When she saw Natalie Carbone Mangini on the television screen, a woman watching "What's My Line" told her husband "I know her line. She's a waitress at Carbone's." The long-time customer almost fell over when she learned Mrs. Mangini was also a nuclear chemist.
"I couldn't wait to come back from vacation and holler at you," she later said to Mrs. Mangini. "You never told me." Mrs. Mangini countered with, "What did you want me to say? 'I'm a nuclear chemist. May I take your order?' "
Mrs. Mangini, who will turn 84 next month, continues to wow customers at the family-owned Crabtree restaurant in Westmoreland County, where she began working in the kitchen as a child. Now a greeter, "I'm just a pretty face out here," she said with good-natured verve.
She also closes up the drawers and balances the books at day's end, added admiring daughter and restaurant manager Natalie Stefanick, one of the four children for whom Mrs. Mangini left her position of nuclear chemist. She was the first woman to hold the title of scientist at the Westinghouse Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory where she worked on the reactor for the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear submarine.
Mrs. Mangini received a chemistry set from her parents when she was 10 or 11 and began making fireworks and burning holes in the rugs, Mrs. Stefanick said. "They started it all," Mrs. Mangini said. "They were very progressive. At that time, girls didn't go to college and they permitted me to go to college. And they didn't mind my being a chemist."
She attended Seton Hill College, where white gloves, stockings and a hat were worn to class and women were supposed to act properly. "We were one of the last naive generations. After that, it broke loose," Mrs. Mangini said.
During her decade at Westinghouse from 1950 to 1960, Mrs. Mangini published several scientific papers and traveled to other nuclear facilities such as Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago and Chalk River in Ontario, Canada. She is listed in "Who's who of American women" and in "Who's who in atoms." The plant was a secret operation, she said, and workers had to pass a security clearance. Certain things were classified and she still doesn't talk about them.
Because of her position, she would have been eligible to go on the Nautilus' "shake down cruise" but Navy policy forbade women on submarines. In 1986 her family surprised her with a trip to Groton, Conn., and a visit to the retired sub.
Mrs. Mangini said she enjoyed her time at Westinghouse and "never thought about being the only girl there."
But she knew she wanted a family and married Vincent Mangini in 1957. When she became pregnant in 1960, she quit because she was concerned about what radiation might do to the developing fetus. Even with that precaution, she endured a lot of anxiety until she delivered a healthy girl in January.
"When she was pregnant with my sister, they refused to buy anything for the nursery," Mrs. Stefanick said. Her mother had learned that a woman is born with all of her eggs and began to worry about the decade she'd worked at Westinghouse.
"My sister Vanessa was born at the end of January during a giant snow storm, and she was fine. But she had no clothes. They brought her home in baby doll clothes. It turned out that she's the smartest."
When she left Westinghouse, Seton Hill -- which presented her with a Distinguished Alumnae Award in 1994 -- invited Mrs. Mangini to teach, but she declined because she wanted to spend time with her children. She continued working at the restaurant and helping her husband with their business, Crabtree Oil Co., which they owned from 1966 to 1991.
The women are particularly proud of the restaurant, which celebrates its 75th anniversary next year. It serves a full menu of Italian specialities using family recipes.
In March, Carbone's sponsored its sixth annual Pasta Engineering Contest, which challenges county high school students to design the pasta bridge that will support the most weight. It was conceived by Mrs. Mangini's son, Vincent, and is now held at Saint Vincent College, having outgrown Carbone's. The winning bridge this year supported 109 pounds and was designed by two girls, Mrs. Mangini said proudly.
Carbone's Restaurant and the family have "been involved forever" with the annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel Festival at nearby St. Bartholomew Church, Mrs. Stefanick said, as parishioners, volunteers and providers for the food booth. The festival begins today and continues through Sunday, including a 10:30 p.m. Saturday fireworks display. The restaurant will close at 8 p.m. Saturday. Parking vouchers will be available for diners to receive a refund from the Crabtree volunteer firemen who collect parking fees on fireworks nights as a fundraiser.
Asked about prioritizing life choices, Mrs. Mangini said "Women shouldn't have any restrictions. I think you can do anything you want to do. Just so you do things well."
"I've had a very good life. I enjoyed being a scientist. I enjoyed being a mother. I enjoyed working at the restaurant."
Mrs. Mangini's grandmother, Suzanna Bodnar, was born in the mid-1800s in Czechoslovakia and also worked in the food industry. Her family arranged a marriage to a man she didn't love. "She agreed to marry him, but said she would never be his wife, meaning she would not sleep with him," Mrs. Mangini said.
Her grandmother found a job cooking for a baroness and saved enough money to buy a divorce and a ticket to America. "So I come from good stock!" Mrs. Mangini said with an impish smile.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.