If the Winnipeg Jets ever go into a funk this National Hockey League season, dropping multiple games in a row, they might want to steal a chapter from the Jets 1.0 playbook; specifically, the section covering pizza and pasta.

If the Winnipeg Jets ever go into a funk this National Hockey League season, dropping multiple games in a row, they might want to steal a chapter from the Jets 1.0 playbook; specifically, the section covering pizza and pasta.

In February 1994, the Jets, led by newly crowned captain Keith Tkachuk, were mired in an 18-game winless streak, a futile run that had already cost general manager Mike Smith his job. Something had to change — and fast. While teams in that predicament often stage a post-game, players-only meeting in the locker room, the Jets chose instead to address their woes over a fully attended meal at Original Sorrento’s Italian Restaurant, 529 Ellice Ave.

"I remember poking my head out of the kitchen that night to say something to a server when who do I see walking in but Teemu Selanne," says owner Gerry Lomonaco, who added "Original" to the name of his establishment, which he runs with his sister Bri, years ago to differentiate it from two other Winnipeg Sorrento’s, neither of which his family has a stake in. "Right behind Teemu was Tie Domi and what I remember most about him was his neck. I’m a soccer player but his neck was thicker than my leg almost."

All in the family: Lomonaco’s sister Bri D’Ottavio (from left), Lomonaco, his mom, Antoinetta, and brother, Alfonso, in front of the Ellice Avenue location.</p></p>

All in the family: Lomonaco’s sister Bri D’Ottavio (from left), Lomonaco, his mom, Antoinetta, and brother, Alfonso, in front of the Ellice Avenue location.

Lomonaco, a married father of four whose 100-seat, plainly decorated locale toasted its 45th anniversary last year, won’t take credit for what occurred later that week, a 4-2 Jets win over the Dallas Stars followed by a 6-1 drubbing of the Ottawa Senators. At the same time, who’s to say what would have occurred had the squad headed out for steak and lobster instead, he says with a wink.

"We’ve cooked for a lot of famous people through the years — Bryan Adams, Jean Chrétien, the guys from Pearl Jam — but to my knowledge, members of the current Jets team haven’t been in yet," he continues, dressed in his everyday chef’s uniform: shorts, sneakers and a blue Sorrento’s T-shirt, the latter dotted with specks of flour.

"It’s not like I want them to lose but hey, if they do, they know where to find us."


Gerry Lomonaco spins pizza dough in the same spot he’s been spinning dough since opening the spot in 1985.</p></p>

Gerry Lomonaco spins pizza dough in the same spot he’s been spinning dough since opening the spot in 1985.

Lomonaco, 61, remembers moving to Winnipeg at age seven from a small village in Italy’s Basilicata region like it was yesterday. An hour or two after his parents and three siblings took possession of a house on Toronto Street, he headed outside to play with kids he’d spotted in a park across the road.

"In my head we’d never really left (Italy) so when I couldn’t understand a word they were saying — it sounded like they were speaking gibberish in an effort to tease me. I ended up getting into a fight," he says, seated in a back section of Sorrento’s that has been the scene of retirements, baptisms, weddings, birthday parties, you name it.

Lomonaco was 15 and working part-time at the late, great Mother Tucker’s Food Experience on Donald Street when his brother Alfonso, older by 10 years, and a pal of his named Sal Garofoli purchased Sorrento’s from original owner Tony Castellano. The way Lomonaco understands the story, Castellano, a local businessman, opened Sorrento’s, named for a coastal town in southwestern Italy, at 563 Portage Ave. in 1975. Shortly thereafter, he decided running a restaurant wasn’t his forte and put the 40-seater up for sale.

"My brother had no restaurant experience, whatsoever, he was a construction guy, but Sal had been a waiter in Europe, where you needed a degree almost to work in some of the finer places, so he knew quite a bit," Lomonaco says. "Sal stayed in the kitchen while my brother, a super likable guy who had this big, bushy moustache and spoke with a thick, Italian accent — the real deal, people called him — worked the front of the house, waiting tables and taking orders."

The Sorrento salad with ham and salami is a popular dish.

The Sorrento salad with ham and salami is a popular dish.

Business was soon so steady that Alfonso began pestering his younger brother to leave Mother Tucker’s to come cook for him and Garofoli instead. He agreed to do just that, bringing Mike Lisanti, a co-worker pal who happened to be Garofoli’s brother-in-law, with him.

Lomonaco, who briefly considered a career as a tile installer after graduating from Daniel McIntyre Collegiate in 1978, and Lisanti joined the ownership group in 1980. Five years later, by which time Garofoli and Lisanti had splintered off, first to open a Sorrento’s near Polo Park and later at the Courts of St. James, the Lomonaco brothers began shopping around for a new home.

