Living With A Legacy

Mary Ann Cricchio is determined to see that Da Mimmo, the restaurant her late husband founded, remains one ot the most celebrated in Little Italy.

October 15, 2003|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

In the quiet of an October afternoon, Mary Ann Cricchio looks radiant as she sits in what is called Mimmo's Corner, table No. 4 at the back of the intimate, dark green dining room of her celebrated Little Italy restaurant, Da Mimmo.

About a week has passed since the crowd flooded St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church for the funeral of her husband, Domenico "Mimmo" Cricchio, 70, and since she and their son followed the black hearse from the church to the cemetery in a yellow Ferrari.

Now the restaurant is open and the 42-year-old widow, following her husband's instructions that she should not wear black clothing for more than two days, is wearing a bright red blazer and multicolored scarf. Overlooking the table where she sits is a sketch of her late husband drawn by Tony Bennett, one of the many celebrities who have visited the High Street high-end establishment.

She is answering the question of how she is going to keep the restaurant going even though Chef Mimmo is gone.

As is typical, she is prepared. Described by friends and colleagues as a go-getter, one of the most organized people you'll meet and a brilliant front-of-the-house operator, she begins by citing a few facts she had gathered to support her contention that the restaurant would continue virtually unchanged.

First of all, she says, the restaurant staff is experienced. While the typical turnover rate for restaurant staff is about 125 percent a year, she says at Da Mimmo that rate is 20 percent. Secondly, she says that the restaurant has many veterans in key positions, including Martino Vassallo, a cook who had worked with her husband at various restaurants for the past 33 years, and the restaurant's manager, Masood Masoodi, who has been with the restaurant 15 years. Thirdly, she says that while her husband's death came as a shock to many customers, he had been in failing health for several months and had made plans for the restaurant to continue without him.

This summer, as his health failed, Mimmo helped her plan the restaurant's 20th anniversary dinner, set for Jan. 11. In preparation for the dinner, they gathered material for The Owner's Wife, a book telling the story of their time together. The book, which includes recipes, will be sold at the dinner, she says.

"God has been good to us. He gave us a successful restaurant and God gave us time to prepare," she says. "Other than Mimmo not appearing at the end of evening, walking around the dining room, there is not going to be any change."

"For 20 years, we marketed the man," she continues. "Now we would be changing the focus to marketing his concepts," she says.

She copes with her grief by working, she says. She does not want to closet herself at home in the dark. Instead, she says, when she and her 12-year-old son, Domenico Jr., feel sad, they "get dressed and come to work."

Mary Ann and Mimmo met at a Thanksgiving dinner and got to know each other at Caesar's Den, his first restaurant in Little Italy. He, a native of Sicily, was the chef at the restaurant. She was Mary Ann Brulinski, a teen-ager from Seton High School who had taken a job busing tables in the hopes of earning enough money to buy a car so she could commute to Loyola College. She ended up getting the car, a 1971 Dodge Dart, and soon moved up to a job as a waitress.

She had been watching the waiters, learning their craft, and when there was an opening, she was ready. "I am an opportunistic person," she says. She studied in Rome for a year and a half, learned Italian, came back to Baltimore and received a business degree from Loyola.

She had a job offer from C&P Telephone, "$19,000 a year, company car, benefits," she recalls, but she would have to go to Denver for training. Mimmo made her a better offer.

"He told me, `Come with me,' " she recalls. " `With you in the front of the house and me in the back of the house, we will open a restaurant.' " It took them a while to get the restaurant in shape. They ran out of money and ended up doing most of the painting themselves. It took them even longer to get married because, she says, they were short of funds. They got engaged on Valentine's Day 1985. He put a diamond ring in a Whitman's Sampler box.

They worked as a team. He ruled the kitchen, she took care of the paperwork and supervised the dining room. Along the way they hired Masoodi, a native of Iran who confessed to Mimmo that he did not like Italian food. Masoodi recalls that Mimmo had a reply: "That is because you eat the wrong Italian food." After several sessions in Mimmo's kitchen, Masoodi was converted.

If the next chapter of the restaurant's story - running Da Mimmo without Mimmo - appears to be a tall order, Cricchio is not shrinking from it.

"She is a hell of a businesswoman," says Roberto Marsili, head of the Little Italy Community Organization, who has been her ally in a few neighborhood disputes.

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