Villa Sorrento: sauce, the song, and family memories
Sunday Italian suppers were a weekly occasion for the DePace family, and 3-year-old Mara spent many a weekend in the kitchen, elbow-to-elbow with her grandmother. After the meal, her Uncle Louie would insist, “Sing, Mara! Sing for all of us!” And indeed, young Mara was a lot more interested in voice lessons and singing than in slingin’ hash with grandma. What she didn’t know was that those hours in the kitchen would end up defining most of her adult life.
Growing up in north Wilmington, she sang professionally, even performing the national anthem for Delaware’s Minor League baseball club, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. It’s often said that the way to make a small fortune in the music industry is to start out with a large one, and as a single mother of two boys, Mara needed that proverbial “day job” to supplement her musical career.
She learned early on that when it comes to quality Italian food, “It all starts with the sauce.” The skills she picked up from her grandmother came in handy as she began to learn the restaurant business by busing tables, handling takeout and constructing subs and pizzas. Mara lent her growing expertise to the erstwhile pasta and burger peddler H.A. Winston and the fine-dining icon Mendenhall Inn in the Brandywine Valley. She quickly learned that there’s more to the food business than folding tortellini under grandma’s watchful eye.
She hit the jackpot the day she met her business partner and mentor Tony Causi. Tony is a seasoned restaurateur and master chef, and together they envisioned a place where she could cook all the old-world traditional recipes from her grandmother, and at the same time incorporate her singing into the concept. Sound like a good idea? Well, most everybody who’s been to Villa Sorrento in Lewes seems to think so.
Villa Sorrento is Tony’s 34th restaurant venture. He installed his prized chef from one of his Long Island eateries, and Mara asserts that “everybody tastes that New York/New Jersey flavor.” What does she bring to the table? In her words, “that feeling of family - of a Sunday afternoon.” In my words, her smiling face and her beautiful voice.
Mara credits Causi with being the “mastermind behind the kitchen,” and she spends most of her time in front-of-house (restaurant-speak for the room where the customers are chowin’ down). But she is not at all shy about venturing into the kitchen to make sure all is well. She says she knows “the guys are doing it right when it smells just like grandma’s.”
It’s not unusual to walk into Villa Sorrento on a busy Saturday night to find a restaurant full of guests singing Dean Martin’s, “When the moon hits your eye like a big-a pizza pie, that’s amore!” Though the scene is certainly indicative of Mara’s passion for food and music, it could also be testament to the fact that Villa Sorrento has a full liquor license.
Mara’s classically trained pipes can easily fill the tiny restaurant. If a guest asks her to sing for a special occasion, she always obliges. But she rolls her eyes, smiles and tells me, “I don’t want to blast everybody every night.”
But I’ll never forget one busy night last fall. A woman, obviously well into her 80s, was celebrating a birthday. Mara made her way to the table, took the woman’s hand, and started to sing softly in Italian. Far from hitting your eye like a big-a pizza pie, the haunting melody brought total silence to the jam-packed room. People sat transfixed as she looked into the woman’s eyes and serenaded her.
The rousing ovation that followed was obviously in celebration of Mara’s impromptu birthday concert. But could it be that in her heart, she was singing to her grandmother? After all, it was her inspiration that brought Mara to that fall evening when cherished recipes, a crowded restaurant and music combined to create a moment that at least one guest would still remember a full year later.