Tradition Reborn

Rooted at home, Scarpa’s Italian gains national recognition

photography by Jason Stephens

Scarpa’s Italian, owned by Glenn and Ashley Scarpa, has deep Lakeland roots. Recently, I sat down with Ashley to learn a little about the past, present, and future of the restaurant.

You may remember Mario’s Italian Restaurant, which gained immense popularity in the 1980s and ’90s. Glenn is Mario Scarpa’s son. He worked alongside his father in various roles and helped run Mario’s for a little over a decade, then moved on to pursue a career as a construction contractor. The restaurant changed ownership a few times over the years, and with each sale, the menu increasingly strayed from the time honored family recipes. When the last iteration of Mario’s — La Porta Rossa — closed in 2013, Glenn expressed his desire to revive the family restaurant and restore what his father had originally created. After looking at three or four possible locations, Glenn and Ashley decided on the very same space that formerly housed Mario’s, located on East Edgewood Drive. It was a very quick start- up — they obtained the space in September of 2013, and their opening day was a few months later on December 13.

Ashley and Glenn continued working outside of the restaurant, thinking they could keep up with both as their business got off the ground. The restaurant’s success was almost immediate, and they quickly realized they would need to devote themselves full  time to its operation.

“Word traveled fast that it was Mario’s [family],” said Ashley. “We are so grateful for the outpouring of love and support from our customers. Sure, people travel from Tampa and Orlando to eat here, but it’s truly the support of our town, the locals, and people who followed Mario’s for generations that made us a success. It’s really rewarding to hear people say thank you and how happy they are that we’re a part of the community. We’ve been very lucky and just hope it continues!”

Glenn runs the kitchen alongside Chef Chris Chavers, who started working with Glenn at Mario’s when he was 15 and continued to work there until shortly after the restaurant was sold. The original Mario’s menu was brought back, with just a few modifications. The dishes they send out of the kitchen are influenced by seasonal ingredients and contain fresh, local products, such as black grouper and hogfish. The attention to quality doesn’t end there — they also make all of their pasta in -house from scratch.

“Glenn takes better care of the pasta machine than any of our other possessions,” Ashley laughingly mentioned as we chatted over appetizers.

Glenn focuses on back- of- house operations, having learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business while working in his father’s restaurant. Ashley runs the front- of- house operations and does all of the baking, which she has enjoyed as a hobby for years.

“I had my son when I was 21. None of my friends had children, and I didn’t get to go to any Mommy and Me groups or anything like that, so I studied the art of baking. I have about 250 cookbooks.” She was originally only going to bake for opening week, but her desserts were so popular, she kept it up.

After sampling stuffed Portobello mushrooms, eggplant rollettini, and a special treat of fried mozzarella and prosciutto with a blackberry sauce sent out by the chef, it’s obvious why Scarpa’s has garnered so much attention in the culinary world. In March 2015, the Scarpas received a call from Emeril’s Florida, a show airing on the Cooking Channel and hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, asking if they’d be interested in being interviewed for a possible feature. It didn’t immediately enter their minds that it meant being featured on his television program.

“We had a sit down interview; they had some food, which they enjoyed … but I didn’t think anything would happen,” Ashley said. “The show has featured some really well -known places. It had almost left my mind when we got a call that we’d been selected.”

Within three weeks, Emeril visited the restaurant with his production crew and sat down to a five -course meal. “He loved everything he ate and was so complimentary.

You usually hear stories about celebrities being difficult, but he was such a nice guy and made everyone so comfortable.”

The episode featuring Scarpa’s Italian will air this March and is tentatively titled “Hidden Gems.”

The Scarpas’ hard work over the past two years was shared by a committed staff , many of whom are family members. The overall atmosphere of love and community is a delight — at one point during our conversation, Ashley’s brother quietly approached the table to give her a hug and tell her he loved her. He was only supposed to work through the holidays, but he enjoyed it so much that he stayed on. Working with family, Ashley said, is one of the best things about running the restaurant.

“I enjoy working with my husband every day, and I think he enjoys working with me, as well. We really balance each other out; where one of us might be a little soft, the other is tough and will put a foot down.”

The toughest part?

“It’s so hard when we’re away! We have absolutely wonderful people working here, but it doesn’t take away from the worry and the fact that [the restaurant] is like our child.” As we finished our dishes, Ashley looked around at the warm glow of the dining room and smiled. “So many wonderful things happen around the dinner table, you know? Birthdays, celebrations — it’s so great to be a part of those, to connect with people, and build relationships. It’s really rewarding.”

Ashley recommends any of the pasta dishes. “I could live off of pasta.”

Glenn recommends the Linguine with Clam Sauce and the Seafood Fettucine.

 


Scarpa’s Italian

1831 East Edgewood Drive, Lakeland, FL 33803 • 863.937.8940 • scarpasitalian.com