Fifty years ago, Mario Messina promised himself he’d never go hungry again. While serving in the infantry in World War II, the future restaurateur was captured by Germans, who kept him prisoner long enough to lose 40 pounds.
“I vowed when I got out I’d always be around food,” Messina chuckles.
Today, Messina has surrounded himself – and countless satisfied Dallas diners – with plenty of sustenance. Il Sorrento, a favorite special occasion place in the neighborhood, is perched atop its Turtle Creek Boulevard throne, inviting patrons to enjoy a wealth of Italian cuisine that includes pansotti, totelloni, veal cutlet parmigiana, panseared duck and Caesar salad.
Messina’s first venture into food was a brief stint as owner of a small fish house. He quickly sold it and, in 1950, opened a tiny restaurant on Lovers Lane called Il Sorrento. It had 55 indoor seats and an outdoor patio that held 44 patrons – the first restaurant in Dallas to offer outside dining, according to Messina. In addition to featuring a multidish menu, the fledging Italian eatery was a pioneer on the Dallas dining scene in those early years by being the first to offer espresso and fresh pasta imported from Italy.
“The Italian menu is very interesting because in Italy, each province has its own style of cooking,” Messina says, explaining the restaurant’s bountiful dishes – an unmistakable contrast to the ’50s, when Dallasites could only find pedestrian American-Italian fare. “Mostly in those days, it was just spaghetti and meatball places.”
Within five years, Il Sorrento’s popularity spread, and the entrepreneur moved to an eastern address on Lovers Lane. After 11 years, he upgraded to his present location. Today, Dallasites flock to Il Sorrento to try things like stuffed artichoke, cannelloni and fettuccini – not bad for a youg man born in good ol’ Dallas.
“Everybody is so disappointed when I tell them I’m not from the Old Country,” he says. “I tell them I’m from South Dallas.”
Il Sorrento’s garden-like interior and dimly lit crevices have attracted notables and romantics – has even been described as like having dinner on a Hollywood set. In fact, says Messina, the atmosphere has encouraged many couples to publicly display their affections. “I can’t tell you how many thousands of proposals that have taken place here,” he says.
And with the popularity of fresh imported pasta never waning, Messina opened an additional establishment within his restaurant – a business called the Sorrento Ravioli Company, which manufactures fresh pasta.
Now in its third location, this pasta paradise has no plans to stop making innovations in the Dallas dining scene. Says Messina: “I’ve always been interested in the food business. As long as I’m healthy mentally and physically, I will continue.”
Il Sorrento is open daily from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
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