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The Good Don’t Always Die Young

By Lavender March 26, 2009

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Giovanna D’Agostino (Mama D), legendary restaurateur, author, and friend to all, died March 17 at 94. Raised in Northeast Minneapolis, she moved to Chicago after marrying Eugene D’Agostino. She lived there a quarter-century, learning to cook, working in a bakery, and raising three sons. After her husband’s death, Mama D returned to the Twin Cities, and began “helping out” in her son’s Dinkytown restaurant, Sammy D’s. She put her own special stamp on that establishment.

Mama D loved people: students, hippies, and the homeless, whom she fed; prisoners, whom she visited; and the well-to-do, whom she befriended—she cooked for Tony Bennett and his band whenever they were in town.

In the Pioneer Press obituary, son John D’Agostino recalled, “She would scold you and feed you and hug you and tell you she loved you….She made friends with everyone from all walks of life from the little guy to the big guy. To this day, customers come in and say, ‘Your mother fed me all through college.’”

Fulfilling a vow she made when her husband was dying, Mama D instituted a tradition—now in its 43rd year—of cooking and serving free meals to the needy on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. As many as 3,000 have partaken at a time. This year, son John served the meal from his St. Paul restaurant, Caffe Biaggio, on March 22.

Mama D’s concerns went beyond physical sustenance. She embraced the sanctity of all human beings, and was not afraid to step forward, even for the gay community.

In 1971, Jack Baker, an openly gay Law School student, was running for President of the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) at the University of Minnesota. Paul R. Hagen designed eye-catching posters for the campaign, one with Baker in high-heeled pumps. The other—so popular that it flew off the walls—was emblazoned: “Jack Baker Comes Out—For Things That Count!” In it, Baker stands proudly with his arm around Mama D, flanked by an American flag and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Baker holds a Bible and an apple pie, while Mama D, in a motherish apron, totes an adorable infant. (Baker won, and was reelected in 1972.)

Ken Bronson, in his 2004 article “A Quest for Full Equality,” notes that Baker was “surprised…when Giovanna D’Agostino appeared at the photo shoot. Owner of a local Italian restaurant, ‘Mama D’ had been a fixture on Campus Corner since returning home to Minneapolis in 1965. Hagen said Mama D agreed to help, with no reservation.”

I salute Mama D: a woman who embodied—whose spirit and legacy still embody—love in its broadest, most healing sense.

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