An American dream – A Sicilian immigrant affectionately known as “Mama” has become a Baton Rouge culinary icon.
HALL OF FAME LAUREATE
COMPANY: Gino’s Italian Restaurant
• Emigrated to Baton Rouge from Sicily with her husband and three young children to pursue better opportunities. Founded Gino’s Restaurant in 1966.
• Moved restaurant to its current location on Bennington Avenue in 1975. It has remained family-owned and -operated throughout its existence.
• The annual Grace “Mama” Marino Lifetime Achievement Award was created by the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society to honor local food industry professionals for advancing culinary culture. The organization chose to name the award after Marino because of her commitment to excellence and hard work.
When the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society formed in 2006 to promote local food culture, its founding members created a lifetime achievement award as one of its main programs. The award is meant to honor champions of the Baton Rouge culinary world. The Epicurean Society founders, veteran chefs and wine experts, decided to name the award after its first recipient, Gino’s Restaurant chef/owner Grace “Mama” Marino. She is generous, detail-oriented and extraordinarily hard working; and her story embodies the American Dream.
“We wanted to do something to honor her,” recalls Kevin Kimball, a veteran of the local industry who got his start as a busboy at Gino’s. “So many things I still do today are things I learned from Mama. Anybody who ever had the opportunity to get to know her fell in love with her.”
Marino founded Gino’s Restaurant in 1966, just eight years after moving to Baton Rouge with her husband, Vincent, and three young children—Lorenzo (Laurence), Francesca (Frances) and Gino—from their native Agrigento, Sicily.
“After the war—my war—World War II, there was no future for my kids,” Marino recalls. “We came here for a better life.”
The family spoke almost no English when they arrived in 1958. Daughter, Frances Drago, says that they found their new home jarring. “It was hard at first because we didn’t speak the language,” Drago says, who still speaks to her mother in fluent Italian. “But eventually, we settled in and we loved it.”
Vincent Marino entered the liquor distribution business, working out of a storefront on Perkins Road near the overpass. Grace Marino, an avid cook who had learned family recipes at the knee of her parents in Sicily, decided she could open a restaurant across the street. She named it Gino’s for the family’s youngest son, and began cooking Old World Sicilian recipes, including her signature arancini: fried balls of rice and ground beef with red sauce. The restaurant operated out of the building where Rama Thai restaurant is now, and it built a following of loyal patrons.
“The place was really special,” says Gino Marino. “There were 40 seats, no reservations, and there would be a line running down the street.”
Baton Rouge patrons loved the quaint feel of the restaurant, its recipes and wax-draped Chianti bottles. They queued up in lines so long that at times the police would stop to investigate the gathering crowd. Mama, as she is called by both family and employees, would arrive early in the morning and wouldn’t leave until late at night. She became focused solely on two things: the restaurant’s success and her family’s happiness.
“It was always family and the restaurant,” Drago says. “That’s what mattered to her. That’s what still matters to her.”
Gino’s Perkins Road restaurant was a successful mom-and-pop joint with a committed following. But by the mid-seventies, the Marinos wanted to grow the business and believed they had a viable brand. Brothers Gino and Laurence, looking for a new location, decided on a closed chain eatery on Bennington Avenue off College Drive. The capacity was more than 200, and the place included a lounge. It was a huge leap from the cozy Perkins Road quarters and presented numerous challenges, recalls Gino Marino.
“Looking back on it, I would never tell anybody to do it like that, to grow that much, but we did it,” he says.
Grace Marino found the new kitchen confining and inefficient. She needed plenty of space to turn out the ample menu and its multiple homemade sauces, but the space had been designed for 1970s chain restaurant fare. The added pressure of cooking for four times the number of people as formerly made the first few months at the new location difficult.
“It was tough,” Gino says. “But she made it work. Her philosophy was to work with what you have. Our employees saw that and learned a lot from it.”
It was the first of many times Mama would influence her staff, says Gino Marino. She developed systems for efficiency to make the kitchen run smoothly and kept high standards for ingredient quality and presentation. The restaurant became wildly successful, developing a reputation as a romantic getaway and power broker dinner spot.
Kimball began at Gino’s as a busboy and worked his way up to manage the restaurant in the late eighties. He remembers Mama looking out for her staff, working long hours and taking pride in feeding her customers.
“This was in the late eighties, when chefs were more subtle and behind-the-scenes,” Kimball says. “She was about striving for perfection and making all the people around her do the same thing.”
Mama insisted upon arriving at the restaurant by 7 a.m., even when the first delivery didn’t arrive until 9. She fastidiously iced down fresh seafood, changing ice every few hours to ensure it remained as fresh as possible, Kimball says.
“The things I still do today with my chefs, especially ensuring the quality of product, are things I learned from Mama,” says Kimball, manager of Stab’s Steakhouse in Central. “I tried to watch and learn from her. She taught me a lot about ingredient quality and that you have to care for it from the minute it hits your door to the minute you let go of it.”
Gino Marino says that details were always important to his mother. She’d take time to make sure every plate was perfect.
“She would tell our employees, ‘If you do a good job on the little things, you’ll do a good job on the big ones,'” he says.
At almost 92, Grace Marino still participates from time to time in the business she founded and shaped. Her children take her to the restaurant, where she eases into the kitchen, hair tucked neatly back, to assemble salads or prepare one of her homemade dishes. She likes to finish her plates with a garnish of fresh basil.
“That’s like a signature,” Drago says. “Our customers who know her, when they see that, they know she’s been in the restaurant.”