Surf City — On Dec. 14, Mario’s Italian Market celebrated its grand reopening following the sudden passing of owner Mario Aversa on Nov. 7. Aversa was visiting long-time friend John Musto in Florida when he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 46. The tragedy stunned the local community and left his two young daughters, Annalise and Elena, especially devastated. An outpouring of community support followed, with a Gofundme page set up on behalf of Aversa’s daughters exceeding $21,000 in a matter of weeks.
Mario’s Italian Market was run by the Aversa family for 23 years. According to Musto, Aversa’s father, Mario Sr, opened the establishment with the help of sons Mario Jr and Peter. The family food legacy fell upon the shoulders of Mario Jr and his wife, Dawn, after the tragic loss of Aversa’s brother, father and mother, all in less than a year. Nearly a decade later, Mario Jr.’s death seemed to be an insurmountable blow to the business’ survival.
With no family member left to take over the reins, however, Musto has risen to the occasion with the help of Diane Barone and Joe Salentino, who took over the lease. Musto, a lifelong family friend, was even considered the Aversas’ third son.
“Mario was so personable. Everyone knew and liked him,” Musto reminisced. He described how he met the Aversa family. “The first year they were here (in Surf City), they closed in the winter and came down to Florida. Mario and Peter both got jobs in the restaurant where I worked in Fort Lauderdale,” he explained. “That was 20 years ago.” Through the years, they spent a great deal of time together. “He would bring his girls down to visit,” he shared. “That’s where this tragedy happened.”
Last summer, Aversa called Musto and asked if he would consider spending two weeks in Surf City to help out at the deli. Musto said, “I took off from the kitchen I was running and flew to Jersey. Two weeks became three months,” Musto said, laughing. He described feeling right at home, both in and out of the kitchen. “Mario and I went all over this island. We had a lot of fun clamming, Jet Skiing, eating … you name it.”
During that time, Musto had the opportunity to learn the family recipes, none of which have ever been written down. “They’re like folklore,” said Barone. “They were originally family recipes,” Musto explained, naming classics such as Mario’s meatballs. Musto even added a few recipes of his own to the menu over the summer, such as eggplant caponata and lentil salad, which were favorably received by locals.
Musto had no idea how much his experience in Mario’s kitchen over the summer would mean to the future of the Aversa family legacy.
“Dawn said their daughters would love if someone they knew took on the business,” Musto explained. “So just like the Beverly Hillbillies, I packed my things and moved up here,” he said. According to Musto, his time in LBI this summer helped make a life-changing decision a more comfortable one.
“I promised Dawn I’d set up a trust fund for the girls through the business. The girls have been here a few times, and they’re so happy I’ve done this.” But the change was more than merely geographical, involving deeper emotional sacrifices. “I have a 17-year-old son. He lives with his mother in Florida,” Musto explained. “I asked him if it would be OK with him for me to make this move. Most importantly, I told him why I was considering this move, and he was cool with it.”
According to Barone, they have kept most of the original staff, including Adriana Cota Ventura, who has been an essential member of Mario’s kitchen for 18 years. “All the recipes are innate for Adriana,” she shared. “It was a lot of work to get it all going, but it was worth it,” said Barone, describing the reopening of Mario’s in merely six weeks following a deep loss.
“People are coming in sad but also happy that Mario’s will continue,” she explained. She was happy to report how crowds bustled in over the opening weekend, making their holiday purchases and catering orders. Barone said Mario’s will offer more grab-and-go options in the deli case next summer. Until then, in addition to a full-scale bakery, customers can expect Musto’s elegant and eclectic twist on the shore’s Italian favorites.
The market will be open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. until further notice. Visit @mariositalianmarket on Facebook for updates.
— Monique M. Demopoulos