Recipe for success includes dough, cheese

Even after nearly 50 years of selling pizza and subs from its East Drive location, Sorrento of Arbutus continues a family tradition that has made the restaurant a fixture in the community.

"It's an icon of Arbutus," said lawyer Terry Nolan, whose office is only a few blocks away.


"Sorrento's has been an innovative business for most of the 50 years they have been open," said Nolan, immediate past president of the Arbutus Business and Professional Association.

For example, when Michael Kostinsky, started managing the business, he began offering catering services to nearby construction sites and schools, said his wife, Ella Kostinsky, who took over managing the restaurant after her husband's death in 2008.


Her husband also developed a relationship between the business and nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore County, sponsoring events at the school and participating in its campus dining card program, which allows students to use their meal plan cards at participating businesses in the community..

Nolan, who has advocated for businesses to build relationships with the school, said the effort to attract students has been a wise one.

Over the years, those efforts have included sponsoring sports teams, donating money to the school and handing out fliers to students, Ella Kostinsky said.

But enticing students to the restaurant can be difficult because of all the food options on campus, she said.


"There are thousands of students there, if we could just tap into that," she said.

Ella Kostinsky now owns and runs the eatery with her son, Brandon Kostinsky, 23, manager of the restaurant.

Brandon Kostinsky has aspirations to someday follow in his father's footsteps and own the business.

Like his father, who learned the ropes of the business and eventually oversaw its daily operations in 1987, Brandon Kostinsky has worked his way up to manager. He was responsible for the restaurant's expansion last month, when the business opened Sorrento Cafe in a space that sat vacant for months.

Ella Kostinsky took the reins of the business after her husband, died of a heart attack at the age of 56.

"It was very sudden — it happened here at work," she said.

She had never been involved in the business, but wouldn't consider selling it because she wanted to pass it on to their son.

She has no plans to change the operation she refers to as a "well-oiled machine with good systems in place," and doesn't expect that Arbutus residents would want her to.

"I feel really proud of what my father-in-law and husband did," Ella Kostinsky said, sporting the same short worn by other employees at the store. The collared shirts are forest green emblazoned on the front with the business' logo.

Ella Kostinsky, 59, said her husband would have been proud to see the business continuing as he had left it.

"It's the same way [my father] left it, just newer on the inside," Brandon Kostinsky said.

Other than changing paint colors, replacing flooring, and adding new furniture, it has stayed the same, Ella Kostinsky said.

The restaurant seems to have found the right ingredients to allow for continued success as it celebrates its 50th anniversary on March 1.

"When you walk in, it's nice to be able to see your friends and neighbors," said Richard Greene, owner of nearby Arbutus Auto Body on Leeds Avenue. "It's more than just the food — it's the atmosphere."

The East Drive eatery has kept its original method of pizza making established by Leon Kostinsky, who founded the restaurant in 1965.

"We make our own dough daily, make it from scratch — flour, yeast, the whole nine yards, and the cheese is a blend of five different cheeses and we double shred it ourselves," Ella Kostinsky said.

Customers agree the food is good, but it's the people who keep them coming back.

Over time, the business has established itself in the community with a loyal following of regular customers.

"We have some die hard fans who come in every day. They know the menu by heart," said John "Woody" Holtzapple, 17, a Catonsville High School senior who works at the restaurant alongside eight of his family members.

"I've been coming here my whole life," Holtzapple said. "It's a place where we're treated just like we're family. That's why we come in every day."

Those family members include his mother, Rosemary Holtzapple; sister, Lisa Holtzapple; grandmother, Mary Taylor; and extended family members Beverly Taylor, Ronald Nestor, Margaret Barnard and Abigale Barnard.

While the restaurant business is known for its high staff turnover, the Sorrento's has managed to retain its employees for many years.

Manager Mary Taylor, 55, for example, has worked at the business for almost 20 years.

Taylor said the restaurant is like a "second family."

Ella Kostinsky said the business has withstood competition from other pizza outlets only a few blocks away, such as Mike's Pizza House of Arbutus and Pizza 786, because Sorrento's offers a different atmosphere and dining experience. Sorrento also serves beer and wine, and the others do not.

And the newly opened Oak Creek Cafe a short distance away hasn't impacted Sorrento's sales, because it's a different concept, the Kostinskys said.

When asked how the business has continued to stay afloat for so many years, Ella Kostinsky said, "I would say it boils down to three things: one would be our quality of food, our customer service and a clean environment."

Neither Brandon nor Ella Kostinsky have plans to expand to expand to a second location, although they said customers have requested that they do.

"The only thing that will happen is this one will get bigger," Brandon Kostinsky said. "Because you lose your attention to detail."

"If you're paying too much attention to another one, then you're not paying enough attention to this one," he said.

His mother agreed. "You can't really be in two places at one time," she said.

Ella Kostinsky said she spends five days a week at the restaurant.

"My weekends are Tuesday, Wednesday," she said. "I cashier, I clean the dining room, I pull pizzas, answer the phone, I do whatever I can do to help out."

The hands-on approach has played a large part in the success of the business, her son said.

Ella Kostinsky expressed gratitude for the restaurant's loyal customers, who she credits with making the family restaurant a success.

"I want them to know how much we appreciate them," Ella said. "We wouldn't be here without them."

One of those regulars, Charlie Fair, 82, of Lansdowne, said he began frequenting the restaurant when it first opened.

The cheese steak subs are a personal favorite, but it's the people who keep him coming back, Fair said.

"It's always been a great place to come," said Fair, seated in a booth, finishing up lunch with a friend. "I knew the boy's father."

The business will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a week of events beginning March 1 that will include live 1960s music, cupcakes and a trivia night.

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