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Sorrento, ‘cornerstone of the Arbutus community’, changing hands after 55 years of family ownership

Ellla Kostinsky, left, has announced her plans to retire from the business that was in the family for 55 years. In this file photo, she poses with her son, Brandon, who left the restaurant previously to pursue other business interests.
Ellla Kostinsky, left, has announced her plans to retire from the business that was in the family for 55 years. In this file photo, she poses with her son, Brandon, who left the restaurant previously to pursue other business interests.(Staff photo by Jen Rynda, Patuxent Publishing)

Jeremy Desmond has frequented Sorrento of Arbutus nearly every week for the past two decades.

The 31-year-old Arbutus native has celebrated birthdays, baseball and football team wins, and gender reveal parties there. Eleven years ago, he took the girl who would eventually become his wife to Sorrento on their first date. When he pops in to order food, the staff knows his name, asks about his family, and remembers his order.

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“It might sound weird, but it’s kind of a piece of me,” Desmond said.

Sorrento has become an Arbutus fixture since Leon Kostinsky opened the pizza and sub restaurant in 1965. Fifty-five years later, the last owner from the Kostinsky clan, Ella Kostinsky, announced her retirement from the family business, and is in the process of selling the restaurant and property to a new owner.

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“I just got to the point where I needed to retire,” said Ella Kostinsky, who turned 64 in January. “I know firsthand that life is too short — and restaurants are a very hard business to be in. I said, ‘It’s time.’”

Ella has been running the restaurant for 11 years, since she took over management from her husband, Michael Kostinsky, after his death in 2008. She and her son, 29-year-old Brandon Kostinsky, ran the restaurant together before Brandon departed to start his own business outside the food industry.

Ella, who had previously worked in human resources, said taking the helm of Sorrento was a learning curve.

“Michael had it running like a well-oiled machine,” the Woodlawn native said, but “I jumped in feet first.”

Leon and Michael Kostinsky - 1991.
Leon and Michael Kostinsky - 1991.(Photo Provided)

After taking ownership from his father in the 1980s, Michael rolled out food trucks, dubbed the “Feast Beast," painted like a tiger with a horn that roared when it was pressed, to local schools and construction workers in the 1980s, then established Sorrento Catering in the 1990s. He added a banquet hall below the restaurant and expanded the menu from its well-loved pizza and subs selection to include seafood, burgers and pasta dishes.

“The Kostinsky family, they have supported everything that goes on in Arbutus — the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, athletics,” said Patsy Plowman, who has worked as the business office administrator at Sorrento for the past four years.

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, athletes will meet in the Sorrento Room, which Michael helped fund, Ella said. The restaurant has contributed to Arbutus’ Santa House and the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, the annual Fourth of July parade, local sports leagues and neighborhood beautification projects organized by the Greater Arbutus Business Association.

“They have touched every aspect of the community in Arbutus,” said Bettina Tebo, president of the business association.

Plowman, who was a regular at Sorrento for decades before joining the staff, said what’s cemented the restaurant in the hearts of its neighbors is more than just the quality food; it’s the family-like atmosphere.

Some regulars “come every single day,” and others have a “little weekly schedule,” she said. "They feel like they’re coming in to visit a family.”

“I think Sorrento became an institution just because it was a gathering place,” Ella Kostinsky said.

The entrance to Sorrento of Arbutus circa the 1980s.
The entrance to Sorrento of Arbutus circa the 1980s.(Photo Provided)

Former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., an Arbutus native, previously told The Baltimore Sun that he had eaten hundreds of meals there growing up, calling the restaurant “a hangout for decades.”

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“When you walk in, it’s just nostalgic, it’s a warm feeling,” Desmond said.

“People move away, they come back and fly into BWI [airport] and the first stop they make is into Sorrento to get a pizza," Kostinsky said.

Although high staff turnover is common in the restaurant industry, some staff members at Sorrento have stayed for decades.

Terry Green said she’s stayed at Sorrento for 37 years because of Michael’s leadership.

“He treated the employees right, he would do anything for you. He understood what we went through,” Green said. “I enjoyed my work.”

Ella wants those things to stay the same, she said.

The soon-to-be new owner, Harold Xecominos “wants to continue on what Michael’s parents and what Michael built ... and maybe take it to a new level,” Kostinsky said. “And I find that exciting.”

New ownership

8:30 p.m. - Arbutus - Sorrento's Arbutus stands quietly.
8:30 p.m. - Arbutus - Sorrento's Arbutus stands quietly.(Jeffrey F. Bill)

As a food distributor, Xecominos used to deliver food to Sorrento under Leon’s and Michael’s ownership.

“I have an emotional attachment,” said the former owner of Loafers Bar and Grill, which was destroyed in a fire in August. “There’s some love here, you know what I mean?”

Some Arbutus natives are “a little wary” of the change, Desmond said.

A few weeks ago, Desmond said he noticed a Pepsi machine had taken the place of the typical Coca-Cola soda machine near the popular shaved ice maker — "something very innocent,” he allowed, but which could be a harbinger of alterations to come.

“Our customers aren’t gonna like that,” Green told Xecominos. "They’re Coke people.”

Desmond railed against the change on Facebook, garnering commiseration from locals and a quick response from Xecominos that he would return the Coca-Cola machine.

“The Coke is staying,” Xecominos said. “I learned my lesson.”

Xecominos stressed that he had no intention of changing the restaurant, aside from some sprucing up of the interior, including a new mural of Sorrento, Italy, the peaceful coastal town for which Sorrento is named.

He’s seeking to purchase the restaurant and the property owned by Ella Kostinsky that runs from 5401 to 5405 East Drive.

“I’m a businessman, I’m not stupid," Xecominos said. “I’m not gonna change something that’s working.”

Plans to turn over the business to Xecominos have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, and while dining-in has been prohibited due to social distancing orders from Gov. Larry Hogan, the restaurant has made delivery available from its own staff, GrubHub, DoorDash, and Uber Eats, and will continue to deliver once the pandemic subsides.

Amid the coronavirus, Xecominos, who is currently being paid as a consultant to the restaurant until he takes ownership, said Sorrento is “staying afloat.” No staff cuts have been made, and the restaurant has not had to apply for government assistance.

For Kostinsky’s part, she is enjoying her new retired life on Delaware’s Fenwick Island, with its slower pace and poolside relaxation. And once the pandemic is over, she plans on returning to visit the institution her husband and his parents built.

“Sorrento’s has been a cornerstone of the Arbutus community for 55 years,” Tebo said. “With the legacy they’re leaving, I just hope that their position in the community doesn’t change.”

Desmond said he is looking forward to his next family pizza night.

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“My hope moving forward is the owner kind of recognizes that there is a huge community following for Sorrento," he said. “It’s a staple of the Arbutus area.”

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