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'REAL FOOD': How Kelowna’s Mamma Rosa Restaurant has survived for 40 years

Rosa with basil to make her pesto sauce.
Rosa with basil to make her pesto sauce.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Mamma Rosa

In a world where restaurants regularly come and go, Mamma Rosa Restaurant in Kelowna has survived almost 40 years by serving many of the same dishes it started with.

“It was just items mom cooked for us at home,” James Anfuso told “Slowly we learned how to make it so we could have a restaurant.”

His parents, Rosa and Giacomo, started the restaurant in 1984 from very humble beginnings and it became James’ life’s work.

“We stick to what we do best,” James said. “Just because the trend is having ravioli with squash in it, I’m not going to do that because that’s not a dish I grew up with. We’re not chefs. My mom never went to school. Never worked in a kitchen. So we do what we know. I’m not going to make a ravioli with squash because it’s popular. I won’t eat it. I don’t like it.”

Not only was Rosa no chef, she started working as a hairdresser at the age of 14 in Sicily. Giacomo began working as a welder there at the age of 11, putting in 12-14 hours a day with a half-day off on Sundays.

They emigrated to Canada where they worked in Vancouver for a time and vacationed in Kelowna.

“It started out that my parents were tired of living in Vancouver,” James said. “Dad was tired of the rain in Vancouver.”

So they moved to Kelowna and opened an ice cream parlour in the old Spall Plaza in 1981.

“It was the first of its kind,” James said. “We had homemade Gelato. We had the first espresso. People that knew what a cappuccino was would ask: ‘Why’s the coffee so small?’”

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That went well for the first year until the economy slowed down and the customer base dried up, even though Rosa started making lunch items. A rent increase forced them to close and Giacomo went back to welding.

In 1984, it was time to try again.

“Basically, all my dad’s life savings from working in Canada were gone and we had to roll up our sleeves and start over,” James said.

With the aid of an uncle, they rented a spot on the other side of Highway 97 where the Vietnamese Village now operates.

The whole family was thrown into the business since they didn’t have the money to hire staff. They slowly built up the business to the point where they needed more space.

Giacomo’s plan was to rent the neighbouring unit.

Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Mamma Rosa

Some time earlier, he had purchased a downtown building as an investment so, on the advice of his landlord (Lloyd Callahan who was also a customer), they moved downtown in 1993 where they had twice the space.

“Back in 1993, there was nothing downtown, not like today,” James said. “We were afraid to move downtown and then a lot of our customers said: ‘It’s so far to go down there’ or ‘you can’t find parking.’”

There was some basis for their concerns as it took a few years to build business up until they were filling all the seats, especially given the fact they had room for twice as many customers.

Mamma Rosa, in its original location, served lunch and dinner seven days a week for 12 years.

In the new location, that’s been cut down to five days a week for dinner only as it just got to be too much work for the family to run.

After losing everything, Giacomo’s plan was to no longer have “all his eggs in one basket,” a philosophy adopted by James in his turn.

“My plan was, I’m not going to put everything into a business and keep expanding that business,” James said. “I’m going to put my money in other things so, if the business fails, I don’t lose everything. That’s served me very well. You have to be happy with what you have rather than keep on expanding for more and more. More and more what?”

Giacomo, concerned for financial security, encouraged James to get a trade so he became an electronics technologist.

He plied that trade in Yellowknife for more than a year then returned to Kelowna to work in the same field.

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He started helping his mom out in the restaurant a few evenings to make extra money.

“Then it got to the point where I did not like going to my day job,” James said. “Even though I was actually making more money working during the day, I realized this is what I want to do.”

Over time, they cut down a too-large menu and stuck to the customer’s favourites that many come back for again and again.

“We have customers who maybe only try two items in 40 years,” James said. “That’s what they come back for. They want the spinach cannelloni.”

While there are other Italian restaurants in Kelowna, Mamma Rosa bills itself as the only “authentic” version.

“We make our pasta,” James said. “We make all our sauces. Pretty much 80% of the menu is hand-made. You cannot get this food anywhere else and it’s real. Real veal. Real pork. Real cheese. I don’t buy that precooked press chicken a lot of people buy. I buy fresh chicken and it’s all protein. No extra sodium. It’s about as healthy as you can get.”

James and Rosa making Ravioli on a Monday at Mamma Rosa.
James and Rosa making Ravioli on a Monday at Mamma Rosa.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Mamma Rosa

Giacomo, who died in 2003, also determined that portions were to be big enough to fill people up.

“Some restaurants in Italy, you’ll have a little bit of pasta,” James said. “Then you get your veal dish. You have to get your potatoes separate or your vegetables separate. We kind of thought, do it like you would eat at home. My dad goes: ‘I want to make sure they come and they’re happy and they’re full.’ My dad didn’t like to go to places where you leave and still are hungry. Our portions are probably bigger than most places. Not too many people eat the whole dish here. So many people take some home for lunch.”

After 39 years of making much loved dishes, James is looking towards retirement, which may mean a final end to Mamma Rosa (who, at almost 83, still helps in the kitchen a couple of mornings a week).

“I turn 55 this year,” James said. “I can’t see myself working until I’m 65. Life is short and you don’t know what’s going to happen. If someone buys it, great. If not, I’ll have a big party, invite my regulars, and that’s it.”

His daughters have gone into nursing so won’t be taking over the family business.

Since Mamma Rosa’s focus is on hand-made food, it’s not possible to hire someone and train them to do the same without going back to opening seven days a week for lunch and dinner, James said.

“If someone wants to buy the restaurant, when I put it up for sale, I may still work a few days a week if someone wants to take it over,” he said. “It’s a good business for a family, that’s for sure. But it’s not turnkey where you can just buy it and it runs by itself.

“I think our secret was, it’s how you would eat at home. We don’t do any chef tricks to try to make more money. If we make a cream sauce, it’s with cream. We don’t use a rue like other restaurants that put oil and butter to thicken up a sauce. We use whipping cream. Our alfredo is whipping cream, parmesan cheese and butter. There’s no fillers. It's real food.”

What he will miss, when the time comes to walk away, will be the long term repeat customers.

Some started coming as babies in high chairs, went to work there as students then returned with their own children.

“Christmas week, or whenever it’s a holiday, is the nicest time for us,” James said. “A lot of these kids come back to visit their parents and their favourite restaurant is Mamma Rosa so you now see these kids with all their grandkids. It’s very satisfying. It’s like, wow!”

When that time comes, it will bring mixed emotions.

“One day, when I close, it will be the best day and the worst day of my life,” James said. “This is my life.”

To view their menu and more, go here.

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