First the Tomato, Then the Tomato Sauce
Maria’s Italian Kitchens is one of those grand American success stories. It began in the Italian quarter of Hoboken, NJ, where Maria Alfano grew up learning the recipes for real Italian food of Naples from her mother, Luisa. This home-grown education in the fundamentals of Napolitano sauces, soups, dressings, ravioli, lasagna and other regional fare was put to use in 1968, when Maria, her husband, and five children moved to Los Angeles and bought a tiny grocery store called Village Mart in Los Angeles’ Brentwood Village. In 1975, the family converted the property’s one-car garage into Maria’s Italian Kitchen.
The first dishes were the result of Alfano’s inspired cooking of the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli and other produce with minor blemishes that made them unfit for display to the market’s upscale clientele.
“The restaurant started because of the produce department,” says Madelyn Alfano, Maria’s daughter. “The market was in Brentwood Village, which is a wealthy area. We had to make sure we had the best quality produce on display. My mother would take the produce with small defects and cook it up in a skillet. The customers loved how it tasted.”
Maria’s first job in produce was at Village Mart, and the experience still heavily influences the menu at Maria’s Italian Kitchen.
In 1985, Madelyn opened the first table-service Maria’s Italian Kitchen in Sherman Oaks, CA. Since then, she has expanded the concept to nine more locations, and personally supervises the kitchens and oversees all the restaurants. “Coming from a produce background, I know how important fresh is,” says Alfano. “I would say 90 percent of our produce is local; 90 to 95 percent comes from California. I understand how important it is to have fresh, local, quality produce. We use a lot of fresh tomatoes, eggplant and lettuce. Broccoli is pretty important, too.”
The vegetables are not just local; they are from trusted vendors who have grown to be like family, says Alfano. “I’m proud to say my family has been in business more than 40 years in Los Angeles, and we still deal with a lot of the same vendors. We use Andy Boy broccoli and garlic from Gilroy, CA. I started with Country Fresh Herbs in Tarzana, CA, in 1985. I would call them in the morning with my basil order, and they would cut it and deliver it in 30 minutes. You can’t get any fresher than that.”
Alfano even watches the harvesting and canning of the sweet San Marzano plum tomatoes sourced from a California grower whose name and tomato variety trace back to Naples, Italy.
“We’ll go up to DiNapoli Specialty Foods in San Jose, CA, and watch them pick the tomatoes we use and can them,” says Alfano.
All 10 locations bear the influence of the vegetables cooked in the skillet in the back room behind Village Mart. “The menu mix changes based on the location of the restaurant, but not that much,” says Alfano. “Brentwood was our original location and the first place you could get really good pizza, so we still sell it by the slice there.”
The traditional Italian food-focused menu has gained favor with generations of consumers from many backgrounds. “We have a lot of Baby Boomers,” says Alfano. “Now we have the Millennials, the babies of the Baby Boomers, and we have their babies, too. We have all economics. Maria’s Italian is a neighborhood restaurant, so we get all kinds of people from the neighborhood.”
Maria’s Italian Kitchen offers traditional Italian food that was veg-centric before veg-centric was cool. “A lot of hipster restaurants are making comfort foods,” says Alfano. “We are still making old-school favorites.
Maria’s Italian Kitchen – Brentwood
11723 Barrington Court
Brentwood, CA 90049
P: (310) 476-6112
Sun – Sat 11 am –10 pm