When Nunziata “Nancy” Bowers walked into one of her Clearwater delis, people knew it.
Actually, they heard it.
“Ciao, bella!” she’d say, her booming voice punctuated by her lyrical Italian accent.
Then, they felt it — Bowers was known for her hugs and kisses.
For decades, the people who shopped at A&N Deli and Felice’s Italian Deli in Clearwater came for Bowers’ food — the chicken parmigiana, the homemade mozzarella, the stuffed artichokes and so much more.
But they came, too, because of the woman behind the counter.
“Mama,” everyone called her, and she was. Bowers was the mama who stuffed you with delicious food, smothered you with a hug and kiss and stopped what she was doing to listen to your stories.
“She made everybody feel important, no matter how busy she was,” said daughter Gabriella D’Elia. “She would overcook pasta to talk to someone.”
Bowers died March 11 at 72 of lung cancer. Her family has planned a celebration of her life on May 7 at Felice’s Italian Deli. There will be music and, of course, there will be food.
Mama wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bowers grew up on a farm in the southwestern Italian village of Contursi Terme. She started helping out at age 6, and along with her nine siblings delivered milk from the farm’s cows before school.
The stories Bowers told of that time included the food — the homemade pasta and bread, the sauces and the olive oil her mother, Emilia, prepared.
When she came to New York at 16, Bowers also brought the skills she learned in her mother’s kitchen and remained close to her family in Italy.
In 1981, her family moved to Florida. And here, she got involved in the family business.
“Mama’s love for cooking took the business to a whole other level,” said her daughter.
Bowers ran two stores: A&N, which she sold and later bought back, and Felice’s. Her name and face went onto cookbooks and the bottles of sauces, oils and vinegars sold at the stores.
Diana Kopec and her family found Felice’s after moving to Florida from New York 18 years ago. Bowers’ food was part of communions, christenings, holidays and family gatherings. Food is a way to show love, Kopec said, and a way to share community.
“She just wanted to feed you.”
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Ed Toman started working at Felice’s in 1998. He married Bowers’ daughter. They had a son. When the couple divorced, “I thought my job was over, and she insisted that I still work there,” Toman said. “Until the day she died, I was always her son-in-law.”
Bowers treated everyone who worked for her like family. And everyone, whether they were legally family or not, got a hug and a kiss when she saw them.
Bowers, who never smoked, worked until she got sick earlier this year. At her celebration of life, Felice’s will collect donations for a Mother’s Day meal through Feeding the Fosters, a charity that Kopec’s daughters started that helps feed foster families.
Officially, Bowers was mama to Tommaso, Gabriella, Marco and Ken and Nonna to Eddie.
But really, her daughter said, “she was everybody’s mama.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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