PS 16 on 104th Street in Corona has just been renamed for Nancy DeBenedittis, who was a long-time businesswoman, a community activist and Corona icon.
But generations of New Yorkers from school children to mayors came to know her affectionately just as Mama.
The school sits two blocks north of Leo’s Latticini, a deli and purveyor of Italian delicacies since 1935 when DeBenedittis’s parents founded it at the corner of 46th and 104th streets.
She eventually ran the business with her husband and then her daughters until her death in 2009. During that time they opened a pasta store next door and an Italian bakery next to that.
The latter has egress out back, allowing people to pick up their lunch on the corner, buy a confection for dessert and enjoy both in a courtyard decorated and landscaped like a garden in the Italian countryside.
And the awning still advertises the deli as Leo’s Latticini, with ‘Mama’s’ having been added. “But everyone’s been calling it ‘Mama’s’ for years,” said her daughter, Irene DeBenedittis.
The school was renamed on Nov. 22 by the unanimous acclamation of Community Education Council 24. Superintendent Madeline Taub-Chan said DeBenedittis’ name is synonymous with respect, moral discipline and character, and that renaming the school would allow her gifts to be shared in her honor and memory.
“Nancy was a pillar of the Corona community and a caretaker for so many persons — dubbed Mama of Corona,” Taub-Chan said. “Ms. DeBenedittis supported an array of community-based and nonprofit organizations throughout the years through participation and charitable contributions. Her love, her mothering, was shared by her family and bestowed upon all who visited their shops — the famous, the ordinary, clergy and our city workers. Nancy had the coveted ability to bring together so many people from all walks of life.”
DeBenedittis also helped blaze the trail for women in the workplace during World War II, working on planes in a local defense plant a la Rosie the Riveter.
The street corner outside the family’s stores was renamed for DeBenedittis, and inside the deli family photo collages show her in her chair at a table near the front window. Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, television personalities and other celebrities are juxtaposed with school children, U.S. Marines and her beloved police officers and firefighters.
“The police and firemen were the first ones to call her Mama,” Irene DeBenedittis said. “They would all come in for her special sandwich with peppered ham, salami and fresh mozzarella and hear us calling her that. It just stuck. And soon everyone was ordering ‘Mama’s Special Sandwich.’”
The sandwich was available for years at Shea Stadium and now is sold at two sites at Citi Field. Two collages show legions of New York Mets, including David Wright, John Franco and even Mr. Met, seated with DeBenedittis at her favorite table with large sandwiches and large smiles.
“No one sits in her favorite chair,” said another daughter, Marie DeBenedittis. “We still have her spring sweater in the chair. We’re in the middle of decorating for the holidays, but she had a poinsettia sweater that we’ll be putting there.”
Another daughter, Carmela Lamorgese said she and her sisters were delighted upon hearing what CEC 24 had in mind.
“It is a tremendous honor,” she said.
Irene DeBenedittis said before a school can be renamed, parents at the school have to be brought into the loop and give their approval. That’s no problem when many of the parents would have been regular customers, or maybe even recipients of Halloween treats at the deli over the years.
“When the parents at PS 16 heard, they were thrilled,” she said, “because they all remembered her.”
The deal was made official with a vote at PS 128 in Middle Village, where Irene taught for several years before coming back to the business of delighting Corona’s collective palate full-time.
The deli was started by DeBenedittis’s parents in 1935, when they moved from Brooklyn — to be in farm country, according to her daughters.
The farms have long faded into Queens history. Leo’s, or Mama’s, remains one of the few constants in the neighborhood. But children still wave and parents still stop to chat briefly when they walk past and see an open door.
“When they started, the neighborhood was all Italian, Irish and German,” Irene DeBenedittis said. “But even when it became more Hispanic, it wasn’t a problem. Mama always said if you show respect, you will be respected.”