Mama D, famous St. Paul restaurateur and Italian grandmother to us all, died Tuesday at the age of 94. This would be the place where I recall a night when I walked into her restaurant, pale and wan, gaunt from hours of diligent study, and she fed me a pound of lasagna by hand, until I regained my strength.
I have no such story.
I have exactly one personal memory, and it's simple: She was doing hostess duty for the afternoon, greeted me, took a menu from a stack, and deposited me at a table.
She was already famous by then, a local celeb, but you didn't bat an eye if you walked into the restaurant and saw her. To be honest, she could be intimidating, and if you scoff at that, your experience with short Italian grandmothers is scant. My wife's grandmother came from the same generation, and she could split a cold tomato with a hard look.
There's another story here: The great Italian Restaurant Wars of Dinkytown. Three commercial districts serve the sprawling U: Stadium Village for the Soviet-style dorm district; the West Bank, once the hotbed of brown-rice-fueled agitation, and Dinkytown, a tight little city with a Fisher-Price name.
When I first came to the U in the late 1970s, D-town might as well have been Mayberry -- a drugstore with a soda fountain (the exterior is in the Mary Tyler Moore show's opening credits), a bakery, a movie theater, a grocery store, and all the other staples you'd find in a burg plopped down alone on the prairie. Exactly the sort of commercially diverse, compact, walkable, dense urban node suburbs are desperate to re-create today. But even if they rebuilt it brick by brick, you wouldn't have the individual flavors, the accumulated layers of peculiarity you only get with a population composed of baffled frosh, eternal grad students and people who never escaped the U's gravitational well. You need Jerry Rau standing on a street corner with his guitar, serenading the traffic; you need the old tailors at Al Johnson's, staring out the window, waiting for someone to come in to get measured for his first real grown-up job. You need the taciturn elfin cobbler with the old Cat's Paw decal in his window, the caretaker of the old College Inn who sat on a chair on the sidewalk with a transistor jammed up to his ear, listening to the Twins. And, of course, you need a Mama D.
She had competition, though. Dinkytown had three Italian restaurants. There was Sammy D's -- later renamed after the matriarch, of course. Vescio's had a Roman soldier's profile on the sign. And then there was the Valli, the Rick's Café Americain of Dinkytown -- a 24-hour hash house upstairs, a 3.2 beer joint downstairs. Each had its appeal; each had its own clientele. Vescio's was where you took a date, if you'd met at the Valli. Mama D's was where the people who liked Vescio's went when they wanted something different. But here's the thing: People picked one, and they stuck with it. I've no idea why; it was all red sauce and noodles in the end, but like any small town, people chose sides.
Most of the stores that made Dinkytown unique are gone. The bones of the Valli are still there, occupied by other eateries, but the door that linked the always open upstairs to the hedonistic pool hall below was walled over long ago.
A few years ago a call went out to all the old Valli habitués: Mehdi was back. He'd been a Valli waiter before returning to Iran after the revolution. We'd heard no more and expected the worst, but a quarter-century later he popped up, prosperous and happy, and we all met at the Valli. We put in a call to Jack, another Valli citizen long decamped to California, and they shouted hellos.
Every hometown kid gets back to Dinkytown eventually, one way or the other.
I thought of Jack when I heard Mama D had died: He was the only Valli regular who worked for her. He needed a job. I'm sure she had waiters enough, but she gave him a shift. St. Paul claims her, and rightly so, but let me put in a word on behalf of the people of D-town: We thought you belonged to us. And vice versa, of course.
Goodbye, and thanks for supper.