29 Jul Gems of the Queen City: Mama Ricotta’s
Editor’s note: As new restaurants open every day in Charlotte, it’s easy to forget about the old standbys, the places that have grown up alongside the Queen City. We think they’ll always be there for us, but so many favorites have closed along the way. This makes it even more important to support the ones we love. Our Gems of the Queen City series highlights the places that you have frequented for years, reminding us why they have stood the test of time.
Corporate chef Tom Dyrness, fittingly, puts the growth of Mama Ricotta’s into increments of lasagna pans.
He recalls, in 2009, “We used to do 8-12 pans a week.”
Now, a typical week sees 24-28 pans come through the pass and into the dining room or boxed up for takeout.
Over its 27 years, Mama Ricotta’s Italian Restaurant at 601 S. Kings Drive has provided opportunities, borrowing favorite words from Dyrness, “On a lot of levels.”
For Dyrness, the FS Food Group-owned restaurant was there for him in 2013, when he returned to Mama Ricotta’s kitchen for a second tenure after a two-year stint at Mimosa Grill and was looking to take the next step forward in his career. Dyrness also worked for owner Frank Scibelli from 2009 to 2011 and was familiar with his high standards.
“Logic rolls into everything Frank does,” Dyrness said.
Italian cooking in New Jersey
For General Manager Vinnie DeLillo — from classic pasta and pizzas to elegant preparations of braised short ribs and veal marsala — Mama Ricotta’s was a reminder of the Italian cooking he grew up with in New Jersey at his family’s restaurant. But, most importantly, when he started with the company in 2016, he saw opportunity to improve an already successful business.
For Carmen Vasquez, who started with the company in October of 2000, Mama Ricotta’s provided an opportunity for a Latina working mother to have a path to ownership in her own kitchen.
And for Scibelli, his first restaurant has provided the opportunity to launch a local empire.
When he first opened Mama Ricotta’s on Kings Drive in 1992, Charlotte’s food scene was grim. National chains and out-of-town franchises dominated the landscape. Pockets of good food existed but were rare and siloed throughout the city.
“It was really very raw. There wasn’t high-quality, mid-scale Italian by any stretch of the imagination. It was either lower-end, diner-style Italian food, or it was fine dining. There was nothing in the middle,” Scibelli recalled.
The early struggles included sourcing fresh mozzarella, good Sicilian olive oil and ricotta cheese.
“The reason we make mozzarella everyday is because I couldn’t find it when we opened. We had to learn how to make it. The vendors didn’t even know what fresh mozzarella was.”
In turn, Charlotte diners responded. The restaurant’s customer base steadily grew until 2001, when it moved to its current spot down the street — more than tripling its seating capacity.
Now, Mama’s kitchen handles 450 people on a Saturday night — “almost touching five (hundred),” according to Dyrness.
“That’s just dinner service and in-house food. We’ll do 10 to 15 percent of our sales to-go,” Dyrness added.
Paul Cruz, who started with the company at Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar, helped Scibelli open all but one of Midwood Smokehouse’s five locations. Cruz is now executive chef of Mama Ricotta’s.
“Frank’s very quality-driven. He does this in all of his concepts — taking that high-end, formal dining but putting it in a casual setting,” Cruz said.
Dyrness affectionately recounts the hard work that went into his early days with the company.
“Mama’s is crazy on so many levels. At one point, we were doing breakfast, catering, lunch and dinner service. You’re here at 4 in the morning doing breakfast, and you’re tied in until 6, 7, 8 o’ clock. And you’re like, ‘Holy smokes. When am I going to get out of here?’ But you’re not thinking about it because you’re so busy.”
Dyrness is collected. Ask him about success in a kitchen and he’ll talk about efficiency and staying organized. “At this point in my career, I try to stay out of the weeds.”
“In the weeds” is a restaurant industry term used to describe someone in over their head. Every young cook experiences it. During a discussion on the importance of proactivity, Dyrness gave an answer that could just as easily apply to Scibelli’s plan for his various restaurants:
“When you got stuff coming at you from six different ways, and you have a plan, you’re able to fit that stuff in your plan. You already know where it’s supposed to be an hour from now.”
And you can set your clock to the growth rate experienced by Scibelli’s FS Food Group.
After opening Mama Ricotta’s in 1992, Scibelli started Cantina 1511 about 12 years later around the corner on East Boulevard. Scibelli later sold the restaurant to outside investors looking to expand the concept. A few years later, Scibelli repeated this practice with Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar — freeing up his time to open Yafo Kitchen’s first location in 2016.
Dyrness remembered when he first started at Mama Ricotta’s: “The crew was very seasoned when I came in. And it’s humbling.”
Little Mama’s coming to SouthPark
As corporate chef, it’s Dyrness’ responsibility to oversee kitchens at both Mama Ricotta’s and Paco’s Tacos and Tequila. And Dyrness will be over the kitchen at the new Little Mama’s, slated to open in SouthPark later this year.
When Mama Ricotta’s general manager, Vinnie DeLillo, arrived two and a half years ago, he knew he was stepping into an already successful restaurant. But he saw room for increased efficiencies, and in turn, increased profit. DeLillo’s experience contributing to the branding success at Disney World and Epcot Center in Orlando allowed him to apply that lens to Mama Ricotta’s.
“Guests have been coming here for 25 years. Really, my job was, ‘How can I take a tried and true brand and elevate it?’” DeLillo recounted.
Streamlined takeout orders
His first initiative was a tall order. He sought to improve an already thriving, award-winning takeout business.
“Someone would call and place a takeout order — you’d tell them it’s going to be 30 minutes, and then when they get here, they’re waiting here another 20 in line just to pay for it. I said, ‘Nah, I have to fix this.’”
He added another register and another phone. He hired a third person to assist up front. “That increased the flowthrough when we had takeout,” DeLillo said.
Now with DoorDash and ChowNow delivery services, the system is even more streamlined. “We’ve always done a good job with takeout, but he’s really ramped it up,” Scibelli said.
“The kitchen does a great job with execution,” DeLillo said. “It’s all to make sure we’re facilitating the needs of the guests. So, when they sit down at their kitchen table, they’re getting the same quality food.”
In the early days of the restaurant, Scibelli spent much of his time checking the food, ensuring quality, Vasquez said. And he wasn’t shy about sending food back to ensure it was prepared properly.
“I cried, believe me. I cried the first two weeks — it was a challenge,” Vasquez admitted.