New owner to do balancing act between old and new at Sorrento's in Norwood

Cincinnati Enquirer - November 14, 2018

Willie DeLuca loved to entertain as he ran Sorrento's, his family's restaurant in Norwood.

He balanced things on his nose and also balanced separate items like a sword, a ten-dollar bill, a baseball bat and at a flaming napkin at times.

DeLuca's time as a beloved host ended when he died in 2005. Sorrento's closed in 2016. But it is being re-opened in a few months by Bronson Trebbi, who was part of the partnership that opened another heritage restaurant, Walt's Hitching Post in Ft. Wright.

He has his own balancing act to perfect.

It's the balance between preserving the soul of a unique restaurant that was beloved in Norwood and beyond on one hand, and on the other, making it relevant to a new generation who never had the pleasure of seeing that napkin burn down to DeLuca's nose.

Trebbi is changing the name to Sorrento's Italian Joint.

Sorrento's was the kind of place that created memories. Trebbi remembers going with his parents after events at Cincinnati Gardens. Others went as teenagers, or with a team after a game. People remember the yelling in Italian coming from kitchen, or catching glimpses of Pete Rose and other famous athletes who often ate and drank there. And everyone remembers the memorabilia: mostly sports, but Willie DeLuca collected autographs, celebrities' clothes, and more.

That's why Trebbi is planning a special kind of soft opening. He plans to open about the time Reds start spring training in early February. In the meantime, he wants to hear from anyone who has meaningful memories of their time eating pizza at Sorrento's. He'll arrange small dinner parties for groups with an emotional connection to the place. Anyone with an interest can call Sorrento's at 513-531-5070.

He also want to avoid what happened when he and his partners opened Walt's, another restaurant with a history. People waited for months for them to open, then came on the first night with lots of things on their mind: nostalgia, seeing what changes were made, telling the stories.

It's a chance for them to avoid a first-night crush, get things working perfectly, and deepen their knowledge of Sorrento's long history.

Enrico and Santina, immigrants from Pietramelare, Italy, opened Sorrento's in 1956 in the front room of their house on Montgomery Road in Norwood. It was a bar with pizza. Santina cooked, Enrico was the bartender and host. They kept expanding into the house until they took it over completely and the family moved next door.

Their son Willie worked in the restaurant as did other family members, and became its face and host. He was a collector: of autographs, five strands of Elvis's hair, a check signed by Marilyn Monroe, but especially of sports memorabilia, which was displayed all over the restaurant. It was part Italian restaurant, part sports bars, before there was such a thing as a sports bar. Sorrento's sponsored local teams, especially softball.

That mix is staying, though there won't be all the memorabilia. (there was a family lawsuit over its ownership) The bar is moving back into the original front room, where it' s configured in a horseshoe to facilitate a convivial atmosphere. It will be called Enrico's Taverna.

In the main room, one wall will feature oversize photos of Italian scenes; while the other will be dedicated to Cincinnati sports. There's a smaller party room, and another one in the back, which will be the site for wine tastings and other events.

The building next to the restaurant, which had become the DeLuca home, has been knocked down, and in its place there will be a patio, with a bocce court and firepit. The main entrance to the restaurant will be from the east side, where the parking lot is.

Enrico DeLuca died in 2005 when a grease fire damaged much of the restaurant and he suffered severe burns. Willie died in 2006, but Santina continued to cook the food and the rest of the family ran the restaurant. But when Santina died in 2016, the soul of the restaurant was gone, and it closed.

The menu that's coming back has the original pizza recipe. It's being billed as Papa Enrico's legendary pizza.

"The crust is puffy but light, made with fresh yeast, with an herby tomato sauce," said Trebbi.

Pizzas are named for various significant people and places, like the "Norwood Assembly," for the GM plant that operated in Norwood for many years, "Chairman of the Board" for AG Lafley, of P&G, who was a frequent customer, and "The Hungry Wolf" for XU legend Steve Wolf. There's also pasta, some from Trebbi's own Italian family.

Trebbi said he likes the location.

"Norwood is such a resilient place," he said. "And a restaurant makes its own location when it has this kind of history on its side."

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