50 years of pizzalicious goodness
Mary's Pizza celebrates a half century of yum
Fifty years of family includes Toto Albano (holding pizza, and behind him in rows left to right, Peggy Albano, Anna Byerly, Isabella Albano, Bruce Lane, Nanette Albano-Lane, Terri Albano-Williamson, Luigi Albano-Dito, Mary Byerly, Vince Dito, Marie Albano-Dito, Cullen Williamson, Vince Albano, Graziano Albano Dito, Elysse Lane, Taylor Lane, Anthony Albano, Vinny Albano.
It began with lasagna. Meaty and pungent with herbs, she made it for a near neighbor because that was her way. Just a little thing, no trouble. A good plate of pasta to round out an evening of briscola with friends. The lasagna was good. So good that people couldn't stop eating, they stuffed themselves silly and forgot all about cards. Soon the whole neighborhood knew: Mary Fazio could cook.
She learned as a girl in San Francisco when, as the eldest of six, she inherited her mother's apron prematurely. Using a wobbly soapbox as a riser, her father at her side barking orders, little Mary learned the basic elements of sturdy Italian cooking. How to roll gnocchi, what marinara should taste like, how to turn dough into herbed sticks. Her mother was ailing and Mary was needed; by grade six she'd been forced to quit school. The kitchen became her classroom and she proved an apt pupil, turning out savory inventions for her siblings night after night. But by age fifteen she'd had enough. She ran off to Sausalito with the dark-eyed boy who would become her first husband, and together they produced two children. There were twists and turns and a few bumps in the road, and before long she had landed in Sonoma. Divorced, unschooled, with two mouths to fill.
Some people collapse under the weight of uncertainty, others get jittery with nerves. Mary rolled up her sleeves and began cooking. Her restaurant job at the Mission Inn paid fifty cents an hour, but the customers were generous with tips. They liked Mary, liked her big personality, liked the cheery way she went about her work. She made them feel welcome and she put them at ease. And none of them went away hungry. With her son Toto earning wages as a towel boy at the Hot Springs, and daughter Anna taking in ironing, the little family squeaked by. There wasn't much surplus and vacations were rare, but they lived a good life none-theless.
In 1959 Sonoma was a dusty country town. There wasn't a single traffic light, and local phone numbers were only five digits long. You could walk from the Springs to the Square on a Friday night and see maybe 10 cars. Eisenhower was president, Hawaii was just a string of islands in the Pacific, and the Wine Country concept was still a twinkle in some entrepreneur's eye. Life was simple and slow.
A neighborhood friend approached Mary with an idea. He was setting up shop on Highway 12, a storefront he would call the Food Center. The storefront came with a small, empty shack, and he thought maybe Mary could make use of it. Her cooking was legend all over the neighborhood, and he figured she knew the business. The building wasn't much, but with a little elbow grease and a plan, maybe she could find a way to transform it. For the daughter of immigrants, this was the shiny brass ring: the American Dream come to life. Working for others was fine for a while, but Mary knew the only real way up was on one's own. To run a business, to be the padrone, this was why her people had migrated from Ischia to begin with. She drained her small savings and went all out, setting the place up to be just so. Added a dough mixer and a new oven, squeezed seven second-hand tables onto the floor. She attached a jury-rigged porch to the front of the building and hung a small shingle void of pretense: Mary's Pizza Shack was in business.
"You could smell the Pizza Shack from a mile away," says Anna. "The aroma..." She looks into the distance, remembering those long ago days. "It was what she called 'peasant food,' everything from scratch." The idea of pizza was new in America then, and customers were scarce at the start. "I can remember sitting down with someone for an hour and 45 minutes before getting up to make pizza," recalls Toto. "Pizza was not a big hit. It was just starting to come in." So Mary added soups and a few pastas to the menu, and little by little business grew.
The remarkable thing about chasing a dream is that work, often as not, feels like play. Mary was in her element at the Shack, stirring and kneading and spicing the food. "It was like her little playhouse," says Cullen Williamson, grandson-in law, who's been with the company 28 years. She'd get up in the morning and head straight to work, get her sauces bubbling in their pots. Then she'd drive into to town to collect fresh breads from the bakery, leaving the door unlocked and the stove set to simmer. Toto was sent to the city to buy flour each week, filling the bed of an old truck. "You should see what he did to this old pickup truck," laughs Anna. "It was just flattened down." Meats and produce were fetched from Santa Rosa, as Mary's Shack was too small for vendors to bother with delivery.
