Married for more than 30 years, with two adoring sons, two successful restaurants and bakery skills that won her a reputation as “The Cookie Lady of Venice,” Nella Valenti seemed to have a full life.
Yet there was, she says, a hole in her heart. She longed for something that meant even more to her than a good meal or a fine wine. She craved music.
As a girl growing up in Siracusa, Sicily, Valenti was surrounded by song. Her father and six uncles were musicians. Her brother trained at a conservatory. Nella took piano lessons. “But after I got married and we started the restaurants, no more music,” Nella recalls. “Look at all I had, how blessed we were. I could not complain about anything. But inside, something missing.”
Today, that void has been filled, and then some. At age 64, Nella has become a music impresario, turning her Allegro Bistro and Lounge on West Venice Avenue into a haven for live music.
The lounge, opulently decorated with oil paintings, sofas and chandeliers, has been embraced by jazz musicians, who longed for a local venue in South County. Singer Kitt Moran and pianist Michael Moran, former stars on the New York club scene, have a weekly gig. Legendary composer and pianist Dick Hyman, who at 89 is still playing venues such as Lincoln Center in New York, has also taken the stage at Nella’s club.
The bistro offers jazz three nights a week, including a Tuesday night jam session that can involve a dozen or more local musicians, many of them retirees who played with some of the best in jazz. The lounge features live music and dancing the other three nights. “Always music now,” Nella says. “Every night we’re open. It’s become like one big family.”
When the bistro opened in 2008, Nella envisioned the lounge as a sports bar with wall-to-wall TVs. But she decided that didn’t fit the market. One day, a member of the Sarasota Jazz Club stopped by and said there was a need for a venue in South County, especially with so many retired musicians and jazz fans living there. The move turned out to be such a hit that the bistro, which seats 135, often has to turn patrons away during season.
Nella still supervises the cooking and bakes up to 4,000 cookies a week, while her husband Santo runs the couple’s original restaurant, Valenti’s, about a mile west on Venice Avenue. But she’s also rekindled her love for performing. She installed a keyboard in a spare room of the restaurant and is learning to play again, and she regularly takes the stage to belt out a couple tunes.
At first, she says, her voice was rusty and some questioned why she was singing. That only made Nella more adamant. “I told them, ‘because I love it,’” she says. “This is my restaurant. I do what I want.”
Her favorite song is the Italian standard “Mamma,” which she sings only occasionally but which always brings a tear to her eye when she talks about it. Her mother Angela passed away 15 years ago.
“My son didn’t like my singing at first,” she says. “But one night, another singer was performing ‘Mamma.’ I overheard my son tell someone, ‘That singer was good, but she didn’t sing it nearly as good as my mom.’ It made me so happy.”