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Mountain Home Magazine

The Heart of the House

Apr 17, 2014 05:12PM

This grand Italianate manor may have been built by one of our country’s first millionaires one hundred and sixty years ago, but two contemporary Italian sisters have breathed the rich, sweet life (la dolce vita) into it for nearly thirty years.

Gloria and Marcia Miele opened the Peter Herdic House on November 5, 1984, along Williamsport’s famed “Millionaires’ Row.” It was the culmination of many people’s efforts to refurbish the historical gem and the launch of a restoration renaissance that continues today in the historic district just west of the city’s downtown.

Built in 1854 by lumber baron Peter Herdic, the Italian-style villa was the talk of the town when Williamsport was the “Millionaires’ Capital of the World,” boasting more millionaires per capita (18 of 19,000 citizens) than anywhere else due to the legendary lumber boom of the late 1800s.

Now home to the oldest fine dining establishment in the city, Herdic’s house is the toast of the town, sparkling with champagne and conversation, and holding a top spot on the list of go-to places for special events. In addition to those seeking celebration, many celebs have crossed the Herdic House threshold, from Henry Kissinger to Jethro Tull band members. Comedienne Tina Fey even gave a toast to the restaurant in her best-selling memoir, Bossypants, praising the place for its role in her family’s 2008 Christmas celebration and noting the setting to be “cozy and twinkly and Christmassy.”

For sure, the Mieles are a family that makes celebrations, particularly the holidays, special for other families. What happens, then, when they lose one of their own—and just before the start of the holiday season? Like seasoned actors who believe the show must go on, the Mieles hold fast to the premise that the party must go on, and that life should be savored and celebrated.

Loss of a Luminary

Last November, a light went out.

Marcia died on November 13, 2012, following a seven-month battle with brain cancer. She was fifty-eight.

Many in Williamsport agonized over the loss of one of their community’s most brilliant luminaries. In addition to her prominent role in the hospitality and culinary scene, Marcia was active in protecting and promoting the city’s architectural heritage. She was a founder of Preservation Williamsport and served, for nearly thirty years, on the city’s Historic Architectural Review Board. Her community outreach was complemented by her personal roles as mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend.

Yet, Marcia, the consummate entertainer, would continue to make sure everyone else was having a good time. Her obituary read: “A passionate lover of food, wine and a well-set table, Marcia will be missed by her many friends for her candid, sympathetic conversation and for her champagne-fueled Christmas Eve parties. Those who remembered the party the next morning, remembered Marcia, dressed in red and laughing effortlessly—the quintessential hostess. We’ll all remember what made such good times possible and outrageous and fun. It was Marcia’s elegant style, deft humor and contagious goodwill. Her only regrets were that the party ended so soon and that she hadn’t been drinking nicer wine.”

Marcia had invited those attending her memorial service to wear her signature color, red. On Thanksgiving Eve 2012, hundreds of red-wearing revelers poured onto the lawn of the historic home that she shared with her husband, Bob Elion, and their son, Dante, to honor their lost luminary. A post-memorial reception was held at the Herdic House, located just one block from the Miele-Elion residence. Tears, laughter, stories, and, of course, champagne flowed.

“I would have to say it was one of the better parties my family has thrown,” said Dante, age eighteen. “It was exactly what she would have wanted and it couldn’t have turned out better. It was entirely a celebration.”

And, then, the family faced the holidays and the business of extending holiday hospitality to others.

“It’s just what we do,” says Gloria, when asked how the family managed to make it through the next six weeks of intense engagement. “The loss is devastating, but there’s no way to bring her back, so keeping busy is very important.”

Gloria’s daughter, Liz, the restaurant’s executive chef, adds, “When you lose someone, you need something to take your mind off what you’ve lost, and the fact that she’s not here just means there’s more work for everyone else to do. You have to get to work. You have to get things done. Not that you want to keep your mind off the loss, because, we can’t and we don’t—she’s everywhere. There are constant reminders ten to fifteen times a day from using her recipes to finding something downstairs in the basement in her handwriting. We’re surrounded by memories of Marcia.”

Dante, who stepped up from bussing and waiting tables to bartending this past summer before heading off to college this fall, also sees the restaurant as a haven from the mourning and, at the same time, a source of solace.

“The restaurant helped us focus on things other than Mom’s death,” he says. “It wasn’t an avoidance, but a way to keep looking at the positive things. She really put herself into not only the business, but her house, so it’s extremely comforting being surrounded by it all. She’s still there in that sense.”

Gloria says the Herdic House’s hectic holiday season was made easier by not only an outpouring of community support, but by the temporary return of her son, Cutter, a writer who lives in Brooklyn. Cutter rolled up his sleeves and helped his mother and sister with myriad business details to lighten their physical and emotional load. He also had a plan up his sleeve, assisted by Liz and Dante, to revive the family’s Christmas Eve party—the spirited tradition hosted by Marcia for nearly thirty years and attended by approximately one hundred guests.

