests, an example of which is “What do you think creativity is?” from her second podcast entitled “You don’t take sand to the beach.”

“It’s a very basic question to ask, but you get so many different answers,” Mather says.

Guests of “Whatever Mathers” have included local designer Steve Gordon, Design Alliance Omaha founder Tom Trenelone, acupuncturist Donna Hubert, and Anne Meysenburg of Kent Bellows Studio, just to name a few. Mather ends each podcast by asking her guests about their Big Love, encouraging them to reveal one thing they’re really excited about or have fallen in love with recently. The kale salad at Lot 2 has come up twice.

Despite living in several other states for many years and only being in Omaha for five, Mather states with delight that Omaha is the center of the universe. “I mean, in five years, I’ve met tons of amazing people, and there’s all this stuff happening,” she says. “I love Omaha, and I’m really proud of it. I just want to show, you know, we’re a bunch of badasses here. Look at what we’re doing.”

Interested listeners can visit whatevermathers.libsyn.com or search for “Whatever Mathers” on the iTunes store and subscribe to the podcast to hear new and old episodes.