How did the arancini get to Baton Rouge? On the big ship Saturnia. Grace “Mama” Marino imported the Sicilian staple with her when she immigrated from Agrigento, Sicily, in 1958. Entering the United States through Ellis Island with her young children Frances and Gino, she joined her husband Vincent and son Laurence, who had arrived in advance. Mama served arancini to the hungry crowds at Gino’s, the family’s beloved restaurant that originated on Perkins Road by the overpass.
Traditionally a handheld street snack, arancini are named for their resemblance to small oranges. The little balls of rice, stuffed with good things and fried to a golden crisp, were so popular at Gino’s that people approached Mama to package and sell them. Mama refused with an adamant no. She did, however, agree to turn the street snack into a plated dish. “Can you tell Mama to put some red sauce on this?” Gino recalls the refrain. “You know, in south Louisiana everyone loves their sauce! That’s what they wanted, so that’s what we gave them.”
With lines snaking down Perkins Road, the 38-seat restaurant was bursting at the seams, especially since Mama could squeeze 42 people into the space. “She made it work with minimal equipment. That’s the beauty of it, but we needed to expand,” Gino says. “I didn’t know the restaurant business but I knew marketing, and we needed a bigger space. I’m so amazed at how much she did with so little.”
Fresh out of college at Southeastern Louisiana University, funded by a football scholarship, Gino passed on job offers to instead work at the restaurant. “I owed it to my family and myself to try the family business.”
Partnering with his brother Laurence, Gino scoured the city for a new location. In pursuit of a space with a nice kitchen that would seat 120, they took a chance on the 216-seater on Bennington Avenue that has been home to Gino’s since 1975. “We didn’t know about soft openings or systems back then,” Gino says.
Scaling up was a gamble that paid off. “We created a music series that took off like wildfire. I had pianist-composer Larry Sieberth playing in here every night. We packed the place. We’ve had some famous jazz musicians play in here. People don’t realize the history of this. I lost all my jazz musicians who relocated after Katrina.” The daily ritual may have faded, but the music still plays as a Thursday night feature, serenading the room filled with regulars.
As Gino’s popularity soared, national publications called for the recipes. “Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Southern Living. They wanted Mama’s recipes,” Gino says. “I begged her: Mama, please! She said no, emphasized with Sicilian sign language. No! I remember like it was yesterday.”
The recipe that is shared is the one for success: faith, family and friends. Mama cooked with love to please her people, and Gino, his sister Frances and his sons Vincent and Angelo continue the legacy. “We’re so blessed to have worked with her. My sons keep the kitchen to Mama’s standards. The way she ran this restaurant—she treated people like family. Every Saturday the staff lined up outside the office for payday after their shift. Mama would hand out each paycheck and say, ‘Look, baby, you did a beautiful job this week.’ She taught them the good and the bad, and she was there for them. We still do it this way.”
Gino pours his heart out in pure devotion to his mother, who passed away in 2017. “We had family meal during the 2 o’clock to 5 o’clock break. Mama wanted to sit down together as a family. This is her baby. This lady worked! She would come in at 7 o’clock in the morning. She almost cussed me out in Sicilian. She said, ‘7:30? You’re gonna make me late. You don’t understand.’ It was just her passion for this business.”
Gino says the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society was born right in this building. When the organization created its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, the first honoree was Mama—it was a unanimous vote—and the board members named the award for her. “We had to sit her down on a Sunday and tell her the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society wanted to honor her,” Gino says. “When she saw the ballroom at the Sheraton all dressed up, she couldn’t believe it. I can still see her face: ‘All of this for me?’”
Thus began the annual presentations of the Grace “Mama” Marino Lifetime Achievement Award, now celebrating its 15th honoree. This time Gino Marino himself was chosen as the latest recipient of the award named for his mother. The honor will be presented on June 16 at the Fête Rouge Award Dinner.
“I feel so incredibly lucky that the year I’m president of the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society, we are honoring Gino,” says Houmas House chef Jeremy Langlois. “We had to change the bylaws so a member of the board could be the recipient. He was a write-in on the ballot. He didn’t stop crying when we announced it—tears of joy.”
Langlois says he counts Gino as a close personal friend and holds his local culinary achievements in high regard. “He is the Baton Rouge Italian Wikipedia,” Langlois says. “When I was 17, I took my first date to Gino’s. The restaurant is a mainstay.