OCEAN CITY - Water damage from above and below during Hurricane Sandy forced Mario's Pizzeria & Restaurant to close for the first time since brothers Ernesto and Giuseppe Cannuscio opened their family restaurant in 1979.

Little did the two partners realize it would be 17 months before Mario's, at 1510 Bay Ave., opened again.

"We thought it was going to be three months," said Ernesto, 62, to complete repairs and reopen.

"Instead, it was a year and a half," said Giuseppe, 65.

The closure - which ends at 11 a.m. today when Mario's reopens - was so lengthy that the pizzeria is one of the last businesses to reopen on the island following the Oct. 29, 2012, storm, said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"Coming back has been a longer process than a lot of people realized it would be," Gillian said.

Gillian said about 95 percent of the town's businesses reopened, with some stores in the city's downtown shopping district on Asbury Avenue getting back on track within a month of Sandy.

"Mario's is important not only as a business in Ocean City, but as a neighborhood business and a year-round business," Gillian said. "That type of business is vital to Ocean City."

The historic storm flooded Mario's with 28 inches of water and knocked down the chimney on the building, sending a pile of bricks through the second-floor apartment deck into the restaurant's kitchen below. An early attempt to start repairs ended about a year ago due to the lag time in receiving insurance funds, the Cannuscio brothers said.

Laurie Howey is among local residents excited by the news that Mario's is reopening.

"We're ecstatic as Mario's neighbors," said Howey, the communications director for the city, whose residence on 15th Street is located around the corner from Mario's. "We can smell it on a good day."

She said her family will be ordering chicken cheesesteaks, their favorite Mario's meal, this weekend.

"Mario's is such a unique part of Ocean City," said Gillian, who added she sometimes walks the four blocks from her Spruce Road residence to Mario's to meet friends who are 14th Street residents. "Mario's is a part of the whole Ocean City experience. They're a part of the fabric of who we are."

To celebrate Mario's return, the mayor and the Chamber of Commerce are scheduled to perform a ribbon-cutting about a half-hour after the restaurant opens Thursday morning.

Giuseppe Cannuscio said the hardest thing about the long rebuilding process was the separation from Mario's loyal customers. He said he is most looking forward to "serving the people the way we have been doing all this time and making them happy."

"This is the only thing I know how to do," his brother said.

Added Giuseppe, "We are young, yet. We're not ready to retire."

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