By Suzy Kridner
ORMOND BEACH -- When I was growing up my parents took us to supper clubs for special occasions.
We had to use our best manners, our "indoor" voices and not spill on the white tablecloths. It was a real treat.
Today I avoid some local restaurants because of the large screen TVs blaring a variety of sports -- all at once -- and the loud din of patrons' conversations, often on cell phones, or with their dinner companions.
Last week, my husband and I went to a real treasure, Mario's Restaurant in Ormond Beach.
We've eaten there in the past but had forgotten in recent years about the great Italian food, attentive service and low-key ambience.
Since our server, Clint Kaski, suggested the special of the night, Chicken Francaise ($18.95) over a light lemony risotto, I knew I had to try it.
I like risotto with just about anything and this dish was superb.
The chicken was lightly breaded and very tender. And the lemon sauce was just right.
My husband had Seafood Alfredo ($22.95). The Alfredo Sauce was homemade and the seafood and fettuccine were cooked just right.
He had leftovers; I didn't leave a scrap.
He also ate the hot-from-the-oven garlic bread, homemade each day, dipped in a light tomato sauce, while I was interviewing Mario's owner, Tom Bertolami, 66.
Mr. Kaski quickly brought water and offered appetizers. Mario's specialty appetizer, artichoke stuffed with breadcrumbs, wasn't available that evening, but the garlic bread with homemade sauce for dipping was outstanding.
A soup specialty of the house is Mario's homemade chicken with freshly cut vegetables. It's Tom's grandmother, Angela Stellato's recipe, as is the homemade tomato sauce.
Mario's has been going for more than a half century in the same location.
"Years ago people had martini lunches and went to nightclubs. We had lots of nightclubs here but no more," said Mr. Bertolami.
"There are only so many people going out to eat today," he said, so he keeps one of the four dining rooms closed.
On a recent Monday night, usually a slow night in the restaurant business, Mario's had a steady stream of customers.
Some, like Dick and Anne Brown and their friends, have been coming for years.
Dick Brown says when he orders lasagna, he has plenty of leftovers. "It's the best restaurant for the money."
Customers can order ahead and pick up pans of lasagna, chicken marsala and other main dishes, as well as salad and bread to serve at parties at home.
The business started in 1956 when Tom's grandfather, Paul Stellato, bought the former Pat's Alibi that had been selling package liquor.
"My grandfather was retired and bored out of his mind," Mr. Bertolami said, so he was looking for something to do.
When his grandfather, who spoke broken English, bought it with his stepson, Vince Aiuto, he wanted a southern name, not an Italian one, Tom said. So he called it the Corral Inn and added sandwiches along with the packaged liquor.
Its location on U.S. 1 in Ormond Beach made it a popular stop on the main road south to Miami.
Mr. Bertolami said later his grandfather introduced pizza to the area.
"We still sell the same pizza and packaged liquor," he said.
What started as a 35-seat bar has grown to a 275-seat restaurant.
Last week, guests were being greeted at Mario's, a restaurant of distinction, by Mr. Bertolami, and his son, Mario Bertolami, who stopped in to join the interview and pointed out his siblings and he will eventually take over the restaurant.
"A lot of our older customers are moving, and moving on," Mr. Bertolami said. "We are a throwback; a throwback with character."
"When I got out of the service in the '60s, I came right here to work and have been here ever since," said Mr. Bertolami. His parents, Ernest and Margaret, bought the restaurant from Paul Stellato and Vince Aiuto in 1966. Tom's sister, Jean Schofield, worked along with him until she retired. And now Jean's daughter, Gina D'Alessio, is the manager.
"We're working on four generations," Mr. Bertolami said.
Mario's has been an institution known for its fine Italian cuisine for more than 50 years.
And don't forget to leave room for dessert. The lemon cake was outstanding.
Mario's, 521 S. Yonge St. (U.S.1), is open seven days a week: Sunday-Thursday, 4:30-9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 4:30-10 p.m. For more information, call (386) 677-2711, or visit: mariosormondbeach.com.