It is hard to say goodbye after 11 years of serving food and seeing their customers’ happy faces, but it had to be done. Café di Roma owners Mary and Robert Jabalee had thought about retirement for a while. They first decided to close the doors of their restaurant in January 2021, then changed the date to December 2020.
This past August, Mary strained her back and although she recovered from her injury, she realized she is not getting any younger. She recently turned 70. “I’m healthy now. I don’t want to push it anymore. I want to have a slower pace and enjoy life more,” she said.
Mary will miss her customers whom she had a relationship with for so many decades, going back to the time when her parents Marco and Rosa Palumbo, opened Marco’s in Coronado. The restaurant was open for over 50 years starting in 1957. Mary, one of six siblings, recalls starting to work at her parents’ restaurant at the age of 12 in 1963. She first worked as a cook making salads and washing dishes. She continued working at the restaurant through her high school and college years. The Marco’s location moved three times over the years. It first opened where the Brigantine in Coronado is located now, then moved to the current Walgreens parking lot and the last place was at the now Tent City restaurant location.
After Mary married Robert Jabalee, he became co-manager of Marco’s. He had worked as a food service director for many years before joining the family. When Marco’s closed, the couple moved to Norman, Oklahoma and opened a restaurant called Marco di Coronado, and decorated the space with wine bottles that previously hung at Marco’s.
Although the restaurant was successful, the couple had an opportunity to sell the building and went for it. “We thought we were done with the business,” said Mary.
When the Jabalees returned to California they came across a closed Mexican restaurant in a shopping center in Imperial Beach and that prompted them to return to the restaurant business. Robert undertook the remodeling project. “It was kind of spontaneous,” said Mary.
The name Café di Roma came about from combining the first letters of the Jabalees’ first names, Robert and Mary, which coincidentally were the same letters as Mary’s parents, Rosa and Marco.
Mary said her sister Francesca inspired her to make more desserts and they were a big hit with customers. Mary made everything with love but found her customers especially loved some of her specials like Salmon with Angel Hair, her lasagna, manicotti and Chicken Marsala. Mary made all her pasta (except spaghetti) from scratch as well as salad dressing, sauces, breadcrumbs and focaccia.
Some of the art on the walls at Café di Roma came from Marco’s and the small dining room was cozy and intimate. Customers came from both Coronado and Imperial Beach and the restaurant’s popularity was through word of mouth. “We never advertised. It’s been so wonderful. I had never seen such beautiful people. I’m thankful. That’s what made it so sad,” she said about closing.
Because the restaurant was small, the couple did not take reservations and also had a big take out business. “Take out was cheaper and it only took 10 minutes,” she said.
The fact that the restaurant was already a popular take out place helped when COVID-19 hit. “We were surprised at how busy it was,” she said.
Mary’s sisters Margie and Francesca worked at Café di Roma at different times over the years and like Mary, they were also familiar with the customers who used to dine at Marco’s in Coronado.
When Café di Roma first opened it served lunch and dinner but after four years the Jabalees decided to concentrate on late lunch and dinner, finally settled on restaurant hours 4 to 7 p.m. Despite the fact that the restaurant was open for less time, the couple still worked nine hours a day.
As a special touch since the pandemic and to thank their customers for their loyalty, the Jabalees added a complimentary loaf of bread to take out orders as well as soups and salads. “We tried to make [the customers] feel special. It was a shock for people not to be able to eat in,” said Mary.
Mary said the city of Imperial Beach and Councilman Mark West were very helpful once the pandemic hit and allowing tables to be placed outside. “The city was wonderful and worked with us,” she said.
Mary felt loved and appreciated by her customers who often brought her gifts, once including a set of expensive kitchen knives. “In 11 years I’ve gotten a dozen red roses about eight times,” she said.
She will miss seeing her regular customers. “[The restaurant] brought up the beauty of people. We tried to give love in our food, service and atmosphere,” she said.
Mary has filmed videos of her recipes and posted them on YouTube so her customers can make the delicious dishes they used to order from Café di Roma. Check out Mary’s Café di Roma IB on Youtube to watch the cooking videos and learn how to make a basic marinara sauce, tiramisú and more.