‘If music be the food of love, play on’
William Shakespeare might not have been Italian, but he had the right idea. Case in point: Sundays weren’t Sundays without the traditional Italian suppers at the DePace homestead in north Wilmington. Three-year-old Mara spent her weekends prepping the weekly feast with her grandmother, and still remembers her Uncle Louie exclaiming, “Sing, Mara! Sing for all of us!” Truth be told, young Mara was a lot more interested in music and voice lessons than slingin’ hash with grandma. But fate is fate, and those hours in the kitchen would end up defining most of her adult life.
But music was always there, and she even sang professionally for a while, including her memorable rendition of our national anthem sung for Delaware’s Minor League baseball club, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Not unlike the restaurant business, 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 Italian food, “It all starts with the sauce,” and the skills she picked up from her grandmother came in handy. She started at the bottom, bussing tables, packing takeout, and building subs and pizzas. No stranger to the kitchen, she applied her expanded knowledge not only to the erstwhile pasta and burger peddler H.A. Winston, but also the fine-dining Mendenhall Inn in Brandywine Valley. She had the wisdom to realize that there’s more to this business of eating than just folding tortellini under grandma’s watchful eye.
Mara hit the jackpot the day she met her former business partner (and still very good friend) Tony Causi. Tony is a seasoned restaurateur and master chef, and together they envisioned a place where she could dish up old-world recipes while incorporating her musical talents into the experience. Sound like a good idea? Well, most everybody who’s been to Villa Sorrento in Lewes seems to think so. And after 12-and-a-half years, they’re still going strong, currently open for lunch from 11 a.m. ‘til 2 p.m., and for dinner from 4 ‘til 9 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Dinner is served from 3 ‘til 9 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, and delivery is available through Deliveroso.
Early on, Tony installed his prized chef from one of his Long Island eateries as the boss of Villa Sorrento’s kitchen. 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 welcoming smile and her beautiful voice.
Mara credits Causi with being the “mastermind behind the kitchen” who helped create the concept at Villa Sorrento. Though she spends most of her time in front-of house (restaurant-speak for the room where the customers chow down), she is not at all shy about venturing into the kitchen to make sure all is well. She assures me that she “knows the guys are doing it right when it smells 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, “That’s Amore.” Though the group-sing of “When the moon hits your eye like a big-a pizza pie” certainly indicates Mara’s passion for food and music, it could also be testament to the fact that Villa Sorrento has a full liquor license.
Her classically trained pipes grace the tiny restaurant on a regular basis. 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.”
A few times on the radio I’ve recounted this story of one memorable evening at Villa Sorrento. I was enjoying dinner there several years ago when a woman, obviously well into her 80s, was celebrating a birthday. Mara made her way to the table, took the woman’s hand, and began to sing softly in Italian. Far from hitting your eye like a big-a pizza pie, the haunting melody brought the jam-packed room to total silence. Guests sat transfixed as she softly serenaded the woman. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and the rousing ovation that followed was heartwarming.
But after getting to know Mara, I sometimes wonder if, in her heart, she might have been singing to her grandmother. After all, it was her inspiration that brought Mara to that once-in-a-lifetime evening when cherished family recipes, a crowded restaurant and music combined in just the right measure to create a moment that at least one guest would still be writing about to this day.