Their lease on Portage Avenue was up for renewal and their landlord, perhaps noticing lineups outside Sorrento’s had become the norm, announced he was tripling their rent. That caused the two to do their math, and to realize they’d be further ahead purchasing a building of their own — even with interest rates hovering around 21 per cent.

They had heard through the grapevine that the owner of Luigi’s, an Italian joint at 529 Ellice Ave., was planning to retire, and was hoping to sell. To say that Lomonaco was familiar with the premises is a bit of an understatement.

Lomonaco has served plenty of famous people over the years, including Bryan Adams, Jean Chrétien, the members of Pearl Jam and players from the 1994 Winnipeg Jets team.

Lomonaco has served plenty of famous people over the years, including Bryan Adams, Jean Chrétien, the members of Pearl Jam and players from the 1994 Winnipeg Jets team.

Lomonaco was 12 years old when he landed an after-school job at Luigi’s shaping pizza dough. He stayed there three years but it was his first two weeks that were particularly memorable, he says with a chuckle. Minimum wage at the time was just under $2, and after clocking close to 40 hours over a 14-day stretch, he was already planning how to spend the $80 or so he was expecting to collect. One problem: when he held out his hand on payday, all his boss handed over was a single $20 bill.

"I looked at Luigi and said, ‘That’s it?’ to which he replied that was all he could afford. And also, how if we were back home in Italy, I would be the one paying him, because he was teaching me a trade," Lomonaco says, shaking his head. "When I got home I told my mom everything that happened. Except instead of sympathizing with me, like I expected her to, she was like, ‘Well, he does have a point.’"


You don’t stick it out as an Italian restaurant for over four decades without an A-1 pizza pie. Judging by the scores of expat Winnipeggers who make the West End mainstay their first stop when they’re back in town visiting friends and family, or pick up a couple ’zas on their way to the airport heading home, that certainly appears to be the case at Sorrento’s.

Sometimes, you can't beat a good Chicken Parmesan.

Sometimes, you can't beat a good Chicken Parmesan.

A namesake pie, the Sorrento (salami, pepperoni, mushrooms, bacon, green peppers and tomatoes), is probably the top seller but the Tropical, heavily laden with pineapple, the scourge of so-called pizza purists, isn’t far behind. That doesn’t bother Lomonaco, as Italian as it gets, a whit.

"The only reason Italians turn their noses up at pineapple on a pizza is because they didn’t come up with the idea first; if they had, it would be the greatest thing since sliced bread," he says, mentioning he tends to know most of his longtime regulars by order — Lasagna Guy, Thin Crust Veggie Gal, the list goes on and on — than by name.

(Pineapple on pizza is actually a Canadian creation, ironically enough.)

"I went to Italy with my family in 2012 and the most popular pizza that summer had hotdogs and french fries on it. If a guy from New York had done that, they would have been saying how Americans throw all this stupid s--t on their pizzas. But because it was an Italian whose idea it was, it was considered chic."

Sorrento's breadsticks with their signature tie in the middle.

Sorrento's breadsticks with their signature tie in the middle.

Lomonaco, whose 97-year-old mother Antonietta still shows up like clockwork to help wash dishes a couple times a week, rarely took a day off during COVID, despite being forced to close twice for in-person dining. Pickup and delivery sales remained strong, he says; a sign, he believes, that Winnipeggers wanted to ensure their favoured spots, not just his, would be still be around "at the end of all this."

That said, the surrounding neighbourhood has changed drastically since 1975, he allows, and there might come a day when he decides to uproot and move, most likely to the Centro Caboto Centre on Wilkes Avenue, where his restaurant has handled the catering end of things since 2018, under the direct guidance of his daughter Carly.

"In the old days we’d be packed till one in the morning on Friday and Saturday night but these days, we shut things down by 9 (p.m.), simply because a lot of our older customers aren’t comfortable coming to this part of town after dark," he says. "I’ve never had an ounce of trouble here, and I’ve never refused a single kid who’s knocked on the back door asking for a breadstick or a Coke. If I’m busy I might tell them to give me five minutes, but they’re always polite. Unfortunately, the perception is that this has turned into a bit of a tougher neighbourhood, and it’s hard to change people’s minds, no matter what you do."

Still, even if a change of locale is in the cards, don’t expect Lomonaco, who became a grandfather for the first time in June, to park his apron any time soon. Next year will mark 50 years since his first paying shift in a kitchen and "God willing," he has another 30 or so years in him, he says.

"People bring up the R-word all the time but look, I wouldn’t know what I’d do with myself if I retired," he says, telling a hostess to give him five minutes, he’ll be right there, when she waves an order for two chicken parmigiana dinners in front of him.

"I joke around saying I’ll probably be slaving over a hot oven right up until the day I die. Though in my head I guess I’m not really joking."

David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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