Pasta Prima Venue

Amidst a sea of newcomers, the owner of Maria’s Italian Kitchen celebrates 30 years on the Boulevard and divulges the family recipe behind its success.

Madelyn Alfano had four strikes against her when she decided to open an Italian restaurant in the Valley 30 years ago. “I was 28, I was a woman going into the restaurant business, and I’m blond,” Madelyn says during our conversation at Maria’s Italian Kitchen in Sherman Oaks.

Despite the four strikes, the budding entrepreneur knew she could do it. After all, her mother had done it too. Madelyn went into the family business, and as she would soon discover, blood—and marinara sauce—are both thicker than water.

Madelyn’s mom is restaurant namesake, Maria Alfano, who is now 83. Maria brought the old family recipes with her when she was called west from Hoboken, New Jersey, to help her brothers Matty and Mikey establish Matteo’s Restaurant in Westwood in the early ‘60s. She fell in love with California, and in 1986 she and husband Donald brought their five young children to LA.

The Alfanos settled in Brentwood, and in 1975 the matriarch opened the first Maria’s Italian Kitchen, selling her traditional dishes out of the family’s one-car garage.

Madelyn headed off to UCLA to major in psychology but returned to her red-sauce roots to open her own international deli in Brentwood. In 1984 her parents sold Brentwood’s Maria’s Kitchen, and the next year Madelyn opened the first full-service Maria’s Kitchen on Ventura Boulevard.

With her parents’ coaching, Madelyn brought a little bit of Hoboken to Sherman Oaks. Lower real estate prices coaxed her over the hill at a time when “you needed a passport to cross Mulholland.” Since then Maria’s Italian Kitchen has become a chain of 10 restaurants throughout the Valley, the Westside, Pasadena, Agoura Hills and most recently in Oxnard.

Is Maria proud? You bet. “People said when I opened Brentwood: ‘Are you crazy?’” she says. “I wasn’t worried when people were telling us we couldn’t do it when Madelyn opened in the Valley. I had already done it once, so I knew she could.”

One famous Maria’s recipe didn’t come from Hoboken: the rosemary bread. In the early days when the restaurant was mainly a takeout/delivery establishment, Madelyn was surprised when two customers came in, sat down and asked for some pre-dinner bread and butter.

“I had a dozen sandwich rolls, but I couldn’t give them up for bread and butter,” Madelyn recalls. “So I grabbed some pizza dough, stretched it out, got some fresh garlic, olive oil, rosemary, a little bit of red chili pepper flakes and pepper and popped it in the oven with a little kosher salt.” The patrons loved it.

As mother and daughter celebrate the 40-year anniversary of the original Maria’s Kitchen and 30 years in Sherman Oaks, Madelyn Alfano, now 57, says she’s still proud to be cooking old-school meals and believes the test of a good traditional Italian restaurant is the chicken Parmesan. She loves to meet adult customers who tell her, “I used to deliver pizza for you.”

Looking out the window, Madelyn says she hopes Ventura Boulevard’s older restaurants don’t disappear in favor of craft-cocktail taverns. “I just don’t want Ventura to become one long string of bars,” she says before jumping up to offer yet another a patron a warm, personal hello. “I think family restaurants are important as well.”