She wasn’t even five feet tall and spoke little English, but Rosa Cirone, affectionately known to Lincoln Road diners as Mamma Rosinella, knew how to command a room with her big hugs and a kitchen with her legendary meatballs and marinara.
“There is a reason everybody called her Mamma,” said close family friend Howard Srebnick, who has known Cirone’s family of Miami Beach restaurant entrepreneurs for more than 20 years. “What was remarkable was that she was able to develop a relationship even though you didn’t share the same language.”
Mamma Rosinella, the kitchen matriarch behind the Rosinella restaurants on South Beach and Brickell, died suddenly Monday from heart failure. She was 82.
She presided over a restaurant group that got its start in 1993, when son Tonino Doino opened Sport Cafe with brother Paolo in a rundown section of Washington Avenue that was known more for its crime than for its cuisine.
A month after opening up shop, the brothers decided what the restaurant was missing was their parents.
So Mamma and Papa Antonio Doino — it is Italian tradition that the woman does not take her husband’s last name — packed their bags and headed to what they soon dubbed “paradise.”
Tonino Doino, the couple’s third oldest son, remembers from childhood how hard his mother worked to feed a family that had little money.
“She was up at 4 a.m. cooking pasta for my father before he left for work,” he said. “She was always cooking.”
Doino quickly took on his mother’s passion for food and cooking. At 21, a job with Princess Cruise Lines brought him to the United States. The brothers worked as waiters and chefs in different states including New York, but they loved to visit Miami Beach.
“It was a different world for them,” said Peter Saliamonas, general manager of the restaurants and a close family friend.
Rosinella quickly made Sport Cafe’s kitchen her home. She whipped up homemade gnocchi, ravioli, eggplant parmigiana and spaghetti pomodoro. She always used fresh vegetables, fresh garlic and fresh herbs before they became trendy.
Sport Cafe was highly popular in its early years, but the Beach’s dining and nightlife center was shifting to Lincoln Road. The brothers operated both, plus the Brickell Rosinella, for several years before closing Sport Cafe in 2004 to focus on Rosinella.
The brick-walled cafe with tiny kitchen and outdoor cafe seating has thrived for 16 years near what was the Lincoln Theatre and is now H&M.
Till the end, Mamma Rosinella would start her day at 9 and stay as long as 12 hours, first cooking then visiting with her sons at a table in the corner. She was there almost every day, Saliamonas said — including the night before she died.
Born Nov. 29, 1930, in the small southern Italian town of Palazzo San Gervasio, Mamma Rosinella grew up on a farm with her three siblings.
In her early 20s, her brother, who was working a construction job in Rome, found the man that his sister would marry. The marriage was arranged and she moved to Rome, and the couple had five children. Doino died in 2011 after more than 50 years with Cirone.
Doino said the family was able to capitalize on her cooking skill by offering food she would cook in her own kitchen. Despite the language barrier, she managed to run the kitchen and the dining room, teaching cooks how to make fresh pasta and soups.
“Mama cooks like no other,” Doino said in a 1999 Miami Herald article about the family. “Her food is so good we used to run home from wherever we were for dinner.”
The family lives in several units of the same Collins Avenue apartment building. Only the couple’s daughter Rosanna still lives in Italy.
Mamma Rosinella may be gone, but Saliamonas said she is a permanent part of the restaurant’s culture. The walls are adorned with photographs of her wielding kitchen utensils and carrying bushels of tomatoes, always with a smile.
“Everything about that restaurant is her,” Saliamonas said. “The way we operate. The way we think. Everything is reflection of her character.”
Rosa is survived by sons Paolo, Roberto, Tonino and Luciano; daughter Rosanna; and eight grandchildren.
A service will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Levitt-Weinstein Chapel, 720 71st St., Miami Beach.