Italian restaurants are family affairs, and Mary’s, one of the oldest Italian restaurants continuously running in Tulsa, is no exception. Just walk around the old brick building and in through the back door – all the regulars do – and see why. In the tiny, spotless kitchen, you’ll find (if you’re lucky) owner Bruce Sternad stirring the long-simmering marinara. Everything you eat at Mary’s Italian Trattoria is cooked by Sternad, his wife, Sherry, or their son. Ahead is the bright, pleasant dining area. The walls, a welcoming gray pastel, are barely visible – every inch is covered with framed portraits and memorabilia, all family relics.
Sherry Sternad’s face lights up when you ask about the portraits.
“That’s my great-great-grandpa on his wedding day,” she says, pointing to a proud yet somewhat terrified-looking young man in one of the photos. “That was back around 1875. Now over there is my great-aunt Christina’s christening gown, and right next to it is my great-grandmother’s wedding gloves and shoes. Those doilies on the tables? My great-grandma crocheted them.
“And that old lady? She’s the only one not from our family,” Sherry Sternad continues. “When I was a girl I spent summers on my grandma’s farm just over the Kansas line. She was our neighbor, and I’d ride my pony over to see her.”
Aside from those pleasant Kansas summers, Sherry Sternad grew up overseas.
“My father sold mud,” she wryly says.
He was, in fact, a drilling fluids engineer, and wherever oil wells pierced the ground and needed “mud” to cool and lubricate the pumps, that’s where they lived – Libya, Iran, Australia, Singapore, Norway.[pullquote]There’ve been people who’ve traveled all over the world,” she says, “and they tell us our tiramisu is the best they’ve ever eaten.”[/pullquote]
“I was exposed to foreign cultures,” she says, “and meanwhile, I learned to cook from watching my mom.”
The last thing she expected was to end up running an Italian restaurant one day. When the Sternads moved to Tulsa, she looked for a part-time job and found Mary’s. This was around 1987, and in those days, Mary’s Italian Trattoria was run by an Italian woman named Mary, who learned all her recipes from her large family back in Providence, R.I. Working as wait staff, the Sternads bought the restaurant when its owner retired in 1991. Twenty years later, many customers mistakenly call Sherry Sternad “Mary,” but she doesn’t mind. Many of the dishes are still based on those original recipes, although, she says, “we’ve tweaked and improved them.”
Mary’s is a labor of love, heavy on the labor. Sherry Sternad does the prep work and desserts. She makes the salad dressing (a 19-ingredient secret recipe), she helps bake the bread, and she makes the sinfully fabulous tiramisu.
“There’ve been people who’ve traveled all over the world,” she says, “and they tell us our tiramisu is the best they’ve ever eaten.”
She supervises the front of the house, which means she knows most of the customers.
“Almost all of our customers are regulars,” she says. “Some come every week, and I make sure they have their favorite table. I’ve seen couples come in on their first date, and I’ve seen them a few years later when the man kneels and proposes marriage; and then I see them every year as they come here to celebrate their anniversary.”
The menu is classic Italian, and, like any classic, the selection hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s the champagne chicken – pounded cutlets with a rich, complex cream sauce, served with fettucine alfredo. It’s Sherry Sternad’s favorite, but she’s also proud of the eggplant parmigiana. Even the simplest dishes, such as spaghetti and meatballs, are memorable thanks to the delicious, hearty red sauce.
Back in the kitchen, Sternad and the couple’s son stay busy making the creamy alfredo sauce several times every evening. They crank the bulky old pasta machine to make homemade fettuccine. They stir the simmering Bolognese. They cook each dish to order.
“Our food is not fast food,” says Sherry Sternad, “and when we’re busy, it takes a long time … sometimes people get upset at the wait, but we just can’t compromise our quality.” 1313 E. 15th St., Tulsa. 918.585.2495