PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The Olympic dream is a roving fantasy. It can drift to a Wyoming dairy farm, whisper in the ear of Rulon Gardner, the youngest of nine children, and take him to Australia to defeat the world’s greatest Greco-Roman wrestler. It can visit Mhardeh, Syria, and convince Ghada Shouaa, a basketball player, that heptathlon gold is her destiny. It can penetrate royal haughtiness and transform the likes of Count Hermann Alexandre de Pourtalès of Switzerland into an Olympic champion.
Over the past 22 Winter Olympics and 28 Summer Games, the ubiquity of this great aspiration has been manifested time after time. You can make it here from anywhere, it seems.
Including a little Italian restaurant in northwest Florida.
Especially a little Italian restaurant in northwest Florida.
Let’s write about pizza and pasta today.
“Food is happiness,” U.S. speedskater Mia Manganello said. “Isn’t it?”
Manganello, 28, is a first-time Olympian from Crestview, Fla., a town of about 20,000 proudly nicknamed Hub City because it feels as though every highway in the American South converges there. She’s not a star. She’s not a medal favorite. She does have her name on an eating establishment.
Dominic and Karen Manganello opened Mia’s Italian Restaurant when their daughter, their only child, was a toddler. They owned it for 13 years before selling it and moving to Ocala, a central Florida town 330 miles away, because Mia needed better training. Mia grew up at Mia’s. She had her own corner at the restaurant. She did homework in her corner, watched television in her corner, played Nintendo in her corner. As customers entered and exited, they would crane their necks and say hi to the charming girl. When Mia was hungry, she would go to the back of the kitchen and make lunch. She assisted the waitresses and eventually learned to operate the cash register.
“The restaurant was my first home, probably,” Mia said. “I had everything but a bed there, really. And even then, it was pretty darn close because the little couch in my corner was comfortable.”
The restaurant was a humble place off South Ferdon Boulevard. Nothing fancy, something good. It was one of those essential local spots, where families felt comfortable grubbing at dinner and a busy lunch run defined the day. Dominic, the family’s free spirit, loves the artistry of cooking and challenge of creating something new. Karen, the precise one, can make “the prettiest pizza you’ve ever seen,” Mia said. The daughter inherited a bit of both their cooking genes.
Because of the business, the Manganellos didn’t have a traditional schedule, but they’re a close trio. When the parents realized Mia was a gifted athlete, they dedicated themselves to her athletic dreams. They moved to Ocala and Salt Lake City during her long and difficult journey. They aren’t rich, but they supported her as best they could.
When Mia didn’t make the long-track U.S. Olympic team in 2010, she left the sport at age 20 and took up professional cycling for six years. Her parents kept encouraging her. They also returned to food. They moved back to Florida and opened a new restaurant, Dominic’s Pizzeria, in Valparaiso, about 20 miles from Crestview. If they ever open a third spot, it must be named after the mother, right?
“Maybe a little breakfast shop,” Mia said, laughing. “Karen’s. It would be good.”
When Mia qualified for the Olympics by finishing third in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. trials, she cried while straining to finish the race. The tears were in anticipation of a dream about to be fulfilled. They also were for her journey, which included numerous narrow misses, a sport change and a dramatic recommitment. And they were for her parents, whom she considers “the sole reason I am where I am today.”
Within seconds of meeting Mia, you understand how growing up in the service industry benefited her. She’s a bubbly personality, a natural conversationalist. She reads people quickly. She wants to please; in an interview, she needs confirmation that she answered your questions properly. Some athletes can be uncomfortable with attention. Some are spoiled. Mia seems like a lifelong friend.
“For me, there are a lot of things that you can’t really name that you learn being in a restaurant,” Mia said. “Being surrounded by adults in a business setting, interacting with customers coming in, even running the register. And then being in the back, hands on, learning how to feed yourself. That’s life, right? Something about being there and learning these life lessons in the moment that you don’t realize is the best thing for you. I think back, and that’s when it really soaks in. It’s just second nature to me.”
At Mia’s, Mia learned discipline. She learned to balance doing your job and contributing to the team. She learned, from her father, to love pepperoni and onions on her pizza. She learned that cooking keeps her calm.
For some, growing up in an Italian restaurant might turn them off that kind of food. Not Mia. She’ll always love pizza.
“I work out to eat, right?” Mia said. “I don’t really discriminate. I love all kinds of pizzas. As an athlete, you have to be tricky with it. Now, I just have to be more strategic about it. I don’t think it’s healthy to avoid things altogether. I think you just burst and have 12 pizzas. After a hard day’s work — I mean, we’re burning thousands of calories — I can afford to eat pizza. There’s definitely a time and place for every joy of food.”
Mia gets sentimental about Chinese food because her family often ate it during holidays. They would go to a buffet because it was open, and they didn’t want to cook a big meal on a day off. Live in the kitchen, and simple indulgences can lead to nostalgia.
“We were always together,” Mia said. “We were a unique family, in the sense that my parents cooked for a living. But that was special. In business and life, my parents are yin and yang. They make a complete circle. You can’t have one without the other, and they make their world work. Together, they can rule the world.”
Now, Mia will try to rule her sport. Dominic and Karen won’t be there, though. They will be in Valparaiso, at Dominic’s, serving others, wishing to be with their only child. They will have two TVs tuned to the Olympics all day.
The dream followed the scent of baking bread and found the little girl who once occupied a small corner of a restaurant bearing her name. Wonder if the dream likes pepperoni and onions, too.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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