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Wednesday, May 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Mama DiSpirito is the real star at Rocco's restaurant

By Sylvia Rector
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Chef Rocco DiSpirito may be more recognizable from NBC's "The Restaurant," but it's his mother, Nicolina DiSpirito, and her famed meatballs (see picture below) that are the real stars of the show.
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Recipe: Chef Rocco Dispirito's Mama's Meatballs

As a reality series, NBC's "The Restaurant" makes me nuts. The show about New York chef Rocco DiSpirito opening an Italian restaurant seems more unrealistic than anything else.

Last season, the successful, critically acclaimed chef looked like a doofus as a restaurateur, manager and male, spending more time eyeing the customers' cleavage than trying to fix his train-wreck of a restaurant.

This season, his financial partner, restaurant mogul Jeffrey Chodorow, comes off as ham-handed, arrogant and boorish as he and his team move in and try to take over after losing — he says — more than half a million dollars on Rocco's place.

But what keeps me watching this contrived drama is Mama — Rocco's 78-year-old Italian-born mother, Nicolina DiSpirito, whom viewers see every week hand-mixing big batches of the restaurant's signature Mama's Meatballs and talking to adoring customers. She seems to be working harder than most of the staff.

But I couldn't help wondering if the meatball-making was just for the cameras.

"I am there every day," she declared in her familiar Italian-accented English when I called to talk to her about her job and her famous son. "I make the meatballs, all the sauces, and I do whatever. A lot of people ask me if I do it, and I do. ... I have fun to go down to the restaurant at night, and everybody loves it when I go and say 'Hi.' "

Nicolina DiSpirito's famed meatballs.
She came to America in 1951 and worked as a seamstress, part-time sandwich maker and, starting in 1983, as a cook in a public-school lunchroom.

Rocco, meanwhile, enrolled at age 16 at the Culinary Institute of America, went to France to study and returned to earn a business degree in 1990 from Boston University. His résumé includes stints at well-known restaurants in Boston and New York before he opened Union Pacific at Gramercy Park in New York in 1997; The New York Times gave it three stars (a very high rating). In 1999, he was named best new chef by Food & Wine.

Mama retired from her lunchroom job in 2003, and Rocco not only made her a star but executive chef of his restaurant.

Rocco worries about her doing too much, she says. But to her, work isn't work — it's living.

"It's my way to go on with my life. I'm very happy in the morning when I get up and put my feet down. I'm so grateful to God," she says. "If I don't work, I get depressed."

Her advice to other mothers who want to raise children who love cooking is to keep them near and involve them when you're working.

"I think the mother is very influential. ... The kids will learn from the mother when they are young. That's a very beautiful thing to do for your kids — to teach them how to cook."

Rocco didn't have to be encouraged; he was always interested.

"If I cooked, he was right there. He asked me so many questions, I said, 'Please don't ask so much!' I'd give him some dough, and we would make pizza frito": fried dough sprinkled with sugar or drizzled with honey. "He used to love to do that."

His efforts didn't always go smoothly. She came home from work one day and found out he'd set a hot pan on the counter and burned it. "I was very upset, but it was so stupid to be upset! Nobody should be upset when mistakes happen. Maybe he learned from that."

He was 7 when he earned his first salary.

"He would come home from school and would go shopping for two old ladies who had no one to shop for them," she said. They paid him $5. He used the money to take his mother to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, where they had fried rice and wonton soup, she recalls, still proud that a 7-year-old would do such a thing.

"I'll never forget that," she adds.

Mama says she doesn't know how this season's TV series will end — whether Chodorow will try to find a replacement for Rocco or the two men will reach some kind of agreement about how things are run. The staff and Chodorow's people have criticized Rocco on the show for not being around enough.

And he's still posing endlessly for snapshots with female customers.

He seems to do a lot of flirting, I tell Mama. Is that real or just for the TV cameras?

There's a momentary silence, and she says, "He's a man, you know. He's a young guy. What do you expect?" I laugh. She laughs.

"I'm honest. Men are men, and women are women. You can't do nothing about that," she says.

Like I said, Mama's the most real character on the whole show.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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