There’s Something About Mary’s

By on March 7, 2014

It’s easy to fall in love with Mary’s. Why did I wait so long?

Marys Champagne Chicken

I used to think that Italian cooking is inseparable from family tradition, that you can’t cook Italian food with passion and soul unless you learned as a child at your grandma’s knee. I’ve been to a ton of Italian-American restaurants in places like Brooklyn, and in each one the family that ran it could trace the recipes back to a great-grandmother somewhere south of Naples, to hard-working grandparents who braved the ocean to come to America. Usually their portraits would be staring down from the walls of the dining room.

Marys Interior

Now Mary’s is full of century-old photos and enough antiques to fill a small museum. I always assumed that they were picked up in thrift stores or maybe a garage sale. WRONG! Every one of those photos depicts an ancestor of the owners, Sherry and Bruce Sternad. One, a proud lady dressed in the sort of long dress you’d expect to see if your time machine zapped you back to 1875, stares at me with a fierce glare. “She’s my grandfather’s grandmother,” says Sherry. “She’s Cherokee.” Sherry is Oklahoma through and through. Over in a corner, the photos are different. Dapper 1920s gents and ladies, looking like some of the Great Gatsby’s cronies. “That’s my husband’s family,” says Sherry. They’re from California. He’s really shy.”

I learned that first-hand. Oklahoma Magazine sent me to interview the Sternads for an upcoming article. That’s what got me to return to Mary’s. So I walked in, and Mary wasn’t there, and I saw her husband Bruce in the kitchen, putting the finishing stirs on the long-simmered marinara sauce. I tried to interview him. He wouldn’t do it! He’s a nice guy, but, as I said, very shy. And very busy. Because, and this is important enough to put in caps, EVERYTHING YOU EAT AT MARY’S IS MADE FROM SCRATCH BY BRUCE OR SHERRY OR THEIR SON. Now that’s a REAL family restaurant. It also means that if you come when the place is full, as it often is, you might have to wait a long time for your meal. Each order is prepared by Bruce individually. It’s worth the wait.

Fortunately Sherry showed up a few minutes later. She’s a friendly person, a delight to be with, and she rapidly put me at ease. She told me about each of the photos, and I put the details in my Oklahoma Magazine article. I want people to read that, so I won’t put the details here. Except to say that the intricate hand-sewn doilies on each table were crocheted many years ago by her great-grandmother. She also filled me in on Mary’s history. It’s the oldest continuously-running Italian restaurant in Tulsa and the oldest restaurant on Cherry Street. Oscar and Mary Bynum used to run an Italian restaurant called the Brasserie out on the West Side and sometime around 1980 they opened up Mary’s on Cherry Street. Mary Bynum was Italian, from an Italian-American family in Rhode Island. Many of her recipes are used in Mary’s today. Sherry started working as a waitress around 1987. Bruce and she fell in love with the place and, a few years later when the Bynums decided to retire, ended up owning it. The Bynums left the place with a drab, generic decor — a few travel posters — and Sherry had so many heirlooms that she had no place to store them, and so the idea for Mary’s wonderful decor was born. I’m sure Sherry’s great-aunt never expected her christening dress to be hanging on a wall. “It’s not Italian,” says Sherry, “but it’s something.” Indeed.

Marys One Wall

Now Sherry did indeed learn cooking at her mama’s knee, so she was a born cook and modified and improved Mary’s original recipes and ended up with what you have today.  The menu hasn’t changed in a long time and that’s fine with me. First comes the warm crusty homemade bread.

MarysBread

Then there’s salad with the secret-recipe dressing Sherry whips up. And then the entrees. I asked Sherry what her favorite was and she told me Champagne Chicken. It was so beautiful I put the photo on top. So here’s another.

Marys Champagne

Thinly pounded chicken breast, and the rich, creamy sauce was utter delight. I’m not sure it’s traditional Italian… but who cares? Alongside, long chewy fettucine which Bruce makes using an antique hand-cranked pasta machine. The fettucine and lasagna are made like that. The ravioli are hand-made for Mary’s by a small supplier, and the other pasta is regular dry pasta. It’s all good, but of course the fettucine, in its silky-smooth Alfredo sauce, is the best. Magen — as always, she took most of these photos — opted for chicken parmigiana.

Marys Chicken Parmigiana

That’s a good choice too. The chicken breading is softer and less crisp than I’m used to. The tomato sauce is wonderful. You can see it on the fettucine. Cathe ordered a whole plate of spaghetti with that rich red sauce and she was ecstatic. “One of the best tomato sauces I’ve ever tasted!” she enthused. The parmigiana and the piccata are among the most popular dishes, Sherry told me. Betty ordered the piccata.

MarysChickenPiccata

That’s fine too, though of them all I definitely would choose the Champagne. And then dessert. Mary’s is famous for their tiramisu. Lots of people, even sophisticated world travelers, say that Sherry makes the world’s best tiramisu.

Marys Tiramisu

As it happens, I am a sophisticated world traveler, and I can’t dispute them.

Mary’s Italian Trattoria
1313 E 15 Street
918-585-2495
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 AM to 2 PM (limited lunch menu) and from 5 PM to 9 PM.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Marys-Trattoria/

Brian Schwartz

About Brian Schwartz

Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola. “A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.

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