By Anne Walker | Staff Writer
Mary Imeri, the owner of Baris, a popular Italian restaurant in Waco, passed away on Jan. 16. A native New Yorker, Imeri ventured to Texas to seek a location for her traditional, family-run Italian eatery.
“We were looking at actually somewhere else in Texas because we came from New York, and we had family members that were opening in Dallas and the Austin area,” Adem Imeri, one of Imeri’s sons that oversees the business said. “So she was driving around, and she went by Baylor. I think she spoke to a Baylor student, and they were telling her about all the restaurants in the area and my mom just fell in love with the school.”
Imeri’s love for the Baylor community did not go unreturned. She gained a loyal following of students who came to Baris for her affordable prices and returned for the restaurant’s home-like atmosphere.
Ridgeland, Miss., sophomore Grace Miller described Baris as somewhere she feels comfortable in the Waco community.
“When you walk in, Baris immediately feels like home,” Miller said. “Almost every time I go to Baris, I run into friends and it just feels like such an extension of the Baylor community.”
Adem said the emphasis on community, especially for college students, was important to Imeri.
“That’s why she never really raised the prices. It was for the students … she really fell in love with Baylor,” Adem said. “Her dream was her grandkids going to Baylor, too. They’re still young, so hopefully they do.”
Adem pointed out one of the restaurant’s walls, which is lined with pictures of families and kids. He noted that many Baylor students sent her pictures, even long after they graduated and moved away from Waco.
Along with her beloved cooking, Imeri will be remembered for her kindness and giving nature.
“Her personality was just caring and giving. Nothing meant more to her than helping somebody … She never judged nobody, no matter what your place was in life or how bad you were doing,” Adem said. “She always gave you the benefit of the doubt.”
Miller said the atmosphere of the restaurant matches the description of the woman who founded it.
“I’ve heard that Baris is just a reflection of her as a person — warm, inviting, hospitable,” Miller said.
The restaurant was her “pride and joy,” according to her son. She cherished every opportunity to pour herself a coffee and talk to her customers. Even after she became too sick to visit the restaurant, she fretted over her customers. She frequently called her son, reminding him to hug the regulars for her.
According to her son, Imeri told her family, “I want it open. This restaurant stays the same. I don’t want you to change nothing.”
“So she made us promise no matter what, even when she passed … do not close the restaurant,” Adem said.
While “Mama Baris” may not greet customers at the cash register anymore, her presence will live on at Baris as her sons carry on the family business and customers continue to enjoy her trademark “pink sauce.”