The Heart of a Woman
Mar 03, 2020 02:21PM
By Tim Trudell
Ashley Gomez recalls playing in the basement at her grandma’s restaurant. Some of the grandchildren would learn dances down there. Then grandma would bring them up to the restaurant to perform for diners. Such was life at Malara’s Italian Restaurant. Known for its comfort food featuring handmade pasta, the South Omaha spot is a true family endeavor. From founder Caterina Malara to her daughters to granddaughter Gomez, Malara’s is completely women-owned.
But everyone involved with the restaurant, from employees to diners, is considered a member of the family, regardless if they’re a Malara or not. Some employees have been with the 35-year-old restaurant for more than 20 years.
Caterina was 32 when her husband, Luigi, died in a work-related accident. A $6,000 insurance settlement was enough to buy a house. Speaking little English when they arrived in the United States in 1963, Caterina didn’t envision a life without her husband when they settled in Omaha. However, after the accident in 1967, she realized she needed to find a way to support her four daughters, each under the age of 12. So, she used her hand-cranked pasta maker to create ravioli, which she sold out of the house. Caterina also sold ravioli and sausage at Omaha-area festivals.
While she enjoyed a successful business out of her home for a few years, a Douglas County health inspector eventually visited. She was told she couldn’t sell the food out of her basement. Rotella’s Bakery offered her a spot to work out of at its small factory near 20th and Pierce streets. The opportunity to rent a space at the bakery seemed like a gift from heaven. It marked the beginning of the Italian restaurant.
“We sold food out of a window,” she said. “No tables. No place to sit. It was all carryout.”
By then, one of her daughters had grown and married. One day, her son-in-law brought some tables and set them up, offering customers an opportunity for sidewalk dining.
In the late 1980s, the Rotellas decided to build a new, larger bakery in La Vista. Louie Rotella told her they were going to sell the building and wanted to offer Caterina first chance at buying. They were asking $35,000, but for Caterina, it could have been $1 million. She didn’t know where she was going to get the money. Fearful that she would lose her business, family friend Andy Pearson offered to buy the building for her, allowing her to repay the loan on her own schedule. Caterina considered herself blessed.
“Everyone was willing to take a chance on us,” she said.
As time passed, Malara’s Restaurant took over the three main bays of the building. The bar, in the front of the restaurant, holds a special place in Caterina’s heart, as she can point to where the window was when they sold ravioli and sandwiches. In the middle is the main dining area, with a capacity of about 150 customers. The third space is large enough for parties. And that’s the room where you’ll find photographs of Caterina’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren hanging on the wall.
Longtime regular Mary Lou Riley and her family have been going to Malara's for dinner for more than 10 years. Riley, who is of Italian descent, said it's difficult to enjoy Italian dishes at restaurants when you grew up with a mother who made delicious authentic dinners. But, that was before Malara's, she added, where the staff treats customers like family.
“If you go there more than once, they recognize you,” Riley said. “They don't even need to offer us a menu or ask us for our order. They know what we want.”
Her favorite dish is one her mother never made, pasta carbonara. “To go to Malara's and get something I didn't grow up with is one of the reasons we enjoy going there.”
Like the restaurant, the Rileys' love for Malara's has been passed down through their family. Their 8-year-old granddaughter, Leila Riley, already knows where to go for great Italian.
“She'll say 'Grandma, I want to go to my favorite restaurant that begins with an M,'” Riley said with a laugh.
Since the beginning, Caterina’s daughters have been involved with the restaurant, from helping her make ravioli at home to serving specific roles within the business.
Anna Ruzicka helps her mom in the kitchen, making pasta, as well as doing other kitchen-related work. Maria Szablowski (Ashley’s mom) waits tables on the weekends. Gracie Benak, who lives part-time in Florida, assists her mom with managing health insurance and other business-related needs. Daughter Carmen passed away in 2010. She was married to Jim Rotella until her passing, and the Malaras continue to consider him a member of the family.
Gomez waits tables and manages the front of the restaurant. Her family lives in the apartment above, essentially spending 24 hours a day at Malara’s. But, her time with the restaurant dates back to infancy.
“They had playpens set up in the kitchen,” she said. “TVs were on so we could stay entertained.”
While not all of Caterina’s 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren are involved with the restaurant (yet), Gomez’s four children often help out by getting water and sodas for guests. So, the fourth generation of Malaras has become involved with the family-owned business.
Working with relatives can be challenging and a little stressful in any venture, but the restaurant industry is ripe with stress because of the nature of the business. They do their best to keep family and business separate.
“Life is too short,” Caterina said. “We have our arguments and disagreements. But, we’re family.”
Gomez wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We have our good days and bad days,” she said. “When you work with family, it can be hard to separate it...but we make it work.”
Ruzicka truly enjoys spending time with her mom in the kitchen.
“I can count on my fingers how many times we’ve disagreed,” she said.
Regardless of issues that may arise, it’s clear what matters.
“We get to see each other every day,” Ruzicka said.
The daughters have been after Caterina to write down her recipes. She finally relented, though it may be challenging to translate her cooking into recipes.
“I like to have a pinch of this and pinch of that,” she said.
But make no mistake, creating recipes has nothing to do with a changing of the guard.
“I have no plans to retire,” Caterina said.
Perhaps she’ll help train a fifth generation of Malara family employees.
Visit malarasitalianrestaurant.com for more information.This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.