More than marinara: Entrepreneur Peter Lombardi honors his mother’s memory

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Rita’s Wooden Spoon Marinara, named for Peter Lombardi’s mother.

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Peter Lombardi looked at the pot of crushed tomatoes, onions and herbs simmering on the stove, lifted his hands towards the ceiling and declared: “That’s mom. That’s all mom.”

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Peter Lombardi working over his stove. “I’m cooking sauce for Lisa – my wife – for her birthday lasagna. Ordinarily, I’ve got the gloves and the hairnet and all that.”

Lombardi’s mother, Rita Audra Sorrentino, taught him the recipe when he was a young boy. She learned it herself growing up in a heavily Italian neighborhood of the Brooklyn. Lombardi’s mother developed cancer several years ago and passed away. After exhausting traditional treatment options, Lombardi tried to convince his mother to consider holistic approaches.

“There’s so much that people can do for themselves, physically and mentally, with diet. In the cancer treatment centers, I saw people who had been really helped by it. I guess that, the medicinal powers of food, that just stuck with me.”

The idea percolated, but Lombardi did not put it into action until after he was struck with a series of tragedies: after the death of his mother, he lost a close friend and was involved in a motorcycle accident.

“That was a rough time. It shook me up. And it made me think hard about what I was doing, with my time, with my life ,” he said. “So I started thinking, what can I do?”

Lombardi decided he wanted to retail his mother’s “Sunday gravy,” though he had little idea how to proceed.

“I incorporated back in May, and then I didn’t quite know what to do,” Lombardi said. “The next step, I found out, was sending the FDA a sample. So I cooked a batch, just the way my mother would have. She always seared off meatballs, or a braciole,” a stuffed pork cutlet, “and then started her sauce in the meat juices. I did it just the same way. Then I packaged it up and shipped it off.”

The FDA got back to Lombardi, telling him that the meat content in his sauce meant the USDA would also have to approve it.

“That process is longer, and more expensive,” Lombardi said. “I wanted to sit down and cry. It took me a while to get over that, and then I had to come up with another sauce.”

Eventually Lombardi settled on his mother’s marinara recipe:

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Fresh parsley and basil from Shelton Farms.

“It’s just simple ingredients, but good ingredients. We get high quality tomatoes. At first we started growing our own basil and parsley, but we couldn’t keep up. Now we source our herbs from Shelton Herb Farm,” a local farm in Leland.

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Onions and herbs, simmered while Lombardi spoke.

“Most of all it’s time. My I remember waking up on Sunday and smelling gravy simmering. It would cook for hours.”

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Lombardi and his wife, Lisa Sokolowski, had their home kitchen inspected and certified as a commissary and started cooking the sauce for retail. The couple sells the sauce at the farmer’s market in downtown Wilmington, as well as Jules DeBord’s Farmer’s Market kiosk in the Independence Mall (DeBord plans on opening a full store in a former Nine West space, starting in early 2017).

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“This food is so important to me, I think about it all the time. When Lisa and I looked at this house, we saw this great island space, and we both just said, ‘pasta.’ I could just see lasagna noodles laid out.”

“My long term plan,” Lombardi said, “is to expand Rita’s into a company that delivers food to people dealing with cancer. People undergoing chemotherapy, or people who have given up on traditional therapy, or people who can’t be helped by that kind of thing. Ideally I’d like to make some of that food, and maybe partner with other places that feel the same way about cooking that I do. I just mean food that’s been cooked with love, that’s from local ingredients that haven’t been messed with, so that everything retains its medicinal qualities.”

Lombardi’s experience with food medicine to treat disease is only part of the inspiration.

“Food is medicine, I absolutely believe that. But it’s more than just vitamins and antioxidants. It’s also having food cooked for you,” he said.  “When someone cooks for you, from the heart… it’s a comfort, at a time when people desperately need it. I saw it work for my mother. And I just want to pass that on.”

Lombardi has started exploring plans for a larger kitchen facility and additional storefront opportunity, as well as the long-term feasibility of a medicinal food business. In the mean time, Lombardi and his wife are focused on producing larger batches to meet increased demand.

“We’ve been selling out whenever we go to the Farmer’s Market. This food is everything to me.”

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Peter and Lisa in their home kitchen.