Debra Guglielmi, a 5-foot, 51-year-old Italian dynamo, is flitting about Bagel Café and Bakery like a cat chasing a beam of light. It is a Wednesday, but it doesn’t matter – she is often a blur of busy-ness.
It is clear, however, that she is dedicated to fixing folks fresh food only the most finicky cooks serve. Family history demands it, and she is happy to oblige.
On May 24, 2014, she opened the cafe, which quickly became a bona fide local favorite.
This is one woman who knows how to create food that tongues and teeth fight over to ensure equity. Yes, jealousy is at war in a myriad of mouths.
“The quality of the food is superb,” said Jennifer Hassen, a regular, while waiting for a breakfast bagel sandwich with her husband, Ron. “You can tell Debra does this from her heart.”
Her passion is rooted in a heritage punctuated by people that used simple ingredients to birth sensational tastes. If forks, knives, and spoons could talk, they would testify to that fact. Nonetheless, one can find proof by flipping through pages on a restaurant shelf.
Inside Guglielmi’s eatery, there is a celebratory cookbook published as a tribute to her paternal great grandparents, Nicola Marini and Concetta Abbondanza Marini. Another recipe book chronicles the eats from Atlantic Fish & Fabulous Foods, the Clarks Summit, Penn. business her parents operated for 21 years.
“That is where I learned to cook and everything,” said Guglielmi (pronounced goo yell me). “I started there when I was 15 years old.”
Time nurtured her talent, and she became the only one of parents’ three daughters to choose to be in the restaurant industry. She is not alone, however, in embracing tradition as a treasure that gifts any kitchen. And with a Christmas-morning-type joy more commonly expressed by expectant children, she unwraps flavors savored for generations.
The past paved this culinary road she maneuvers with ease and edge.
Nicola Marini and Concetta Abbondanza Marini came from Abruzzi, Italy and Bari, Italy, respectively, and married Jan. 4, 1914, in New York. Their union helped establish epicurean customs time could not taint.
Concetta Abbondanza Marini bought the finest ingredients for her homemade dishes. Not just any old food was allowed into the bellies of her beloved. She purchased her meat from a neighborhood butcher. A man named Charlie delivered her fresh fruits and vegetables via truck. And she inspected each one with care, as if her produce was auditioning for a Broadway musical choreographed by Bob Fosse. Yes, Guglielmi’s great grandma knew food has a way of dancing into hearts. And she would brook no missteps at her table.
The Sunday sauce was made with divine plum tomatoes that had shameless, endless affairs with homemade pasta. Yet, meats were just as amorous, as veal, pork, and chicken kissed lots of garlic, became engaged to oregano, but married mozzarella. Please let the records show this was hot love on plates for which any foodie would be a freak.
Thankfully for gastronomes on the Grand Strand, flavors savored by Guglielmi and her kin eventually arrived here. After years of vacationing in the area, she decided to make this place a space in which her culinary customs would orbit.
Being a planet people love isn’t easy. You need gusto, and you must persevere. Ask Pluto, or you can ask Nicole Nucero, Guglielmi’s 24-year-old daughter.
“She is dedicated, and she is not an absentee owner,” said Nucero, a resource teacher at Coastal Montessori Charter School. “She never gives up. She is persistent. She was 49 years old when she decided she would make her dream could true and open up a restaurant.”
Her mom steps faster than any younger member of her staff. Affectionately called “Miss Debra” by some, she is the kind of owner employees actually like. Shucks, they adore this woman wearing perfectly placed blush, a glimmer of eye shadow, dewy lipstick, and mascara that doesn’t cake.
“She is a bouncy, little ball,” said Tracey Latterman, an employee who helps out in the kitchen and beyond. “She is everywhere.”
Guglielmi is a woman who knows how to get things done, no matter how minor or major the tasks.
“I don’t want my employees to do anything I wouldn’t do,” Guglielmi said while prepping food in a consistently bustling kitchen. “If I clean the floors, they will clean the floors.”
Nevertheless, Guglielmi strategically delegates jobs to her talented staff that wear colorful T-shirts with the words, “This is how we roll” on the back.
Travis Gamble, for example, is the bagel master. Her nephew who is more like a son makes all the dough, going through 320 pounds a week.
Everybody here plays a key part, and he or she is equally important. Still, Guglielmi is the boss and sometimes it costs.
“I am hard on myself because I am a perfectionist,” Guglielmi said. “I was taught to be the best and do my best. Your soul has to be in it.”
Certainly, her spirit is in the food. You can feel the love.
Eat The Luigi, for instance, and you’ll understand her love is thick like the sandwich. It is a hearty party of ham, capicola, salami and soppressata snuggling with provolone cheese, roasted peppers, arugula and homemade balsamic vinaigrette tucked in a from-scratch baguette. In short, just give her room and, bada bing bada boom, something scrumptious will be yours for a price.
The large sides of smiles, however, are free.
Contact Johanna D. Wilson at JohannasCarolinaCharacters@gmail.com or to suggest subjects for an upcoming column.
If you go
Where: 113 Willbrook Blvd. Unit 1 at the BI-LO shopping plaza in Litchfield Beach.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday and 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Use veal, pork chops, or chuck steak
Spread on bottom of baking pan:
Tomato sauce (1/2 small can)
Salt & pepper (to taste)
Minced garlic clove
Layer meat on top of mixture.
Add above ingredients, except oil, to top of meat. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour. Chuck steak will probably need an additional 15-20 minutes to cook. Baste 2 to 3 times and check to make sure sauce is not too thick, add water if necessary.
Recipe by: Concetta Abbondanza Marini from Concetta’s Cucina: The Marini Family’s Recipes, Memories & Photos @ July 2008 Reunion
Chicken Cutlet Bruschetta
2 pounds chicken breasts sliced thin
2 eggs, beaten
1 package grape tomatoes
Red onion, chopped
Oil and vinegar
1-pound mozzarella cut in small chunks
1 bunch fresh arugula
Dip chicken cutlets in egg then flavor with breadcrumbs.
Brown in oil on both sides.
Drain oil and deglaze pan with ½ cup white wine
Return chicken to pan with wine for 2-3 minutes.
Layer arugula on serving plate.
Top arugula with chicken then top with tomato mixture and mozzarella
Recipe by: Gail Marini Marini from Concetta’s Cucina: The Marini Family’s Recipes, Memories & Photos @ July 2008 Reunion