Mario’s: Six decades of good food with a family touch

ORMOND BEACH : Lights are low and white linen tablecloths beckon couples toward cozy romantic corners. On the sound system, Dean Martin is crooning about amore, but it takes more than love to run a successful restaurant for more than 60 years.Just ask Tom Bertolami, the third-generation owner of Mario’s Italian Dining, an unassuming fixture since 1956 among the ever-changing business plazas, industrial parks and independent businesses on South Yonge Street, the working-class side of Ormond Beach.The secret of longevity in the restaurant business?

“You’ve got to be here,” said Bertolami, 72, who started washing dishes in the restaurant’s kitchen when he was 10 years old, just for the chance to learn at the apron strings of his grandfather, the restaurant’s original co-owner Paul Stellato. “I’m here 99 percent of the time. It’s a very tough job, but a very rewarding job.”

With the exception of a four-year stint in the Navy in the late 1960s and an occasional Miami Dolphins game-day road trip, Bertolami has been at Mario’s “seven days a week” for, well, pretty much all his life. The restaurant’s family lineage reads like one of those “begat” passages in the Bible:

Stellato, the grandfather, bought the restaurant, originally named the Corral Inn, in 1956 and operated it in partnership with Vince Aiuto, Bertolami’s uncle. In 1966, they sold the restaurant to Bertolami’s father, Ernie, who operated it with his brother-in-law, Ralph D’Alessio.

In 1978, Tom Bertolami also became a partner. Along the way, the restaurant was rechristened as Mario’s in 1974, a nod to Bertolami’s young son.

Now, Bertolami is the patriarch, assisted by a niece, Gina D’Alessio, and his son Tom Jr., 46, who recently retired after a 25-year career with the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office. Another son, the aforementioned Mario, plans to step away from a job with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in a few years to also help run the restaurant that bears his name, Bertolami said.

“Now the next generation will take it over,” Bertolami said. “Gina has been here about 35 years, so she is going to take it forward, with my sons Tommy and Mario.”

‘A lost art’

Even with a plan of succession in the works, Bertolami has no plans to retire. He loves the business too much to stop, he said.
Made Just Right

In the kitchen, Bertolami still slaves daily over his favorite dishes: soups, stuffed artichokes, and Mario’s signature marinara sauce. He calls the artichoke preparation, involving Italian bread crumbs, garlic, parsley and black olives, “a lost art.”

‘The generation today, the grandmothers don’t do that anymore,” he said. “Italian grandmothers with aprons in the kitchen, they’re mostly not around anymore.”

Likewise, the sauce is a crucial foundation for many dishes, Bertolami said.

“It’s a very important thing,” he said. “The sauce has to be consistent. You put good ingredients in, you get good out.”

That attention to detail and a sense of what customers want are the major factors behind successful restaurants that span generations, said Costa Magoulas, dean of the College of Hospitality and Culinary Management at Daytona State College.

“He was the original pizza place here in Volusia County,” Magoulas said. “This was way before they had all the chain operations and box operations. He was the mainstay for Italian foods.”

Although the family has changed some things, such as architectural renovations to expand the dining room to its current capacity of 220 customers, other key elements wisely have remained the same, Magoulas said.

“The key to his success, quite frankly, is consistency of his product,” Magoulas said. “He hasn’t changed what he does in the kitchen in 50 years. His marinara sauce is made now the same way it always has been. People in Volusia County know that; they know what they are going to get. The good thing about this family is that they have not changed anything that has made them successful.”

A Sunday-night ritual

That theme is echoed by Jim Weite, an Ormond Beach banker who has dined at the restaurant with his wife, Cathy, on a weekly basis for more than 30 years. Typically, it’s a Sunday-night ritual that includes chicken parmesan for him and a grouper dish for his wife, Weite said.

“If he has changed the menu, it hasn’t been much,” Weite said. “They have family recipes that have been made the same way for years and if you want old-world Italian dining, I don’t think you can find a better place anywhere.”

Nor do the faces change, Weite said, adding to the at-home appeal.

“It’s a family owned business that has created an extended family of people who dine there,” he said.

That includes Anthony Valenti, 54, a server and bartender who has worked at the restaurant for 34 years, since his graduation from Seabreeze High School.

“After all these years, now my daughter is working there, too,” Valenti said. “Almost everyone in Ormond Beach has worked there at some point, washing dishes, making pizza. It’s family.”

‘Knock their socks off

All that consistency doesn’t mean that the family-owned restaurant hasn’t adapted to keep ahead of competition, trends and fads.

Initially, the business relied on packaged liquor sales, until the emergence of discount liquor stores in the early 1960s made it impossible to compete, Bertolami said. By 1962, the restaurant had started specializing in pizzas, a novelty in the Daytona Beach area.

“We were about the only place in this area that sold New Jersey-style, New York-style pizzas and we would sell hundreds of pies every day,” Bertolami said. “All of a sudden, delivery pizza came into the market and we couldn’t compete with that, so we didn’t try to.”

So Mario’s evolved once again, into a white-linen tablecloth dining establishment, although they still make pizzas and still have the package license, Bertolami said.

“As the terrain changed, so did our business model,” he said. “We had to change.”

When he offers advice to budding restaurateurs, he tells them to keep the menu simple and make the food exceptional.

“Shorten your menu to 10 items, but they have to be the best 10 items that you can offer,” Bertolami said. “Good food. That’s the only way you’re going to stay in business. Start with a small menu, but make it knock their socks off.”

He gestures at the front door, toward the traffic rumbling past on U.S. Highway 1.

“We’re here 62 years,” he said. “If you look out that front door, you don’t see an ocean; you don’t see a beautiful high-rise. It’s hard when you don’t have the absolute nicest location. It means you’ve got to do a number of things correctly:

“Give them food; give them plenty and they’ll be back.”

And they’ll likely be served by a family member, perhaps for many years to come.

“I grew up here with my grandfather,” said Tom Bertolami Jr. “Now, my 11-year-old son Dominick is running around here, like I used to do. So we’ll see what happens.”

When Mario’s Restaurant opened in 1956, here’s a snapshot of what else was happening in the world:

- Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson to be elected to his second term as the 34th president of the United States.

- Boxer Rocky Marciano retired as the only undefeated heavyweight champion of the world.

- A controversial newcomer, Elvis Presley, made his first appearance on TV’s “Ed Sullivan Show” and scored a chart-topping hit with “Heartbreak Hotel.”

- “As the World Turns,” TV’s first serial daytime drama, debuted on CBS.

- LeRoy Collins was elected governor of Florida.

- Driver Tim Flock won the NASCAR Grand National race on the sands of Daytona Beach. Driver Charlie Scott became the first African-American to compete in a NASCAR Grand National race, driving a Carl Kiekhaefer-entered Chrysler.

- The Johns Committee, named for state Sen. Charley Johns, investigated communists and homosexuality in the state and its university system.

From an article in the Daytona Beach News Journal
By Jim Abbott
Posted Feb 9, 2018 at 7:13 PM Updated Feb 12, 2018 at 2:49 PM