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Through fire and coronavirus, family-owned Italian eatery determined to survive

Posted at 4:26 PM, Mar 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-01 08:17:54-04

EUCLID, Ohio — When the dust finally settles from the coronavirus pandemic, many restaurant owners across Northeast Ohio will have to rebuild their businesses again. For one well known, family-owned Italian restaurant in Euclid, it will be the owners’ second rebuild in almost as many years.

Located at 711 Babbitt Road in Euclid, Mama Catena Vince e’ Cucina has been a fixture in Euclid for more than three decades. Offering traditional takes on classic Italian dishes, the restaurant has built a cult following and dedicated customer base. Started by Rina and Fran Catena’s Sicilian-born parents, the restaurant’s core mantra is that cooking keeps a family together. Everything that happens, happens around food.

“A meal for us is not just to sustain our way, it's a memory. That's what my parents have always done for us,” Fran Catena said. “It’s never just a plate of pasta and a piece of steak. It's a memory around that plate of pasta and piece of steak.”

Like their signature marinara over involtini, those memories have glazed over the restaurant since its inception. A series of photographs dot the front hallway of the restaurant, each one showing how it grew from just a couple of tables to a couple dozen. Seeing those photographs full of smiling patrons with food and drink in hand is a difficult juxtaposition to the now empty dining room.

“It hits you every time. In the morning you wake up and you say, ‘oh yea, this is happening,’” said Rina Catena. “You see from the windows the chairs that are up on the tables. I feel for everyone, everyone out there. But we are going to get through this, right?”

When Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton ordered the dining rooms in restaurants across the state to close amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it dealt a blow to restaurants big and small, including Mama Catena. Fran, Rina and the rest of the staff put the chairs on the tables and set out to deal with the unknown.

They are determined, however, and that determination comes from experience.

Three years ago, an electrical fire tore through the family business, rendering the kitchen, dining room and storage spaces completely unusable. A thick blanket of soot and ash wrapped around the restaurant. Fran and Rina stood in the fire-gutted space in May 2017, wondering what to do next.

“[Our parents] wouldn't want us to quit because they aren't quitting. We're not going to quit either,” Fran Catena said.

It was an 11 month struggle but eventually the restaurant reopened to the cutting of a red ribbon and a large crowd. Upon reopening in April 2018, the restaurant worked diligently to recreate the magic of the original space. The coronavirus pandemic comes as the operation had started hitting its stride, the Catenas said.

“I feel broken, especially since we just refinished and rebuilt it and re-did everything to bring this back,” Fran Catena said. “And then to see those chairs on the tables, it's just heartbreaking.”

The family’s last name, which is Italian for ‘chain,’ has proven to be a perfect description for the tightly-knit family unit. They are unbreakable.

“My goal throughout this is to actually give our customers at home the experience that we give them here... without us,” Rina Catena said as she let out a hearty laugh.

Offering a 15% discount on all take-out orders, the restaurant has ported its entire menu to carry-out. Fran and Rina have also come up with family-style to-go dining, which includes enough food to feed four people. To show gratitude to first responders, Euclid city employees and healthcare workers, the restaurant is also offering additional discounts.

As for its employees, the restaurant has converted its gratuity-based wait staff to hourly employees. The staff is part of the family too, the Catenas said.

Mama Catena is open Tuesday through Sunday.