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Written by STEPHANIE SUMELL    Photos by MICHAEL COONS

Home-cooked meals steeped in tradition is
what Maria’s Italian Kitchen is all about

Madelyn Alfano looks back with nostalgia on the days when she and her four siblings worked alongside their parents, Donald and Maria, at their Brentwood market.

Arguments were inevitable, she remembers, and the theatrical nature of her Italian-American family was not lost on the customers.

“Half the time, people would come in for the entertainment value,” Madelyn remembers. “My mother would be yelling at my father, my father would be yelling at my mother, people were cursing . . . my friends say my family is like the show ‘The Sopranos’ without the violence.”

Every day at the store was different, but one thing remained the same: selling, serving and eating fresh and delicious food was at the heart of everything they did.

It still is. With the help of her family, Madelyn has built a successful chain of restaurants that pay homage to neighborhood eateries of another era.

Maria's Italian Kitchen namesake Maria Alfano and her daughter Madelyn are the heart and soul of the business. Photo courtesy of Maria's Italian kitchen

Maria’s Italian Kitchen namesake Maria Alfano and her daughter Madelyn are the heart and soul of the business.
Photo courtesy of Maria’s Italian kitchen

Maria’s Italian Kitchen, named for Madelyn’s mother, now 82 years old, has locations in Agoura Hills, Brentwood, Encino, Marina del Rey, Northridge, Pasadena, Sherman Oaks, West Los Angeles and Woodland Hills. The newest Maria’s Italian Kitchen opened at The Collection at Riverpark in Oxnard in January.

The restaurants, all of which are lined with framed photographs of her immediate and extended family, have a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

The displays include her grandparents’ wedding photos, pictures from her childhood, shots of her Uncle Mikey with Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland in the 1950s and images of her own children.

“I have an Italian heritage and I am proud of that Italian heritage. Our culture is not something written on a piece of paper. We live it,” Madelyn explains.

She says guests come to the restaurants to enjoy authentic Italian cuisine. The meatballs and sausages are family recipes—made entirely from scratch—and the rosemary bread is practically famous.

Maria’s meat lasagna, a winning combination of homemade meat sauce, pasta, seasoned ricotta and mozzarella, is one of its bestsellers. The eggplant Parmesan, which takes hours to prepare, is also popular.

Executive chef Jose Gonzales says every dish—from the pasta Bolognese to the classic cheesecake—is thoughtfully prepared. The restaurant does not use many heavy creams or sauces, but rather, opts for “clean and fresh” flavors that complement each other.

“Italian food is about simplicity,” he says. “It’s about building layers of flavor so that every ingredient has a purpose.”
That kind of care preparing, cooking and serving food follows a precedent set many years ago by Madelyn’s mother and grandmother.

Madelyn’s Hoboken, N.J.-born mother, Maria, learned by watching her mother, a native of Naples, Italy, make home-cooked meals for her family. Those cooking lessons came in handy later on when Maria and her husband moved their young family across the country to open their Brentwood grocery store.

Maria, who refused to let surplus meat and produce go to waste, began cooking meals for the family on a portable skillet in the back of the store. Customers liked what they smelled and, before long, the matriarch was selling freshly-cooked meals at the market.

When the family sits down to this harvest feast, no one will leave the table wanting. Clockwise, from foreground: pumpkin ravioli, roasted cauliflower, pumpkin harvest lasagna, organic baby lettuce and spinach salad and roasted Brussels sprouts.

When the family sits down to this harvest feast, no one will leave the table wanting. Clockwise, from foreground: pumpkin ravioli, roasted cauliflower, pumpkin harvest lasagna, organic baby lettuce and spinach salad and roasted Brussels sprouts.

The makeshift operation expanded in 1975 when the couple converted a garage next to the grocery store into a take-out restaurant. The original Maria’s Italian Kitchen was open for business—and it thrived. It was not unusual to see a line of customers winding around the parking lot waiting to order.

Madelyn continued to help her parents run the two family businesses on weekends and during breaks while studying psychology at UCLA. The admitted “organizer and list maker,” was especially helpful in creating job descriptions and establishing uniform codes.

“They did everything old school. I brought some more business acumen to the business.” She continued to work for her mom and dad after college until they sold the market to a new owner. The transition was an opportunity for the young businesswoman to strike out on her own.

