Above: Duets—pairings of two popular dishes on one plate—are big sellers at Mama’s Cafe Baci. This vegan version combines its Eggplant Fresco and Aglio Olio.
Mama’s Cafe Baci in Hackettstown, New Jersey, is known for its attention to different dietary needs, and its dedicated vegan menu is more popular than ever. “We’ve been doing vegan for at least seven to eight years, but the menu really took off three to four years ago,” reports manager Sheri Riva. “Our owner, Tom Schiano, is a trendsetter! We started doing vegan even before it became so popular, as people are eating more naturally now and changing their diets.”
In the Vegan Pisa Amato, penne is tossed with eggplant, spinach, artichokes, portobello mushrooms, roasted peppers and a balsamic-based sauce.
Meeting Diner Demands
As part of its commitment to accommodating a variety of special diets, the team at Mama’s Cafe Baci offers several different menus in addition to vegan, including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian. These efforts help ensure that every member of the family feels comfortable. “Tom likes to cater to all, and there’s a large market out there for vegan foods,” Riva explains. “It can be hard for some people to go out to dinner when everyone has different tastes and needs. Now, people who are vegan can eat with someone who’s gluten-free and someone who doesn’t have any restrictions. It allows families to come out and dine together.”
In addition, Riva says, vegan customers enjoy enlightening their non-vegan dining companions by sharing food with them—while non-vegans appreciate joining their vegan friends on neutral ground. “A lot of vegan restaurants are only vegan, so they might not attract non-vegan clientele, but a lot of our menu is vegan-friendly,” Riva notes. “We’ve had vegan guests tell us in the past: They like that they can bring guests who aren’t vegan. They can get them to try more items that are vegan—because their friends often had the wrong image in their mind of what vegan is. So vegans love for people to try their food. And we have a dairy-free menu now also, which goes hand in hand with vegan.”
Through much experimentation, chefs at Mama's Cafe Baci crafted the perfect vegan vodka sauce to pair with penne.
An Evolving Menu
At Mama’s Cafe Baci, vegan options are constantly growing and evolving, often spurred by vegan guests’ requests, which may inspire the chefs to play around with a new vegan ingredient. Sometimes, entire dishes emerge, like the Vegan Scallops, made from large, meaty king oyster mushrooms that are marinated to soften into a scallop-like texture, then seared—all served over a mixed green salad with citrus vinaigrette.
But despite the vegan menu’s success, the staff believes there’s always room for improvement. “Our vegan vodka sauce that we serve now wasn’t our first recipe,” Riva explains. “We always say, ‘We can make it better, we can make it better.’ We’re always experimenting to make it the best it can be.” Today, the highly refined Vegan Penne Vodka is a top seller, along with the hearty Luigi’s “Old School”—rigatoni tossed with homemade red sauce, vegan meatballs and vegan sausage, topped with dairy-free cheese.
The Vegan Polpette appetizer features vegan meatballs topped with housemade marinara sauce, plus vegan ricotta cheese for dipping.
The restaurant combines its made-in-house items with carefully sourced premade ingredients. “First, we try to make it ourselves, like we do with our vegan vodka sauce,” Riva notes. “If we can’t do it in the restaurant, or we don’t feel ours is the best product out there, we research—go to different companies and get samples of different types of vegan meatballs or vegan sausage. Also, vegans are a community, and the vegan knows everything about being vegan—so we’ll actually ask those guests what they find to be the best products, and we research from there. A guest might say, ‘You should try this brand,’ and we’ll go out and buy it to try it in-house and see if it works for us.”
Today, Riva adds, customers who aren’t even vegan may order the vegan sausage for its great taste, which bursts with flavor from a blend of eggplant, fennel seeds and sundried tomatoes. The restaurant also carries vegan ricotta cheese and fresh mozzarella from The Little Eggplant, an artisan vegan cheese maker in West Orange, New Jersey. “The owner is vegan herself, and the cheese is out of this world,” Riva says. “They really take pride in the product, and we like to support local businesses as well.”
Eggplant Siena, with spinach and garlic, is served with rigatoni, housemade red sauce and dairy-free cheese.
Doing Vegan Right
For other restaurants looking to add vegan dishes (or create full vegan menus), Riva stresses the importance of dedication. “They have to do it right—restaurants may think vegan or gluten-free is easy, but you can’t cut corners,” she says. “The trust factor is huge for vegans. You have to respect the guests and the way they want to eat.” So, for example, chefs must avoid cross-contamination in common areas like the fryer or grill—ensuring that vegan offerings stay 100% animal-free behind the scenes.
Catering to vegans may require extra attention to detail, but Riva and her team have found that going the extra mile is worth it. Mama’s Cafe Baci now has a loyal following of vegan customers. “People travel for more than one hour to get here—vegans have a community, so once you have a good vegan restaurant, they tell everybody about it,” Riva says. “These customers are so happy we do it right, care about them and respect how they eat, which is so important to them. People would be shocked at how much vegan business we do here!”
A full vegan dessert menu offers sweet treats like cannoli and cookie dough cheesecake.
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