MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — On the surface, there’s nothing all that surprising to have painted portraits of an Italian mom and dad inside St. Paul’s Caffe Biaggio.
“She was the mama of the neighborhood,” said John D’Agostino, talking about his mom Giovanna.
She was legendary in the Twin Cities during the ’70s, as the owner of her homestyle Italian restaurant in the Dinkytown neighborhood.
“We used to joke that we should be a non-profit because she was giving away so much food to the University students,” D’Agostino said.
“Mama” wrote a number of cookbooks, her antipasto salad with prosciutto and Italian beef was featured in Better Homes and Gardens, and she got booked as a guest on the old Mike Douglas show.
“And she met Tony. They hit it off right away, they became best of friends,” he said.
“Tony” is Tony Bennett. The legendary singer, with 19 Grammy Awards, became friends with the tiny restaurant owner in the Twin Cities.
“Every time his band — when they were not as successful — came to town we would feed them. He called my mother his mom,” D’Agostino said.
Years ago, Bennett asked John D’Agostino to mail him a photo of his mom and his dad.
“About eight months later, UPS showed up at my door with two paintings: one of my father, one of my mother,” he said.
The signature on the bottom of each painting reads “Benedetto,” Tony’s original family last name. As a child growing up in Astoria, New York, he dreamed of being a painter. Today, Oprah Winfrey owns one of his pieces, three original artworks are part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution, including his portrait of Duke Ellington.
And two of his originals hang over this nearly two decade old St. Paul restaurant.
“I cooked for him on many occasions; he came in and said, ‘What smells so good?’ I said it was our Italian sausage. He said, ‘I’m a vegetarian, you think I could have a little piece?’” he laughed. “I still don’t call myself a chef, I call myself a cook.”
Spend one meal in Caffe Biaggio, and you can see why Tony Bennett had such a connection to the food. Friendly service, a family atmosphere, and ridiculously good food.
“I worked for his mother,” said Shari Breed, D’Agostino’s business partner and the main creative force behind Biaggio’s menu items.
Her braised lamb shank is a monster — juicy, flavorful, and on the menu year-round.
“We used to take it off the menu in the summer, but people were upset,” Breed laughed.
In the summer, they get zucchini flowers from the farmers market and stuff them with a combination of cheeses. Breed created a goat cheese torta, layered with fig jam and pesto.
Caffe Biaggio is Italian food that’s Tony Bennett approved, with “Mama D” always watching and always smiling.
Tony Bennett is performing at the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, July 28 at 7 p.m., and D’Agostino said he’s ready to serve.
“I hope he’ll come let me cook for him again,” he said.
2356 University Avenue West
St. Paul, MN 55114
Open Monday-Thrusday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Closed Sunday