If it seems there are a lot of exclamation points this interview, it’s because this week’s Portrait is an impassioned and animated speaker.
As a manager of Positano Coast for 14 years, Marianna Coppola has developed it into one of the city’s most-treasured restaurants. Now she’s ready to take on a whole new adventure, combining her artistic skills with her management talents to form Creations by Coppola.
PGN: Super sleuth that I am, I’m going to guess by your accent that you’re not originally from Philadelphia.
MC: No, I’m from Italy. I was born in a small town called Monte de Procida, it’s near Napoli [or as we’d say, Naples]. Now it’s a little better, but when I left at 18, it was very old-fashioned; men sitting outside in the piazza all day while the women were at home cooking. So that’s why I left.
PGN: What prompted you to want to leave at 18 and did you come straight to the States?
MC: When I finished school, everyone was complaining that there was no work to be had, so I didn’t want to waste my time looking. Everyone still lives with their parents there and I didn’t want that, so I started traveling. I went to London for three years, Spain for a year. I’d just stop in one place and work, make some money and then go to the next place and get another job. That’s how I came here.
PGN: I came straight here from a protest against this administration’s immigration policies. What are your thoughts? Was it hard for you to get in?
MC: Not so hard for me, but I’m not from one of the countries they’re going after. The hardest part was the first four years before I was legal because I was not able to leave, not for holidays or anything. I was afraid if I left, I couldn’t get back in. So for four years I went without seeing my family and that was the most difficult thing. I was able to get Positano Coast to sponsor me, then I had to wait forever for all the paperwork to go through and then I was finally able to go home, and most importantly come back. I have a lot of friends from Mexico and South America and it’s terrible, they can’t leave. So sad what they have to go through.
PGN: No worries for you?
MC: No, I am a full American citizen now. No one can keep me out!
PGN: How old were you when you first realized you were gay?
MC: I pretty much realized it when I moved here. I mean, I kind of knew it because I’d have crushes on all of my friends from all the way back to elementary school, but I didn’t acknowledge it. I just wanted to be like everyone else. But when I lived in London, that’s when I started to think, Oh my God, maybe I do like women. Then I moved here and I didn’t care anymore. I met somebody, at Sisters, actually. That’s where I remember you from! It’s crazy!
PGN: What did you do when you first got here?
MC: I was cleaning tables at a little diner in Yardley.
PGN: Yardley! How did you go from Italy to Yardley?
MC: No, no. Italy to Jacksonville, Fla., to Trenton, to Yardley, to Philadelphia. I was asking people where I could find jobs and that’s where it led me — all the way to working for Aldo Lamberti and Positano Coast. I’ve been there for 14 years.
PGN: And I understand you’ve now opened up your own business.
MC: At Positano, I used to do all the decorating. I always paid attention to detail, especially with things like the flower arrangements. It’s about presentation, creating an atmosphere. [Laughing] Even when I cook for myself at home, I make sure my plate looks perfect. After a while, I thought, maybe I should do this for a living. So I went to New York and got a degree from the Flower School of New York, worked for a couple of florists, and loved it. Last week, I opened a flower shop called Flora/Fauna on Passyunk Avenue.
PGN: Congratulations! You studied in New York and managed the restaurant at the same time?
MC: A lot of commuting. And a lot of work — I’m still at the restaurant three days a week.
PGN: What was your most memorable moment at Positano?
MC: Our 10th anniversary. We had all sorts of local celebrities and politicians come out. It was nice to sit back and reflect on how far we’ve come.
PGN: Have you done other jobs?
MC: No, it was always the restaurant business. When I was a kid, we lived over my uncle’s restaurant and when I was 8, I used to go down and work in the kitchen without my parents knowing. I loved it, the whole vibe in there. And now I create vibes for people.
PGN: You’ve been in Philly for 14 years. What do you like about it?
MC: I like that it feels like Europe in a way. I like that you can walk everywhere. It’s a great city; it just feels like home. Even though my family is not here, something about Philadelphia just always felt right. I lived in Florence too, which is the sister city to Philadelphia, so it was just meant to be.
PGN: Has the family been to visit?
MC: Just one time. My sister has her job and the kids and my parents are getting old, so they prefer to travel at home. In Europe, you travel an hour and you’re in a different country. I go back twice a year.
PGN: What was the biggest culture shock coming to the States?
MC: How particular Americans are about everything. Americans care about the things around them, the, um …
PGN: The things that affect them.
MC: Yes, not everybody, but a lot of Americans are very particular. But it shows how much they care too. I come from Napoli and it’s totally different. It’s a beautiful country, they enjoy life being very laidback. But everything’s always a fucking mess. You have to wait for everything, you want something done by the city — forget about it, you wait years. Everything takes forever. Very different than Americans, for sure. This is why I love America.
PGN: I remember the first time I went to Greece, we got off the plane and there was no one there. All the customs people had decided to walk off the job, so we just walked through ourselves. I was miffed because I didn’t get a stamp.
MC: Oh yes, it’s exactly the same in Italy. Can you imaging me living there? Oh no, it’s not going to happen. I have too much energy. I’d always be going, “I need this done now!” Sometimes I like the culture — that “It’s OK, don’t worry about it, think about it tomorrow” attitude. But when you’re in business, it’s different. Here, you can get things done — no bullshitting or waiting around.
PGN: Some random questions: What would we find in your refrigerator?
MC: Nothing! [Laughing] Wait, some almond milk but that’s it. I run a restaurant but I don’t have time to cook. And if I do cook, I buy what I need, cook it and that’s it. I don’t keep anything.
PGN: What do you like to do in the rare instance you’re not working?
MC: I love my motorcycle but I haven’t gotten it out yet, and I love my hot yoga, love it. It’s an hour and a half, very intense, and when I’m in that room I don’t think of anything else. Just the hard work and sweat.
PGN: You could walk outside today and it feels like hot yoga for the planet. A time you laughed so hard your stomach hurt?
MC: This was bad: I was at Positano at the front desk and there was a guy there from India trying to tell me something, but his accent was so thick I couldn’t understand what he was saying. The way he was talking, really animated, made me start laughing and I couldn’t stop. I had to duck down behind the counter. The other manager at the front desk was from Argentina, so there were three of us: an Argentinian, an Indian guy and an Italian all speaking English and we couldn’t understand a word. It was hilarious.
PGN: Tell me more about your new venture.
MC: It’s called Flora/Fauna, I’m the flora and the guys are the fauna. They’re experts in exotic pets and plants and orchids. With Creations by Coppola, I concentrate on weddings and special events, but I also do bouquets in the store — everything from $15 pick-me-up bouquets to fancier arrangements. It’s all gay-owned and operated.
PGN: Speaking of positive energy, I love your space at Flora/Fauna. It’s very zen. Except for some of the really exotic creatures, I’d love it as an apartment.
MC: Yes, this is a great area too. For someone planning a wedding or event, there are vendors all around us who provide everything from shoes to cakes. You can get it all done right in one spot!
Creations by Coppola at Flora/Fauna,
1724 E. Passyunk Ave., www.creationsbycoppola.com