Mark and Anthony Mollica (right) own and operate La Vecchia on Main Street. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

MAIN STREET — Mark and Anthony Mollica can name all the regulars as they stream through the restaurant doors, right on time for happy hour. At 4:56 p.m. on a quiet Wednesday, a small crowd has already gathered at the doors of La Vecchia Cucina, where staff are busily cleaning and preparing inside. Owned by the Mollica brothers, La Vecchia attracts a loyal group of steady customers, who often come by the upscale Italian establishment multiple times a week.

Their rapport with the regulars is apparent, as Mark and Anthony list off names and stories as quickly as the guests arrive in the bright and colorful restaurant. Mark, decked in chef’s whites, describes their “yin and yang” symmetry. Mark, the executive chef, takes care of the food and “the back of the house” while Anthony, the general manager, handles “the front” and the details of the business. The brothers, who have owned the restaurant for almost six years, place a great deal of emphasis on the eatery’s relaxed atmosphere and local feel.

They describe themselves as “embedded in the community,” locals who were born and raised in the Culver City-Santa Monica area. Their ties to the community extend not only through business but also philanthropy efforts.

“I guess you could say that it’s been instilled in us by our family … to always support the community that supports us, in essence,” Anthony said. This attitude, passed down from their godfather, encouraged them to get involved with groups such as the Virginia Avenue Project, an after-school arts program for kids.

The Virginia Avenue Project, which boasts that 100 percent of its students graduate high school and 95 percent attend college, pairs adult volunteers with kids as young as 6 for long-term one-on-one mentoring. Three years ago, the organization asked the brothers for a La Vecchia gift card for a food raffle fundraiser. Drawn by the focus on kids and performing arts, Mark and Anthony began to get involved, donating money, supplying food and attending the organization’s functions.

“They are sponsors that not only gave us money and resources from the restaurant but they also took an interest that really meant a lot,” said Simon Hanna, the organization’s director.

As a result, the duo will be honored this year with the Community Hero Award from the Virginia Avenue Project, to be presented at its Inspiration Gala on Oct. 26.

Hanna, who has worked closely with the Mollicas, nominated the duo for their work, not only with the Virginia Avenue Project but also with the Santa Monica Police Activities League. For example, Mark has hosted cooking demos for kids in PAL, teaching them how to make pasta and pizza at La Vecchia.

“Through knowing them, I realized [Mark and Anthony Mollica] do a lot for other organizations in the community, they’re really active,” Hanna explained. “They know what it means to be a good business person.”

The Mollicas, who often complete each other’s sentences, both said the award was a “total shock,” explaining that they have been involved in philanthropy for only a few years now.

Their path to La Vecchia has been a circuitous one. Mark, who originally studied marketing in college, had designs to attend business school.

“I took my [exams] and I was ready to go,” Mark said. “And then I decided, I’m not sure if this is what I wanted to do. I started soul searching a little bit … and food kept coming back to me.”

As someone who grew up preparing meals at the age of 8 and watching Julia Child on cooking shows, Mark realized that this was a career he wanted to pursue. Despite everyone’s advice and warnings against the drastic change, Mark decided to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and interned in Italy, working everywhere from a small pizza shop in Sicily to a high-end hotel in Naples.

“I’ve always had a big philosophy about it: if you put your heart and soul into anything you do … the money and the fame and the success will come,” Mark said. “But you can’t go in the opposite way … thinking about the money or fame or success because if that’s all you’re going to be thinking about, you won’t be able to think about how to get there first.”

Mark and Anthony seized the opportunity to purchase La Vecchia in 2006, when the previous owner decided to sell. Anthony, who came from real estate finance, teamed up with his younger brother because, as he explained, “you have to have at least two people to run a restaurant, you can’t do it on your own.” Since taking ownership, the duo has worked to maintain a welcoming, locally focused restaurant, highlighting their emphasis on community.

“It’s not just a matter of showing that [Mark and Anthony] have done a lot for the Virginia Avenue Project but that they’ve done a lot for the community,” Hanna explained, regarding the Community Hero award.

The Mollicas plan to continue building and growing, both in terms of their business and philanthropy efforts.

“We’ll hopefully continue to be involved with [Virginia Avenue Project] for years,” Anthony said. Mark quickly interrupts to add, “As long as there are children that need them and they need us, we’ll be here.”

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