“The person they sold the market to did not know how to run the meat department and my mother volunteered me to help.”
Madelyn, who was freshly out of college at the time, took over. She rented out that portion of the market to create an international deli with meats, fish, cheese, sushi, salads and other sides and worked there for several years before the owner sold the grocery store, including the meat department, to someone else.

Madelyn was contemplating her next move when she received an offer she couldn’t pass up. The owner of a pasta restaurant across the street from the Brentwood market, a fellow UCLA alum, asked her if she knew of anyone who wanted to buy his business. He wanted $20,000 for the place.

Staff at Maria's are like extended family. District Operations Manager Don Froehlich, who has been on the Maria's team for 30 years, went to high school with Madelyn.

Staff at Maria’s are like extended family. District Operations Manager Don Froehlich, who has been on the Maria’s team for 30 years, went to high school with Madelyn.

“I said, ‘You know, it’s funny. I have to leave here, but I don’t have any money,’” Madelyn recalls. “He came back the next day and said, ‘You know, if I’m going to lose money to someone, I’d rather lose it to someone I know. You just take over the lease.”

And that was that. He handed her the keys and she negotiated her first lease to open Maria’s International Deli in 1984.
The next year, another business opportunity fell in her lap.

The owner of a building in Sherman Oaks asked if Madelyn could help one of her tenants, who was not paying rent at the time, turn his fledgling deli around.

Madelyn used her modest savings to buy the business and, inspired by her first trip to Italy the year before, opened her first sit-down restaurant.

“I bought used equipment and built it from scratch. I thought it would be great to have a little neighborhood trattoria.”
She opened her next location in Woodland Hills not long after and the rest was history as Madelyn continued to open locations throughout the region.

Although she has confidence in her three regional managers, Madelyn says she stops by each of the locations as often as her schedule allows.

menu copy“I don’t just point my finger,” she says. “If the pizza guy didn’t show up, I’d go back there and make pizzas. I’m not a very good bartender, but I can pour wine.”

And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Encino resident says she is proud to carry on her family’s legacy by bringing quality cuisine to the masses.
The restaurateur, who has several childhood friends on her staff, says two of her siblings are involved in the chain’s daily operations.

Her sister, Louise Berardis, designs the interiors of the eateries; brother, Matthew Alfano, addresses plumbing and electrical issues; and nephew, J.J. Berardis, is a sous chef for the successful chain.
And Maria?

Madelyn says her mother, a food aficionado, is “as feisty as ever.”

“My mother tells me everything I do wrong,” Madelyn laughs. “She isn’t shy about giving criticism and advice.”
Perhaps mom knows best, especially as Maria’s Italian Kitchens continue to be a home away from home for many of its regular customers.

“I love people and I love pleasing people,” Madelyn says. “We treat everyone who comes through the doors as guests in our home.”

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Recipes

16 oz. mixed greens

3 oz. crispy pancetta

6 oz. blue cheese crumble

8 oz. white button mushrooms, sliced

6 oz. toffee walnuts

6 oz. balsamic vinaigrette

6 oz. dried cranberries

Combine all ingredients except the greens in a mixing bowl, tossing well. Place greens in a separate serving bowl.

Top with mixed ingredients.

Serve.

2 heads cauliflower

2 oz. extra virgin olive oil

2 pinches of kosher salt

2 pinches of black ground pepper

4 oz. lemon vinaigrette dressing*

2 oz. bread crumbs

1 lemon for lemon zest

Remove leaves from cauliflower, wash. Cut cauliflower into 1 oz. florets. Place in a mixing bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Add salt, pepper and mix well. Place cauliflower on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven at 450° until lightly browned, about 12-15 minutes. Remove from oven and place on a large platter. Top with lemon dressing, Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs and lemon zest.

Serve hot.

* Lemon vinaigrette dressing is available at most major supermarkets.

