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.
After a steep learning curve, she soon mastered all the stations in the kitchen from prep to sauté to pizza. “I proved to him that I could do it.”
When he returned to the kitchen in 2013, Dyrness recalled the saturation of talent in the kitchen, not the least of whom was Vasquez.
“Carmen was really a backbone of what was going on — highly efficient, highly skilled. And at that point in time, this kitchen was just full of those people. But with more restaurants opening and more opportunities, people start dispersing. At some point, people are ready for the next level in their career. They’ve plateaued.”
But Vasquez wasn’t ready for the next level. At least, she wasn’t ready because of her family.
“For Carmen, she was focused on being a mom. That was her passion,” Dyrness said.
Born in Mexico, Vasquez describes the challenges for a Latina working mother. “It’s hard to get these positions, to get these opportunities. It’s hard for a woman, especially when you have kids. I have four kids. I have my babies.”
But Scibelli recognized the talent and ethic of Vasquez and always found work for her when time and family allowed. To get to the next level, Vasquez chose Dyrness to learn from.
“I had just started here. She had been here for some time,” Dyrness recalled. “She has so kindly labeled me her mentor, which is really nice. However, she’s been a great student. She’s a rockstar, through and through,” Dyrness said.
With two of her children grown, and when Scibelli was opening Yafo’s third location in the old Just Fresh spot on East Boulevard, Vasquez was ready for an elevated role.
Eighteen years after starting in the Mama Ricotta’s kitchen, as she accepted Scibelli’s offer to take over as executive chef and partner of Yafo Dilworth, she cried again — this time in joy. She describes it as a “Cinderella” moment — a dream come true.
Her husband and four kids — who Vasquez calls her “motor for everything” — shared in her delight.
“Wow, Mom. You are the chef now.”
Gems are found among the people at Mama Ricotta’s, and in between is great food.
Classic sandwiches such as chicken parm and an Italian grinder make up the lunch menu alongside pasta and salad options. And at dinnertime is when this Italian eatery really shows its true tricolores. Most entrees can be ordered as individual portions or as family-size platters, feeding two to three very hungry people.
Appetizers from the crispy calamari — served “regular” or “Rhode Island-style” tossed with pickled peppers — to a cheese dip made from housemade mozzarella and creamy mascarpone cheese, served with crusty, grilled ciabatta are favorites amongst regulars.
Scibelli doesn’t have a favorite restaurant of his own. He likens his love to the love of his children — unable to put one over another.
When asked where he thought his little 47-seat Italian eatery would take him, Scibelli was honest.
“I didn’t know where it would take me. My focus was on doing a good job and developing my craft, developing the restaurant, the people. And sort of one thing led to another, really,” Scibelli answered.
“It’s a big part of my history.”
And now it’s a big part of ours.
601 S. Kings Drive AA