Heidi Patricola, the owner of Rothschild's restaurant, recently had a W-2 for a former employee returned to her from 21 years ago by the U.S. Postal Service. The envelope was stamped "return to sender" and the stamp on it was from 1990. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / August 18, 2011)

NEWPORT BEACH — Along with her regular catalogs, donation requests and bills, Heidi Patricola received a special delivery this week.

A piece of mail sent from her Corona del Mar restaurant was returned — 21 years after it was mailed.

Upon examination Thursday, pieces of the coffee brown W-2 tax form peeked out from the moth-nibbled edges. The crumbling envelope kept in a plastic slip also included an apology from the U.S. Postal Service for the late "return to sender."

"We were just amused, really," Patricola said.

Rothschild's has been in the Reiss family for 35 years. Heidi Patricola and her husband, Jim, bought the Italian restaurant from her father, Helmut Reiss, in 1993 — three years after the tax forms were sent to former employee Susan Poole in February 1990.

No one at Rothschild's, including veteran servers, remembered working with Poole.

Reached by phone in Georgia on Thursday, Poole said she worked at the restaurant for six months, but didn't provide additional details.

So Patricola did some detective work of her own.

After studying the envelope with its bright red cartoon hand pointing to the return address and other fresh-looking hand stamps, she believes the forms may have gotten lost at the post office and sat undisturbed for years before being found and returned.

Her instincts may be right.

According to Don Smeraldi, manager of corporate communications with the Postal Service, sometimes when equipment is moved, pieces of mail are found wedged in unusual spots.

Even though post offices handle millions of pieces of mail daily, letters showing up decades later is "something out of the ordinary," Smeraldi said.

"Anomalies happen from time to time," he said.

The letter with a 25-cent stamp came as a surprise to the postman, who playfully told Patricola on Tuesday that she had an unusual delivery.

"We always try to complete delivery. In this case, that's what we did," Smeraldi said. "If there's postage on it, we deliver it."

Despite its fragility, the letter will be saved for posterity as part of Rothschild's history.

"We'll just put it in our scrapbook," Patricola said.