Daniela Useli worked in a permit office in her native Sardinia, Italy before moving to Maryland in 1999.
For Useli, who learned to cook as a child, it was an opportunity to do something "totally different," she said — open her own Italian restaurant. In 2010, after working for several years as a chef at other restaurants in Baltimore, she rented the old Eye Candy eyeglasses store space at 900 W. 36th St., on The Avenue in Hampden, and opened Daniela Pasta & Pastries. There, she makes everything from scratch, from pasta to sausages, meatballs, grilled vegetables, fruit tarts and cannoli.
Even with several other Italian restaurants in the neighborhood, Useli, 54, of Towson, has drawn a growing base of customers to her cozy space with four tables inside, a few more on the porch, and a kitchen upstairs. Business has been so good that now, "I need more space," Useli said. "Customers ask me, 'Why don't you expand?'"
In January, she plans to open a full-fledged, 75-seat restaurant called Daniela's Cafe & Bakery, with a beer, wine and liquor license, two blocks away at 822-824 W. 36th St. She's considering closing the current restaurant when the new one opens, she said.
Useli, who moved from Italy with her husband, Gianluigi Tanda, a researcher for the National Institutes of Health, only has two employees at Daniela Pasta & Pastries. One is her son, Stefano, 23, who serves as the manager. Her other son, Marco, 18, is majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland. Yet she also has a popular ambassador at the restaurant, who works for free — a roughly 7-foot-tall statue of a smiling chef. She named him Frank. He stands outside during business hours as if to greet customers.
So many passers-by stop to take photos of themselves with Frank that Useli figures, "I [would] make a million dollars," if she were to charge a fee for every photo taken with Frank.
Useli gravitated to the restaurant business after leaving Italy. She is a former chef for Grano Emporio in Hampden and for Sotto Sopra in downtown Baltimore. (She bought Frank from her friend and former employer, Ricardo Bosio, who owns Sotto Sopra.) Useli herself cuts a striking figure. During an interview earlier this month, she was dressed in black and wore a red cap with a hair net and an apron imprinted with a fanciful map of the island of Sardinia.
"I love her. She's so passionate and talented," said Will Bauer, aka Lou Catelli, a local restaurant consultant and vice president of the Hampden Community Council, who first met Useli at Sotto Sopra and knew how badly she wanted to open her own restaurant. When Bauer heard that Eye Candy was moving across the street, he helped Useli take over the space as Daniela Pasta & Pastries and watched her work to set it up.
"She worked so hard," he said. "She never slept. She was so enthusiastic about having her own place."
Bauer also knew that she was using the small space, which was barely more than a carryout, as a "steppingstone" to a larger restaurant.
Her interior decorating reflects her roots in Sardinia — "the highlands" in Italy, she explained proudly — and so does her cooking, from potato ravioli to hand-cut fettuccine, hand-written as 'fethucine,' the Italian spelling, on a chalk board in Daniela Pasta & Pastries. The new Daniela's Cafe & Bakery will have authentic flourishes such as old bottles of Sardinian wine and an antique coffee grinder on display.
At the current restaurant, customers are taking notice of her authentic cooking. If there are no empty tables inside Daniela Pasta & Pastries, some people will sit outside, even in the cold, "just to eat Daniela's food," said her nephew and former employee, Luca Useli, 24, who helped translate for her in an interview Dec. 14. "For a hole in the wall, this place is gold," he said.
Family is important to Useli, whose father helped fight organized crime as a policeman in Sardinia. Luca Useli said he came to Baltimore from Italy in 2012 at his aunt's invitation and had a job waiting for him at Daniela Pasta & Pastries.
"I need some help in the restaurant," he recalls her telling him. "Why don't you come?"
He left the restaurant last year and now works at the Sheraton North hotel in Towson as a banquet server, a skill he said he learned from his aunt. He said she also does catering, works as a personal chef, gives cooking lessons and has seated as many as 18 people in tiny Daniela Pasta & Pastries.
Luca Useli said he still comes back to help his aunt as needed. "It's family. We help each other," he said, adding, "You don't just work for Daniela; you have fun."
She treats her customers like family, too. "When you go to Daniela, you're not a customer, you're a guest," Luca Useli said.
Useli is known to make special dishes for customers who ask her to surprise them. She plans to do a lot more of that at Daniela's Cafe & Bakery and will have an informal daily menu.
"Her idea is that she wants to do something new," said her nephew. "You just walk in and sit down and she will say, 'What do you prefer?' or she will make it a surprise."
She will also recreate well-remembered dishes on request, if possible. If you say, 'My grandma used to make it,' she'll make it," he said.
Loyal customers are looking forward to the new space. "I've always loved it here," said Hanna Moran, of Hampden, who helped do murals on the walls of the new space and was eating lunch at the current restaurant Saturday, Dec. 19 with her parents, Sheila Eastman and Tim Moran, of Towson. "But there will be a lot more space in the new place."
"As a diner, I'm looking forward to another Hampden restaurant that's big enough to take our friends," Eastman said.
Tin Moran's only concern was that the new restaurant wouldn't offer carry-out.
"We will," said Stefano Useli, working behind the counter and overhearing the conversation.
Now, all that's left to do is to finish decorating the new space and outfit it as a restaurant.
"She's a step closer to having the dream cafe she always wanted," Bauer said. "I never met a person who worked so hard as she has. Her customers love her to death. It really is the American dream."