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John D'Agostino will open his St. Paul restaurant Sunday for the express purpose of feeding the hungry and the poor. In doing so, he's carrying on a tradition started 42 years ago by his mother, Giovanna D'Agostino, the legendary restaurateur and cookbook author affectionately known as Mama D.
Every March 19, Mama D celebrated the lesser-known holiday of St. Joseph's Day by honoring the patron saint of charity to the poor by serving free meals to the needy at her eldest son Sam's Dinkytown restaurant, Sammy D's, from the 1960s to the early 1980s. The restaurant was later renamed Mama D's.
She carried on the tradition when she opened her own eatery, Mama D's Risorante Italiano in St. Paul. At times, as many as 3,500 people showed up there and at area churches that participated in the St. Joseph's Day feasts, said middle son John D'Agostino, of Minneapolis.
"It was not a publicity stunt," said former Minneapolis Mayor Al Hofstede. "It was something she believed in, and it was something she did from the heart."
Mama D, who was 94, died from respiratory and cardiac failure Tuesday at Catholic Elder Care in northeast Minneapolis.
Her legacy will continue as John D'Agostino serves meals at Cafe Biaggio, the Italian restaurant he operates at 2356 University Av., St. Paul.
Giovanna D'Agostino's generosity went far beyond the kitchen walls. She shared her passion for cooking by teaching classes to inmates in area prisons and county jails, where she also gave stern counsel she hoped would help them straighten out their lives, John said.
"She was everybody's mom," he said. "She called the hippie generation her kids, and she loved them."
Mama D often spoke at area churches during the 1970s and 1980s and was active in charity fundraising. Mama D won several awards for her efforts, John said.
In 1981, she ran for mayor of Minneapolis and earned about 10 percent of the vote in the election won by DFLer Donald Fraser, according to a report from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
She divulged some of her Italian delicacies in three cookbooks, and she was a frequent guest on national television programs hosted by Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore and Regis Philbin. She cooked for the stars, including crooner Tony Bennett, with whom she developed a long-lasting friendship. Last year, Bennett gave Mama D a dozen long-stemmed roses when he passed through town, John said.
"If there is truism in the statement that you get more if you give it away, she lived it," Hofstede said. "She was quite a lady."
She was preceded in death by her husband, Eugene. In addition to her son John, she is survived by two other sons, Sam of Lino Lakes and Eugene of Balsam Lake, Wis.; three sisters, Mary Cotroneo of New Brighton, Angeline Murray of Walnut Creek, Calif., and Alvera Iaquinto, of St. Paul, nine grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 701 NE. Filmore St., Minneapolis. Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at Billman-Hunt Chapel, 2701 Central Av. NE., Minneapolis, and one hour before services at the church.