At 99 years old, Antonette Marsella of Emiliannas Deli and Catering in Tavares shows no signs of slowing down.
Huddled in the back kitchen at Emiliannas Deli and Catering in Tavares, Antonette Marsella’s small, fragile hands shake ever so slightly as she rolls out dough to make egg noodles.
“I made it too big,” she protests before folding over the sheet of dough on a metal workstation.
Under her breath, she starts to rattle off ingredients.
“All you need is flour, five eggs, a pinch of salt and some water,” she says, steadying the same rolling pin her mother used.
For just a second, she abandons her dough to show off some of her day’s work — hand-rolled meatballs ready to be cooked, loaves of bread baking in the commercial oven. Ask Antonette about food and she lights up a room.
“I just love cooking Italian foods,” she gushes. “I have a lot of fun doing it.”
Sylvia Morse, Antonette’s daughter and co-owner of Emiliannas, believes cooking is what keeps her mother going.
“Every time she goes to the doctor, he’s always shocked at how healthy she is,” she says. “He always tells me, ‘Whatever she’s doing she needs to keep it up.’”
99 and counting
As a kid in Lynn, Massachusetts, Antonette had the reputation of being a very good student. But, when hard times fell on her family, she had to quit school at 13 and lie about her age to land a job working in a shoe factory.
“My father was going to lose our house. We were going to be in the street, all 10 of us, so being the oldest, I had to hustle,” she says.
She worked alongside four other men cleaning and assembling shoes using dangerous chemicals and hot irons. And while she was young and lacked their brawn, she was able to outpace them, putting out four cases of shoes to their one.
“I remember the men called Mr. Owens, our boss, and told him he’d better check my work,” she says. “He went berserk at how fast and good I was, so that week I took home $125 while they only had $30.”
Her hard work paid off when she was able to save the house. She kept her factory job until 1935, the year she married the love of her life, Emilio Marsella.
Antonette admits she learned most of what she knows about Italian cuisine from Emilio’s family — especially his mother — since he was originally from Italy. They took many trips to Italy together, where she would learn how to make dishes like ravioli and gnocchi from scratch.
While food had always been a major part of Antonette and Emilio’s life, the pair never explored it as a job. Instead, Emilio worked in construction and during the off-season in Massachusetts, he and Antonette would flip houses to sustain an income.
Fed up with harsh winters, the couple moved to Winter Park to be closer to Sylvia and her family in Howey-in-the-Hills. And then when Emilio passed away in 1996, Antonette agreed to sell her house and move in with Sylvia. Two years later, Sylvia decided to change career paths and looked to her cooking as a way to go into business for herself.
“We’ve always loved to cook in our family,” she says. “Mealtime was always an experience. We would sit and listen to stories, and it was just a nice time to catch up with family.”
Therefore, after successfully catering her son’s wedding, Sylvia started a catering business out of her home. She enjoyed the convenience of being home with her mother. However, as the catering business grew, Sylvia realized it was time to open a storefront to meet the demand. She found a quaint space on State Road 19 in the Lake Warehouse Plaza and began developing the deli side of her business.
Over the years, business has continued to be steady, and every day, Sylvia and Antonette still arrive at work at 9a.m. sharp to start prepping food. Antonette gets to work on many of the restaurant’s basics, making meatballs, cooking sauces and/or preparing the day’s tuna and egg salads.
When the day is done, she goes home, puts on music and relaxes with the three things she says keeps her going: the Bible, her rosary beads and her prayer book.
On April 7 for her 100th birthday, Sylvia says she has already made plans to take her mother on a girls’ cruise, just like she did for her 90th birthday. She also wants to do something special for her mother at the restaurant because it’s not every day a cook still working in the kitchen turns 100.
When asked if she has any plans to retire, Antonette shakes her head in protest. She loves cooking too much to give it up anytime soon. And it’s what keeps her young.
“Don’t ever stop,” she warns. “Always keep going. Because when you stop is when you lose it.”