Anna E. “Betty” Sapia, a gregarious Ocean City restaurateur who had a zest for living and was gifted with an outsize personality and a genuine affection for her customers, died in her sleep Thursday at her Brightview Senior Living home in Towson. She was 89.
“She was a very respectful lady who always went the extra mile for everyone. She’d do anything for her customers,” said Jim Mathias, a former Ocean City mayor and state senator. “She was down-to-earth, bubbly and always happy.”
The former Anna Elizabeth Wrighton, daughter of John W. Wrighton, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. service repairman, and Ruth V. Wrighton, a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised on Whitmore Avenue, and attended city public schools.
She met her future husband, James J. Sapia Sr., at the Neapolitan, a Fawn Street restaurant in Little Italy that was owned and operated by his parents, Salvatore and Genevese Fusco Sapia. Her family dined there once a week.
The couple fell in love and married in 1953, and after they raised their children, they began their careers as Ocean City restaurateurs in 1972, when they purchased the old Monticello Hotel, at 3rd Street and Baltimore Avenue, home to the popular Dinner Bell restaurant. The restaurant closed in the 1970s, and the hotel was demolished in 1999.
“She came from a German Irish family but developed into a pretty good Italian,” said a son, Ralph L. Sapia of Towson.
Between 1972 and 1987 the couple amassed a mini-empire that included the Surf Inn, House of Pasta and DaVinci’s at 15th Street and Boardwalk. DaVinci’s, an Italian restaurant, continues to be owned and operated by another son, Vince A. Sapia of Ocean City.
When they opened DaVinci’s in 1987, her husband was the restaurant’s chef.
Her sons opened an open-air bar in 1992 that they named Surfin’ Betty’s Beach Bar, which they named for their mother, and continued owning until 2019.
“Its slogan was ‘Overpriced drinks and lousy service,’ which they later put on T-shirts,” said Joan Fowler, a longtime family friend, who retired from Pikesville Senior High School, where she taught English and journalism.
When things got a little hectic in the restaurant, it wasn’t uncommon for Mrs. Sadia to shrug her shoulders and say, “And people think this is glamorous?”
“She loved the restaurants and her customers and hearing about their experiences,” said her son Ralph. “What made them successful in the tough hospitality business was their love of feeding people. Oh, and eating.”
At times, when things got busy, Mrs. Sapia would interject a little humor into the situation, as when a customer complained about the time it was taking to get a drink.
“She said, ‘Tell him to chill out. The bartender is 80 years old,’” her son Ralph said with a laugh.
An expert baker, Mrs. Sapia enjoyed baking cakes and bringing them to the restaurant for all to enjoy, family members said.
Another son, James J. Sapia Jr. of Fort Myers, Florida, said: “And she loved counting money. She’d do it for hours while sitting at a table and smoking a cigarette.”
“Her reputation exists throughout Ocean City as a gracious host,” said Ms. Fowler, who got to know Mrs. Sapia and her family, when her son Ralph was a social studies teacher at Pikesville Senior High School. “Betty welcomed me into the family. She was outgoing, gracious and treated me like I was a member of her family.”
She added: “She was an extraordinarily resilient person and sacrificed a lot for her family and was always extremely loyal to her boys.”
When the Ocean City season ended, she turned her attention to Christmas, her favorite holiday, and launched into baking thousands of cookies, many of which she gave away.
“Mom would start baking in early November, and by the middle of December, she would have made literally over a thousand cookies,” her son James said.
“My father came from a family of nine sisters and brothers, and mom was an only child,” Ralph said. “So our home was the place for Christmas. She had an open house that ran from Christmas to New Year’s Eve. She prepared roast beef, calamari, all kinds of food, and she did it effortlessly. It was her hobby, and it brought her great joy.”
When she retired in 2019 and moved to Brightview, Mrs. Sapia extended her generosity to fellow residents who had no family, making sure she had a holiday basket for them. “She knew hard times and recognized when others were going through it,” her son James said.
Time had not dimmed Mrs. Sapia’s ribald sense of humor and joie de vivre.
“At Brightview, she had a sign on her door that said, ‘Hot Men Only Allowed Here,’” Ms. Fowler said, with a laugh.
When she fell in a parking lot and they were waiting for the paramedics, her son Ralph asked his mother, “What’s going on, Mom?”
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“She answered, ‘I wanted to see if those firefighters are really hot,’” he said.
A granddaughter described Mrs. Sapia this way: “Gram has the spirit and mind of a 30-year-old that is trapped in the body of an 89-year-old.”
Her husband died in 2000.
Her son Ralph said it was fitting that his mother died on Sept. 22, the last day of summer, which marks the traditional end of business for many Ocean City restaurants.
“It was certainly a life well-lived,” Ms. Fowler said.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home at 1050 York Road.
In addition to her three sons, Mrs. Sapia is survived by five grandchildren.