MANATEE -- When diners are at new Bradenton pizzeria Mama T's, they're with family.
Owners Tanina and Robert DeWald are surrounded with family through their staff -- portraits on the wall of grandchildren and great-grandparents -- and in the food with ages-old family recipes.
The restaurant's name is a family one, too. The T in Mama T is short for Tanina, passed on to dozens of family women through the decades.
"We've both been in our kitchen all our life cooking for our families. Mine coming from an Italian background, he's got an Irish background," Tanina DeWald said.
"But I don't cook Irish food," her husband cracked. "She cooks the Irish food for me."
In the small restaurant, family is easily within earshot. Tanina's sister, Betty Balluzzo, will greet you as the head waitress, probably giving instructions about an order to cousin and head chef, Nicola Daniere, straight out of Sicily.
The Sicilian heritage is strong in the food, Tanina DeWald said, with her family recipes dating back to the late 1800s. Mama T's, open since Nov. 15, is inside the Magic Mile shopping center at 5215 14th St. W., and offers dine-in, take-out, delivery and catering.
The couple wanted to have a mom- and-pop restaurant that offers affordable meals made from scratch, and you'll find that in dishes such as arancine, deep fried rice balls filled with ground beef, peas, Romano cheese and tomato sauce. Or the Buffalo-inspired roast beef on Kimmelweck, which is slow cooked beef put on a Kimmelweck roll dipped in au jus and topped with horseradish. The DeWalds do their own take on other items, such as calamari, which is sautéed instead of deep fried.
Tanina DeWald described the Caponata with passion, reciting her mom's instructions of how to prepare the green olives to go with the
cubed eggplant, extra virgin olive oil, celery and capers.
"According to my mother -- I love you mom -- you got to cut it off the bone," she said. "Don't buy them without the pit. You got to, as she calls it, cut on the bone, and you sit there and peel every piece of the green olive off and sauté them. You eat it cold, it's a cold appetizer."
It's those family memories with food customers back, Balluzzo said, including one Sicilian customer she met while delivering marsala.
"People just reminisce from the days with their grandparents, they expect that flavor and they find it here," she said.
Before tossing dough, the couple tossed around the idea of their next career move. Tanina and Robert DeWald have lived in the Bradenton-Sarasota area for 25 years and are originally from Buffalo, N.Y., where Robert's Irish heritage helped infuse a part of the menu. While in Buffalo, Robert DeWald once partnered with the late Nathan Benderson, who started Benderson Development. Benderson partnered with DeWald to expand Canadian baking franchise Buns Master Bakery in the Buffalo market during the 1980s, he said.
Eventually, Robert DeWald transitioned to a job in the investment industry and during the Great Recession turned to a roofing company that required travel for the last three years. Retirement finally fell into place last year, but the lifestyle was too slow.
"What are we going to do? When are we going to watch 'Oprah'?" Robert said of the biggest decisions during their retirement.
They were approached to buy the space of the former Joe's Pizza after the owner had to close because of health problems, and after some thought, they decided to unretire.
"We didn't have to do a thing to the place until my wife walked in," Robert joked. A fresh coat of paint, new look furniture and family pictures help make it their home away from home.
Fittingly, as the DeWalds start a restaurant from scratch, they do the same with the food.
"Everything we do is made here. Everything, other than macaroni," Robert DeWald said jokingly. "We don't have room to make macaroni."
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.