Mena Castriciano has the kind of warmness reserved for grandmothers and Italian mothers.
So, it only makes sense then that she is both.
But along with her heritage and lineup of little ones, Mena is so much more. A wife, a business owner, an entrepreneur, a sister, a survivor.
Mena is the epitome of the American Dream.
Immigrating to the United States — more specifically Lansing — at the age of 12 in 1960 from Cosenza, Calabria Italy, Mena spoke no English.
Attending St. Therese School and later Otto Middle School, she picked up the language quickly, making her a vital part of her family. As the oldest of seven, Mena stepped in as a caregiver to her six younger siblings, and also served as a translator to her parents, especially for her mother, accompanying her to doctor’s appointments and shopping and more.
When it came to food, however, Mena and her mother spoke the same language.
“My mom taught me to cook,” she said.
A seamstress by trade, Mena said her mother would often pull Mena aside and say “let’s make some meatballs.”
“She taught me all my life,” said Mena.
When Mena was 17 her cousin invited her to visit her bakery in Canada. Along with checking out the business, Mena’s cousin wanted her to meet an expert baker and someone special – Sostine.
“(She said) ‘come meet this guy he’s so cool,” said Mena, who admits Sostine wasn’t who she expected. “He’s a little guy. I wanted a guy — tall and good looking, but he was cute.”
The two talked a little and three weeks later Sostine paid a visit to Lansing to meet Mena’s family.
“They all loved him,” she said. And soon enough Mena followed.
“I said ‘God, I kind of like this guy,’” she said with a smile.
Mena has fond memories of their courtship including the times Sostine would pick her up from Eastern High School. The two married in 1968 — one year after Mena and her father became US citizens.
“We’re proud to be American” said Mena.
Like the rest of her family Mena and her new husband settled in Lansing.
A butcher by trade, Mena’s father had always dreamed of having his own shop in the US, when he spotted a business — Frank Antonio’s — for sale on Erie Street in Lansing he encouraged the newlyweds to make the investment.
With the financial aid of Mena’s aunt, the couple bought the 1,200 square foot building. With Sostine’s excellent baking skills, the couple combined the imported foods already sold at the store with baked good created by Sostine and named it Roma.
“I love the name Roma,” said Mena.
Along with adding the bakery, Mena and Sostine began to expand the offerings at the store.
“I loved the idea of expanding to include other ethnic backgrounds, such as Greek and Middle Eastern,” said Mena.
Selling fresh baked bread, cannoli and Italian cookies, Roma began to grow in popularity. Mena, using recipes she perfected with her mom and grandmother began making and selling sauces, salads and more.
“I couldn’t help myself,” she said. “I like to cook.”
In the mid-1970s Roma moved it its current 5,500-square-foot space to accommodate their growing food and bakery selections.
The growth allowed Mena to teach others some of her cooking skills as well as learn from others.
“I love teaching my clients about Italian foods,” said Mena. “In return I found that I learned from them, what they liked and wanted to see more of, I also learned from my clients from different countries about their foods and their heritage.”
While growing the business, Mena and Sostine also grew their family welcoming their daughters Anne Marie (Dionise), Elisabeth (Vorce) and Little Mena to the family.
Given her love of cooking Mena began catering.
“I loved cooking so much that I also did some catering, up to 300 people at times,” she said.
A busy mom, cook and business owner Mena never hesitated to sit down and chat with customers and certainly never missed her Tuesday evening gatherings with her six siblings and mother which still continue at Roma today.
Five years ago, however, Mena’s busy world came to a halt when she suffered a stroke.
Mena was forced to relearn everything from walking to talking to relearning the English she worked so hard to learn back when her family first came to the US.
A woman of faith, Mena has persevered.
“God does so much for me,” she said.
Six months ago, Mena began driving again and despite the fact that she can no longer work, Mena doesn’t miss a day at Roma.
“I’m not this person who watches TV,” said Mena. “I love going to the bakery and visiting since my customers have become a family to me.”
Of course, no one is surprised by Mena’s accomplishments.
“She’s definitely a very strong woman,” said her daughter Elisabeth Vorce. “She’s a woman of faith.”
Growing up with a family business, Elisabeth said everyone worked hard.
“My mother and my father both instilled a good work ethic,” she said.
And as anyone who has met Mena knows, you don’t say “no” when she offers you food.
“She has to feed you,” said Elisabeth.
But no one is complaining.
“She comes from a line of great cook,” added Elisabeth. “It’s a talent.”
Although most say everything Mena makes is amazing, a family favorite — especially for her six year old grandson Matthew Vorce — are her meatballs.
“I love kids,” said Mena adding that every kid who steps foot into Roma is offered a free cookie.
Along with Elisabeth’s son Matthew, Mena and Sostine have a 7-year-old granddaughter Isabella Dionise and 22-month-old twin grandchildren Mario and Adriana Dionise.
Following a busy holiday season, Roma served up anywhere between 7,000 to 8,000 dozen packzi on Fat Tuesday and look forward to a busy graduation and Easter season followed by wedding season.
Although the two show no signs of slowing down, they do talk of selling Roma one day, but only to the right person.
“I’d love to see someone with the passion for the business be able to continue (Roma),” said Elisabeth.
Until then Sostine and Mena’s passion is enough to keep the tradition found at Roma strong.
“I love my customers” said Mena. “I love Roma bakery.”