Calgary·Food and the City

Mercato's Mama Cathy loves and lives to feed people

Calgary Eyeopener food guide Julie Van Rosendaal catches up with Mama Cathy of Mercato on 4th Street and learns some of her old-school cooking secrets.

‘It’s not a day for me if I don’t cook’

Most days you'll find Mama Cathy in the kitchen at Mercato on 4th, and helping around the market. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

When I went to visit Mama Cathy, she sat behind the counter at Mercato on 4th Street stringing fresh yellow, green and red peppers to hang and dry – something you'd commonly see in windows in Italy. And she'd just finished a batch of pickled vegetables made using a technique her mom once used to preserve vegetables over the winter back when she didn't own a fridge.

"We used to preserve our own salamis, make our own prosciutto.... In the summer we'd grow our own vegetables, beans, and save them for the winter," Cathy says. "The first level of the barn was under the ground, we'd use it for storage."

Mama Cathy and her son Dominic, who owns Wurst and Bocce just down the road from Mercato on 4th.

Cathy Carraciolo – a.k.a. Mama Cathy – followed her new husband, Victor, from Southern Italy to Calgary in 1961, at the age of 19. She worked as a seamstress at a clothing factory in Inglewood, and Victor worked as a bartender at the original Hy's Steak House before they scraped together enough money to buy a small store in Bridgeland. There they sold local and imported groceries along with sausages and charcuterie, deli items and Italian dishes to the largely Italian community. Victor was the butcher, Cathy hand-made pasta, and the business hummed along for a good 30 years.

Their move to Mission was a bold one. Their son Dominic, who grew up working in the family store doing everything from slicing prosciutto to delivering groceries, brought his parents to 4th Street to sit on the street corner in front of what was then Tony Roma's. He wanted to prove its potential by showing them how much foot traffic went by. Cathy and Victor were eventually convinced that bringing an Italian market to the inner city was a good one. They added a coffee bar, and eventually, under Dominic's new ownership, expanded to include a full-service restaurant.

Soon after, their daughter Franca and son-in-law Peter opened a second location in West Springs, and Dominic expanded even further, opening Wurst a few blocks down and Bocce across the street.

You'll still find Cathy and Victor in the kitchen at Mercato on 4th, and helping around the market. With their own family grown and busy, their customers have become a sort of extended family she loves to cook for.

"It's not a day for me if I don't cook," she says.

"Forever," she laughs when I ask how long she's been making fresh pasta. "I learned from the family, from the parents – it's how you grow up. Pasta was and still is the most important thing we cook."

Cathy also makes hundreds of pounds of gnocchi by hand for the restaurant in Mercato, and Bocce across the street. "Two parts potato, one part flour, not too many eggs," she says when I ask her gnocchi secret. She uses the same recipe she has always made, which she learned from her mom.

"Nothing is written down, it's all in here," she says, tapping the side of her head. She teaches the staff at Mercato how to make her family recipes by showing them, so that they can carry on the tradition. "My mom, her thing was, get up in the morning and prepare a big lunch," Cathy says.  "Every day everyone had to be at the table – it was the rule. That brings the family together – the table, and the food."

Fresh tomatoes in the market at Mercato on 4th. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

About the Author

Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.

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