“I didn’t think Marcia’s Christmas Eve party would happen,” Gloria remarks, “but the kids conspired to make it happen. It turned into an engagement party, with Cutter asking his girlfriend to marry him. It was a wonderful celebration.”

The art of celebration has definitely adorned the center of the Miele family table—for generations now.

“My whole life, the primary focus of my family has been celebration,” offers Dante. “It’s wonderful to grow up with that being an objective. Working in this business teaches you how to enjoy life. You’re helping others enjoy and you end up enjoying yourself in the process.”

“One thing about my family, and Marcia in particular, is a strong belief in a good party,” Liz adds. “We like to make certain people are having a good time. Some people believe in social responsibility while others take up different mantras, but my Mom and Marcia were believers in the philosophy that you should be able to have a good time in the company of others.”

In addition to inheriting her mother and aunt’s zest for life, Liz is proud to have inherited Marcia’s decadent dress-up wardrobe. “I’ve taken over Marcia’s more flamboyant clothing,” she laughs, noting her family loves a party and they also love to dress the part.

This was evident, most recently, at a Gatsby-themed fundraiser for Preservation Williamsport, held on the Miele-Elion lawn, catered by the Herdic House and attended by two hundred partygoers decked out in Roaring Twenties attire.

Fresh off his Gatsby gig, performing tunes with Terry Wild and the Gatsby Boys, Wild, a longtime Miele family photographer and Herdic House musician, says, “They are extremely sociable people with hundreds and hundreds of friends and they are so so generous in extending parties and special events to their friends. They’ve made remarkable contributions to Williamsport and its historical restoration. It’s been their life—and it’s been the love of their life.”

Liz says that creating community—stirring the past into the present—is certainly a cornerstone of family endeavors.

“For decades in Williamsport, with the work of the restaurant and the focus on historical preservation, it’s all geared toward our present community, but with consideration for our past community and the gifts that have been left to us from the past,” she says. “I don’t know if you could find a family more dedicated to the absolute joy of community than my family.”

Passing the Mantle

Linked to the past and luxuriating in the present, the Mieles are eyeing the future. Gloria is turning over her half of the business to her daughter. She still plans to dabble in the restaurant’s administration, but is looking forward to spending more time with her husband, Jim, on his family’s two hundred-year-old Muncy homestead.

Dante is now their business partner, but he is off enjoying his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, considering all of his career options.

That leaves Liz at the helm, designing the restaurant’s future with a keen connection to the past.

It helps that her grandmother, Daisy, arrives every morning to prepare desserts. Gloria and Marcia’s ninety-four-year-old mother is the talented baker in the family. Among Liz’s earliest childhood memories are recollections of sitting at Daisy’s kitchen table, eating cream cheese while her grandmother made cheesecakes for Gloria and Marcia’s first Williamsport restaurant, Court & Willow Café, which they operated from 1977 to 1993.

Growing up in the family businesses, Liz acquired her culinary skills intuitively as well as culturally. After earning a degree in Italian Studies from Brown University (also Marcia’s alma mater), she worked four autumn seasons in Italy as a bike tour guide for Butterfield & Robinson, a luxury adventure tour company. Eight years ago, she returned home to work full-time as executive chef.

When asked what her favorite dish is to cook, she says, “It all depends on the season. Right now, I’m looking forward to cooking roasted pork loin with dried plums in a cognac reduction, and I also love to make homemade applesauce and sauerkraut. But, if you ask me in spring, I’ll probably say something with asparagus.”

Liz is steering the restaurant to increasingly more local and organic foods. Staying true to her resident roots, she helped found the Williamsport Community Garden Project seven years ago and dedicates herself to walking nearly everywhere she goes; from her historic home near the restaurant and its next-door Peter Herdic Inn bed and breakfast establishment to downtown businesses, she prefers to stay connected to her community by walking its sidewalks and staying engaged with her neighbors and fellow merchants. She also happens to be a member of the Williamsport City Council. At age thirty-four, she’s the youngest member and the only democrat. Having completed a four-year term, she is seeking re-election this month.

“Williamsport is a community with lots of history—many successes, many battles lost and won—both literally and figuratively. Whenever I’m frustrated by the challenges of some area of my life, living and working in these historic homes calms me down,” Liz says, adding that she gathers reassurance from the past when present-day worries preside. “So many wild things have happened in this city before we got here, and we’ve survived so far. So I take a deep breath and remind myself that sometimes we just have to do the best we can—and make sure everyone is having a good time.”

In this restaurant, at least, the passage of time always brings something (bitter)sweet to celebrate.