Marcellina Prati

Italian immigrant ran New York restaurant before moving in with her family in Timonium, living to the age of 109

March 04, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen |

Marcellina "Lena" Prati, a former Greenwich Village restaurateur who attributed her longevity to keeping busy and enjoying several glasses of wine each day, died Feb. 21 of colon cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care.

The Timonium resident was 109.

Marcellina Bragoli, the daughter of a musician and a homemaker, was born and raised in Piacenza, Italy, where she also attended school.

"When she was 18, she left Piacenza for New York City. She came over in steerage with a friend from home who would eventually become her sister-in-law," said her daughter, Midge DeSesa of Timonium.

"They were in cabins. She said they had no beds and there were no mattresses. Instead, they slept in bunk beds that were covered in straw," her daughter said.

"She said the food in steerage was so terrible that she and her friend volunteered to work in the ship's galley, where they could eat better," she said.

Landing at Ellis Island, with $25 and not knowing any English, Mrs. Prati found work as a waitress.

"She worked in her future brother-in-law's restaurant on 23rd Street and his Club Remo, where she learned English working as a waitress," Mrs. DeSesa said.

In 1922, she married another Italian immigrant, Cerillo Prati, and eventually the couple purchased an apartment house on Thompson Street near Canal Street, in lower Manhattan.

"They opened Lena's Restaurant, an Italian restaurant, on the first floor of the building in 1935. She was an excellent cook," her daughter said.

"She served spaghetti, lasagna, meatballs and many fresh vegetable dishes. She also served steaks that she cooked on the stove's gas jet, which made them kind of charcoaled. Of course, she also always had a large caldron of tomato sauce simmering," Mrs. DeSesa said.

"She made her own version of bread pudding that included ice cream, leftover stale bread and cake, over which she poured red wine. My brother and I would never eat it because we knew what went into it, and to this day I won't go near bread pudding," she said.

"Every time my brother and I told the story about her bread pudding, she'd wave her arms to make us be quiet," she said.

After her husband was killed in an automobile accident in 1962, Mrs. Prati continued operating the restaurant for eight years before moving to her daughter's Timonium home in 1970.

At her new home, she planted a vegetable garden that she expanded each year, over the objections of her son-in-law.

" 'I'm just straightening it out its lines,' she'd tell him. She'd preserve about 10 cases of tomatoes each summer and gave the rest away," her daughter said.

She also baked her famous sourdough bread.

"She had a sourdough bread starter. In Italy, such starters are passed down from one generation to the other. Her routine was to bake two or three times a week, which made eight loaves at a time," Mrs. DeSesa said.

When she went to visit her son at his home in Clearwater, Fla., she brought 100 loaves with her.

"And when they were gone, she knew it was time to come home," Mrs. DeSesa said, laughing.

Mrs. Prati was also a fan of the orange trees that dotted her son's property.

"My brother and husband had put up a ladder to knock off some oranges, and then we went in the house to have some coffee," she said.

"A neighbor banged on the door and said there was an old lady with a broom on top of the ladder knocking off oranges. My God, it was my mother! She said the reason she climbed up to get those oranges at the very top of the tree was because they 'got more sun,' " her daughter said. "She was then in her late 80s."

Mrs. DeSesa said in the springtime, her mother would go through her Eastridge Road neighborhood gathering dandelions from neighbors' yards, which she took home, washed and made into a salad.

Mrs. Prati never learned to drive and got around by public transit or walked.

It was only in recent years that she agreed to occasional use of a walker, and that was only for stability, her daughter said.

When she was 99, she survived a bout with cancer and continued handling the family cooking and gardening until she was 104.

Mrs. Prati enjoyed a glass of vermouth before lunch and dinner and a glass of red wine with her meals, a custom she maintained until the end of her life.

"She inspired four generations with her incredible work ethic and cheerful demeanor," said Jackie Colt, a granddaughter who lives in Atlanta.

Mrs. Prati was a communicant of the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity in Timonium, where plans for a memorial Mass, to be offered on or near what would have been her 110th birthday in June, were incomplete Wednesday.

Also surviving are seven other grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren. Her son, Naldo Prati, died in 2004.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.