Maria's Italian Kitchen has humble roots: It started in 1975 as a takeout place in a converted garage. The chain was reborn in its current configuration of family restaurants 10 years later, and is now adapting to the world of downtown Los Angeles with a new location that features both fine dining and takeout.

"It's not mom and pop anymore," said Maria's owner, Madelyn Alfano.

The downtown location opened in July, and includes sit-down fine dining with linen napkins and imported stemware, a bar and lounge area, and a separate takeout area that features tables for customers wanting to grab a quick meal. The other eight Maria's, which are scattered throughout the county, offer casual dining only.

Don Froehlich, head of operations for Maria's, said Alfano developed the concept of offering customers both sit-down and takeout options partly because the restaurant is in downtown's financial district, and she wanted to build a customer base among people who work in the area and don't always have time for a seated meal.

"I think being downtown, we had a whole new clientele with all the office buildings and thought that the express would work out for us," said Froehlich, who has been working at Maria's since the first location opened in Sherman Oaks in 1985.

But growing a clientele at the downtown Maria's has been a struggle. Alfano, 51, recognizes that downtown lacks a large number of residents, and the area is still slowly being revitalized with entertainment complexes such as L.A. Live.

"It's slow at night, which is a little disappointing," Alfano said.

She is also facing a down economy, which isn't likely to give any of Maria's restaurants a significant boost in diners anytime soon.

Ed Enogoron, a Santa Monica food and hospitality consultant, said the restaurant industry is experiencing steep declines in consumer spending. Customers are either eating at cheaper restaurants, or have stopped dining out.

"This is the first time we have seen these types of changes in food spending habits since the 1950s," said Enogoron, president of Perspectives the Consulting Group Inc.

In order to stay in business through the current recession, Enogoron said restaurant owners like Alfano need to make sure customers keep coming back.

"Eating out is a habit," he said. "During difficult times, you want to do everything you can to keep people in the habit of coming to your restaurant."

Alfano said she takes special care to maintain quality at the chain. She visits each Maria's during the week to make sure the food tastes good, the service is up to standards and the customers are happy. She always stops at the tables and makes friends with the regulars.

One of those customers who enjoys chatting with Alfano is Jules Feir, vice president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. Feir has been eating at Maria's with his wife, Francine, since the first sit-down Maria's opened in '85.

"We had recently moved into our house in Sherman Oaks, and just discovered they were having a grand opening," Feir said. "We went on opening day and we met Madelyn. And we have been to every one of her openings ever since."

Family business

Alfano grew up in Hoboken, N.J. Her mother, Maria Alfano, was the child of Italian immigrants who taught her daughter the recipes that originated from the family's hometown of Naples, Italy.

Maria Alfano visited Los Angeles in the early 1960s to help her brother Matty Jordan perfect the family recipes for his Italian restaurant, Matteo's. Jordan opened the West L.A. staple in 1963, and it was frequented by Hollywood luminaries including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Maria Alfano fell in love with California and moved her family of five to Los Angeles. In 1975, she opened a takeout Maria's Italian Kitchen out of a converted one-car garage. Maria and her husband, Donald, sold that eatery in 1984.

Madelyn Alfano spent her teens learning the family business, so it was quite a shock when her parents sold it. "It was like losing a child," she said.

Alfano had recently bought a failing Sherman Oaks deli for $15,000 from a young restaurateur who didn't wanted to run the business. So with the demise of her mom's eatery, she turned it into the first sit-down Maria's Italian Kitchen, which opened in 1985.

She got backing from a banker who became a force in the world of L.A. business.

"I signed my first lease with Russell Goldsmith, who is now the chief executive of City National Bank. I was 22 years old," Alfano said. "They just trusted that I would succeed, and I did."

She decorated the Sherman Oaks location with a black-and-white checkerboard theme, reminiscent of old-school Italian restaurants, and named it Maria's Italian Kitchen in honor of her mom.

"I had just visited Italy, and I thought, 'What we need is a little trattoria where you can go and drink wine in little juice glasses,'" Alfano recalled.

Alfano said her family was supportive of the new endeavor. Her uncle, Mickey Jordan, who was the maitre de at Matteo's, would tell his customers to eat at Maria's when they were in the Sherman Oaks area.

"If they were from the Valley, he'd tell them, 'My niece just opened a restaurant there, tell her uncle Mickey sent you,'" Alfano said.

Mom's supervision

Alfano's mother, Maria, doesn't have an official job at the company, but she has helped her daughter build the family business. Mom, 75, can often be found watching closely over the restaurants that bear her name, talking to Maria's diners and making sure the meatballs are up to par.

"She has a lot of opinions, and is willing to go in the kitchen and scream," said Alfano of her mother.

In 1990, Alfano established the Van Nuys headquarters of Maria's Italian Kitchen. The building houses Maria's executives, and is also outfitted with a central kitchen and bakery. That's where the sauces are made, and brownies and cookies baked to ensure consistency.

Maria's offers traditional Italian dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs for $12.99 to an Italian-style seafood stew served over linguine pasta for $20.99. The restaurant also features non-Italian fare, including an Asian chopped chicken salad for $12.99.

Alfano tries to maintain a homey atmosphere at her restaurants. Each Maria's is decorated with photos of the Alfano family, and some of the black-and-white pictures date back to the 1940s.

"There is a sense of community and neighborhood that surround the restaurants," she said.


Maria's Italian Kitchen

Headquarters: Van Nuys
Founded: 1984
Core Business: Casual Italian dining chain of nine restaurants
Employees in 2009: 376 (up from 347 in 2008)
Goal: To make the new downtown restaurant successful and continue expansion
Driving Force: People who want to eat homemade Italian food at moderate prices

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