Maria Boeri was nervous enough that summer day in 2005 when she first opened her Italian deli in Bel Air. Then two customers ordered, took their sandwiches to a table ... and turned their chairs to face the kitchen.
“They just sat there, eating and watching us,” Boeri says. “We were already freaked out. I guess they were curious.”
Fifteen years later, her cafe, Savona, has been voted the top deli in Harford County’s Best Restaurants of 2020 Readers’ Poll. It’s a nexus for local residents on Main Street and boasts a chummy atmosphere. Before the pandemic, Savona had a “hugging station” by the side counter for its more demonstrative patrons, some of whom would come in just for a hug.
“It’s like ‘Cheers’; they treat you like family,” says Tina Kierzewski, 58, of Bel Air. For eight years, she and her husband have dined at Savona on Friday nights. If they miss one, Kierzewski says, she’ll get a text message from the owner asking, “Are you guys OK?"
“I consider a lot of these customers to be my friends,” says Boeri, 61. When one asked her to stay open late and host a surprise party for his wife, she did. Two years ago, when twin hand surgeries sidelined her from work, patrons brought gifts and flowers to her home nearby.
“I was feeling bad one day when one customer texted me, saying, ‘Go look out on your porch.’ There was a vase filled with sunflowers,” she says. “One regular even brought me a pie.”
At the same time, Boeri is attuned to her customers’ needs.
“Some women come in, sit by themselves, look a little sad and have a glass of wine,” she says. “When I ask how they’re doing, a few have said, ‘My husband has reconnected with his childhood sweetheart on Facebook.’ Some start crying."
"I’ll give them a hug, or send them home with a loaf of bread.”
One of about 17 eateries in a busy five-block stretch of Bel Air’s main drag, Savona holds its own. The Harford County courthouse is nearby, as are several banks, white-collar businesses and upscale shops.
The food draws the lunch bunch; likewise, the ambience that embraces this six-table locale.
“Searching for a deli site, I didn’t even look in shopping centers. I wanted an old-fashioned feel, a little more Mayberry,” she says.
To that end, sliced deli meats and cheeses are wrapped not in plastic but vintage butcher paper, and sealed during the holidays with Christmas stickers. Here, sandwiches are named for staffers, past and present (the Robertson sandwich, the Taylor wrap). When co-workers and customers suggest new menu items, Boeri listens.
But the standbys reign, succulent sandwiches like the Baltimore Wrap (honey ham, turkey, Asiago cheese, lettuce, tomato and Old Bay mayonnaise) and the cranberry chicken salad. The roast beef is lean and tender, “the best you could put on a sandwich,” Boeri declares. The salami arrives in its natural casing; the prosciutto hails from Italy.
“I love the wraps, the cheeseboards and the compania panini [mozzarella, prosciutto, tomato and basil]," says Elizabeth Fetters, 42, of Forest Hill. That Savona has maintained its “congenial environment" during the pandemic is impressive, she says:
“It’s not easy to be in the food industry now, but Maria balances running a demanding business with a friendly nature toward everyone who walks in. She’s very caring and giving. You practically have to beat her off with a stick to get out of there without her handing you a loaf of bread.”
Come lunch, at times, the line of patrons may snake out the door.
“I know a lot of them by name,” Boeri says. "Sometimes I write them down so I don’t forget.
Likewise, she is in sync with her staff, some of whom represent different generations of the same family.
“I’ve been to a lot of weddings of [high school and college] kids after they left,” Boeri says. Last spring, a couple got engaged while dining in Savona; the young man took a knee and proposed.
A native of Long Island, New York, she grew up in a neighborhood peppered with delis and, while in high school, vowed to one day have a place of her own. A sociology major at Towson, she was a hostess at the Rusty Scupper restaurant in Towson when she met her soon-to-be husband, Blane Boeri, a bartender there. They wed in 1984 and settled in Bel Air. He became maitre d' at the Prime Rib in Baltimore, then general manager of the Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley; she stayed home to raise their two sons and run a craft business, though never giving up on her dream.
“When we moved here, there was no place to get a fresh ball of mozzarella,” she says. “I always said that if nobody opened a deli/bistro in Bel Air, I would do it.”
Still, when the time came, Boeri moved deliberately, researching the business for a year before forging ahead.
“Blane and I traveled up and down the East Coast, observing and tasting stuff in delis and markets to find the best of the best,” she says. “We did our homework.”
The bistro’s name, Savona, is a town in Italy and her husband’s ancestral home.
“We second-mortgaged our own home to start this place, and I ground my teeth at night for months,” Boeri says. “I’m not out yacht-shopping by any stretch, but we’ve had a good life — although, before I close my eyes [at bedtime] I still wonder, ‘Did I order enough produce and bread?’ But I knew I could do this. I also wanted to be a mother and raise my own kids. I say that proudly, as a woman business owner, because you can do both in life — just not at the same time.”