UNIVERSITY PARK — There’s simply no way to separate Frank Scarpino from his food.
The Italian-born chef and owner of Mamma Onesti’s Italian Restaurant mixes his love for cooking into every sauce and spreads it across every plate.
“Every dish that goes out, it’s part of me going out,” Scarpino said.
And such has been the case since Scarpino opened his first restaurant in September 1982 in Sarasota. This month, the Mamma Onesti’s name is celebrating its 27th year in business as well as the one-year anniversary of its secondary location in the Shoppes of University Center, which opened Aug. 25, 2008.
“My passion for cooking is not this fancy thing people like to do,” Scarpino said. “I like to go back to my roots. I like to do the real foods.
“It’s the same recipes as 20 years ago,” he said. “The food is always the same. If it’s not on the menu (anymore), we can still make it. This is home cooking. We make everything when you order it.”
Customer favorites include authentic Italian dishes such as rack of lamb, eggplant parmesan and snapper francese, but Scarpino and business partner Laura Sergo have a few favorites of their own, including penne with cognac sauce and the penne portabella, among others.
“I have one (favorite) in every category,” Sergo said, chuckling. “The penne portabella — I feel like I’m in heaven when I eat that.”
Scarpino was introduced to the restaurant business in Italy by his father-in-law when he was just 19 years old. He’d tried many occupations over the years — everything from working in landscaping and construction to plumbing.
“When I was home, I always like to help in the kitchen,” Scarpino said. “When I started to work in the restaurant business, that’s when I found myself.”
Scarpino moved to the United States from Italy in 1977, working in New York and Philadelphia, among other locations, in the clothing business.
But in 1982, his future changed.
After moving to Sarasota, Scarpino followed the footsteps of his father-in-law and opened his first Italian restaurant, Nino’s, with his family on Sept. 21. Two years later, the name changed to Mamma Onesti’s in honor of Scarpino’s mother-in-law.
Sergo, who shares an Italian heritage, worked as a waitress at the restaurant for many years up until the Scarpino family sold it during the real estate boom in 2004. Scarpino decided to retire and headed back to Italy.
“He said he never wanted to see the back door again,” Sergo recalled, smiling. “He just wanted to come in as a customer. I knew that wasn’t going to work. I know him too well.”
She was right. About 18 months later, Scarpino headed back to the states, tracking down his longtime friend and employee. This time, he asked her to join him in business.
“My love is for cooking,” Scarpino said. “I said, ‘If you would concentrate on the front of the house, I would love to concentrate on my cooking,’ and that’s where we are.”
They opened their new Italian eatery in the Bradenton Commons plaza on Cortez Road in 2006 under the only name that seemed to make sense — Mamma Onesti’s Italian Restaurant.
“I grew up in that (name),” Scarpino said. “So many clients followed my food for so many years. People recognize the name.”
The duo has been going strong ever since.
Scarpino keeps busy in the kitchen, while Sergo manages the restaurant and tends to customers.
“We have fun,” Sergo said. “This is a tough business. You have to be passionate, (and we are).”
Scarpino said he is keeping his eyes open for a space to open a third location.
Contact Pam McTeer at [email protected].
Mamma Onesti’s Italian Restaurant
Address: 8453 Cooper Creek Blvd., University Park
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday; and 3-9 p.m., Sunday
Address: 4625 Cortez Rd. West, Bradenton
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday; closed Sundays