Based on the packed dining room and the busy take-out counter one recent weekday evening, Mario’s Pizzeria & Restaurant in Ocean City is back in business.
Hurricane Sandy had put them out of business for close to 17 months before the Cannuscio family was finally able to reopen. The hurricane left behind lots of water and plenty of damage.
“The first day we reopened it felt like our front porch light was back on,” Christine Cannuscio says . “It was dark for a long time.”
The brothers Giuseppe and Ernesto Cannuscio, who is Christine’s husband, had been in business in Ocean City since 1977 and at that location since 1984.
They consider themselves lucky — some of their neighbors still have no place to call home.
After World War II, the Cannuscio family moved from Italy to France, and then to the United States in 1972. Giuseppe was born in Sicily and Ernesto was born in France.
Settling in Brooklyn, the family missed living near the beach. A cousin living in Atlantic City introduced them to the Jersey Shore.
The family gradually spread out, but ultimately ended up in Ocean City.
What brought in the customers before Sandy are the same things that are bringing back their regulars — even the ones whose houses have not yet been rebuilt.
“I think part of the appeal is we are just a basic Italian eatery where people are comfortable,” Cannuscio says.
Mario’s is a place run by a family where families — even those with small children — feel welcome.
All the hard work following the hurricane has paid off. The dining room is now light and airy and the booths are gone with only tables and chairs left to fill in the dining space.
Expect to see Giuseppe and Ernesto behind the counter on any given day. Christine and her sister-in-law Mirella will be there, too, working wherever needed.
“We’re just getting back on our feet, so any family member who has free time is in here helping,” Cannuscio says. “If they are in this state, they are in here.”
If a son comes in from out of state on the weekend, he’ll be put to work, too.
Following the storm, the menu has also been expanded at Mario’s.
“I think it is more Italian than American,” Cannuscio says. “We get people who come in specifically for the specials on their favorite day. If it’s lasagna, they’ll come in all the time on lasagna day.”
New menu items include seafood choices such as mussels marinara ($12.50) or mussels parma-style ($12.95), made with local mussels and sautéed prosciutto, onions and roasted peppers in a white wine and cream sauce.
Bruschetta ($2.95) is also new to the menu, listed along with breaded and fried mozzarella sticks ($7.50), eggplant rollatini ($4.25) and baked rolled eggplant cutlet filled with ricotta cheese and topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella.
All soups are made from scratch including their signature minestrone ($3.95), made with an assortment of fresh garden vegetables in a meatless broth.
Available salads range from a small tossed ($3.75) made with romaine and iceberg lettuce, tomato, onions and black olives with creamy Italian dressing to a Louisiana style chicken tender salad ($11.95) made mild or spicy and served over a classic caesar.
The king of all salads is the Italian antipasto salad ($9.50) which includes Genoa salami, capicola, cotechino, provolone, tomatoes, celery, onions, roasted red peppers, black olives, cucumber and hard-boiled eggs, all served over a bed of romaine and iceberg lettuce.
All dinner selections are served with a side tossed salad, bread and dessert, usually their popular homemade rice pudding.
A homemade meatless tomato sauce ($12.25); meatballs or sweet Italian sausage ($13.95); aglio and oglio ($13.95); Bolognese ($13.95); mushroom ($13.95); alfredo ($13.95); alfredo vodka rose ($14.50); Siciliana ($14.50) made with ricotta and romano cheese; pasta primavera ($14.95) made with mixed garden vegetables and clam sauce ($15.50) made with pan sautéed chopped Cape May clams, red or white, can be paired with your favorite pasta shape.
The most popular baked pasta dish is the homemade lasagna ($15.75), and that is also Cannuscio’s favorite dish on the menu.
Creamy pasta specialties include fettuccini alfredo ($13.95); ricotta gnocchi in alfredo vodka rosa sauce ($14.50); and the newly added fettuccini alla carbonara ($14.50), made with crisp pancetta, egg yolk, romano cheese and black pepper.
“A lot of people are asking for it (the carbonara),” Cannuscio says.
Classic chicken specialties include chicken Francaise ($15.75), chicken marsala ($15.75), chicken piccata ($15.75), chicken cacciatore ($16.25) and more.
Seafood selections include fried jumbo shrimp ($16.25); scallops parma-style ($16.75); shrimp and scallops puttanesca ($18.25) and the seafood pescatore ($19.95) with scallops, shrimp, clams and mussels in a garlic, white wine and marinara sauce served with a choice of pasta.
A large assortment of hot and cold subs are served on Atlantic City breads.
Cold subs include a regular Italian ($6.95) and a super Italian ($8) made with twice the salami, capicola, cotechino and provolone cheese.
Hot sub offerings include steak or chicken steak ($6.45) and everything else from a grilled chicken breast ($7.25) to peppers and eggs ($6.45).
Mario’s makes its own pizza dough and the sauce is homemade and comes as thin crust or thick Sicilian-style.
Old-Italian style pies feature diced tomatoes, onions, romano cheese and garlic ($15.50 for a large, $13.95 for a medium, $21.75 for a Sicilian). White pizza comes plain, with broccoli or spinach.
Other options include five cheese, buffalo grilled, eggplant parmigiana, or Mario’s deluxe with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, extra cheese and anchovies.
Cannuscio recommends the lunch specials which typically come on focaccia bread, such as the chicken caesar or the slice special, which comes with two slices of pizza with a soft drink.
Mario’s is back in business and better than ever.