8 oz. béchamel sauce

5 6″ x 8″ carrot pasta sheets*

34 oz. pumpkin puree

32 oz. cooked ground chicken

32 oz. roasted butternut squash

16 oz. fontina cheese, shredded

16 oz. mozzarella cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 350°. Spread 2 oz. of béchamel sauce on the bottom of a 6″ x 8″ baking dish. Place one sheet of pasta on top of spread. Spread 2 oz. of pumpkin puree and 2 oz. of béchamel sauce on top of pasta. Place 8 oz. of ground chicken, 8 oz. of pumpkin puree, 8 oz. squash and 4 oz. of each type of cheese evenly in pan. Repeat three times, finishing with a layer of pasta on top. Spread remaining béchamel on top of the top layer of pasta. Cover with plastic wrap and aluminum foil.

Bake for 50 minutes.

*Available at Whole Foods Market or through Maria’s Italian Kitchen.

Béchamel Sauce

1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. butter

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup milk

½ tsp. salt

⅛ tsp. nutmeg, freshly grated

Heat butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until melted. Add flour and stir until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture turns a light golden color (about 6 to 7 minutes). In a separate pan, heat milk until just below boiling. Gradually add hot milk to butter mixture, whisking continuously until very smooth. Bring to a boil and cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and season with salt and nutmeg.

Maria’s Ground Chicken

2 oz. olive oil

1 oz. shallots, chopped

2 lbs. ground chicken

2 oz. Marsala wine

2 oz. water

Kosher salt to taste

Ground nutmeg to taste

White pepper to taste

Saute shallots and oil in a hot 12″ pan until light brown. Add all other ingredients. Cook over lower to medium heat until chicken is done and liquid has evaporated (about 5 to 8 minutes).

2 oz. oil blend (75% canola, 25% virgin olive oil)

4 oz. pancetta or bacon, diced into

¼” squares

2 lbs. Brussels sprouts

3 oz. butter

2 oz. Parmesan cheese, shaved

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste

Balsamic reduction*

In a large saute pan, cook pancetta with oil until halfway done. Add Brussels sprouts and butter. Saute until butter is browned and Brussels sprouts are hot. Season with salt and pepper. Place in a large platter, garnish with Parmesan and balsamic reduction. Balsamic Reduction ¼ cup sugar 1 cup balsamic vinegar In a small saucepan, combine sugar and balsamic vinegar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, simmering until vinegar mixture has reduced to ⅓ the original amount (about 10 minutes). Cool.

*Balsamic reduction, also known as balsamic syrup, may be purchased at most supermarkets.

Crust

16 oz. graham cracker crumbs

4 oz. granulated sugar

4 oz. butter, melted

⅛ tsp. mace

2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

Combine ingredients and press into bottom of greased springform pan.

Filling

2 lbs. cream cheese

8 oz. granulated sugar

2 oz. heavy cream

1 Tbsp. vanilla extract

1½ oz. egg yolk

3 whole eggs

1 lb. pumpkin puree

1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

⅛ tsp. nutmeg

⅛ tsp. mace

1 tbsp. molasses

2 oz. all-purpose flour

Combine cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add cream, vanilla and eggs. Mix well. Add pumpkin puree and pumpkin spice. Add nutmeg, mace, molasses and flour until just blended. Do not over mix. Pour filling into crust and bake at 325° for one hour until cheesecake is set. Cool.

Topping

6 oz. butter

6 oz. powdered sugar

1 lb. cream cheese

¼ tsp. nutmeg

8 oz. pumpkin puree

1 Tbsp. molasses

Mix ingredients and spread on top of cooled cheesecake.

Serve.

½ cup melted butter

1 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, sliced

⅔ cup all-purpose flour

¼ tsp. nutmeg

½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. kosher salt

2 whole eggs

1 egg yolk

1 cup granulated sugar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

½ tsp. grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 300°. Melt butter. Set aside ¼ cup. Mix ¼ cup of butter with apples in saute pan over medium heat and saute until apples are brown and soft. Set aside. In a metal bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate mixing bowl, beat eggs and egg yolk for two minutes at medium speed. Do not over beat. Add sugar, vanilla and lemon zest to eggs and mix for one minute. Add dry ingredients and continue mixing until everything is incorporated, then add butter and apples. Line greased 9″ to 10″ springform cake pan with a circle of parchment paper. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

Note: Cake will not rise much.

1½ oz. Absolut vodka

1 oz. orange juice

½ oz. lime juice

½ oz. simple syrup

½ oz. Limoncello

8 drops cranberry bitters Lime twist Combine ingredients in shaker. Fill halfway with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into martini glass.

Garnish with lime twist.