Mary followed a simple recipe at work: great food, friendly service, and a clean house. Her kitchen, open to the dining room, was always spic and span and she'd chat up the customers while she worked. "She was Cheers way before its time," laughs grandson Vince Albano, remembering how his Nonni did business. "People loved her. She was a community grandma. People of all ages loved and respected her."
Before long, seven tables and the porch weren't enough, so Mary repurposed her back supply room. Now customers were marched right through her kitchen to the new tables in the back, a seating that conveyed special privilege. For eighteen years Mary did business in the little pink shack on the side of the highway. Then in 1978, without telling anyone, she bought a new location, a big empty lot just a few clicks up the road, with a giant magnolia in one corner. She built a new restaurant-a big place, in no way a "shack"-but kept everything else exactly the same. Same menu, same friendly service, same open kitchen, same Mary. But now with 40 tables she needed more help, which was terrific because her family had grown. Tito had four kids and Anna had three, and all of them were pressed into service. "My first job," Vince remembers, "was belly-crawling under the deck to retrieve silverware. I got a nickel for each piece, which I used to buy gumballs." Mary's little idea had grown into a real family affair, and the story had only just started.
- Mary's daughter Anna
It's been 50 years since Mary's Shack first opened its doors, and its remarkable growth now includes eighteen locations. The first was in Cotati, the farthest in Anderson (near Redding), and a favorite draws crowds on Sonoma's Plaza. On a recent evening there, we're greeted by a genuinely friendly host. His smile is warm as he leads us to sit, and the vibe in the place is relaxed. Families crowd the room; parents sip wine and indulge in a bit of benign neglect. At the next table a little boy squeezes mustard into his empty cup and stirs happily. Soon there are breadsticks served piping hot, and the children inhale them in seconds. A Caesar salad wins three "yum's" from our daughter, and the pizza puts both kids in a lovely food-induced stupor. The gnocchi are little blond pillows of joy, and the scampi is fresh and delicious. Everything's served fast and real hot, and the waitress is friendly and capable. Though we can barely stand more we order dessert, and a couple of huge sweets arrive. The Bomba-caramel heart, peanut butter gelato, coated in milk chocolate-undoes a whole week of dietary discipline, and the hot chocolate chip cookie covered in ice cream wins raves from the kids. The four of us are sated and stuffed for under 80 bucks, tip included.
In the early 1980s, after 20-some years of doing it all, Mary began to slow down. Seventy years old but still spry, she started transitioning the responsibility of daily operations to others, though she still enjoyed the feel of her hands in fresh dough. When Toto began expanding the business, opening up different locations, Mary insisted on making the gnocchi for each. She'd get shuttled from store to store, mixing and rolling, making sure that the dish was just right. This was her baby, after all, the Pizza Shack thing; her legacy and her family's inheritance. It would be her way or no way at all. "Every time I made a decision, it was with her in mind," says Toto, the son to whom the torch was eventually passed. "I worry that if something were to happen, the one who would be most disappointed would be my mother."
Mary Fazio died in 1999, and Toto "retired" soon after. "He still calls in every day," laughs Vince of his father. "He wants to make sure we're doing things right." The company that started in a humble pink shack at the side of a highway now sprawls across Northern California. The business begun by the single mother with a fistful of recipes employs 900 people now, and the families of her seven grandchildren built their careers there. Family businesses aren't easy, and this one has seen its share of dissent. Italian to the tips of their toes, Mary's tribe has been known to get boisterous in negotiations. "It has not," Toto says of growing the business, "been all peaches and cream." Vincent remembers the occasional loud debate, too, his Nonni and Toto and Anna gesturing wildly, all shouting in Italian. But family is family at the end of the day, and besides, what trouble can't be bested by a plate of spaghetti? They'd sit down together and break bread and drink wine, and with full bellies would-always-make peace.
The company is now in the hands of the grandchildren, though the specter of Mary hovers near. Her recipes still anchor the menu, and the friendly service she prized is a given. But the restaurant business is famously fickle, and the family accepts change as inevitable. "In the early 1990s we really realized people's tastes were changing, and that we had to do some new things," says Cullen, whom the family calls Cully. "We went to Mary, Toto and Anna and said 'Hey, we want to try some things.' I remember going to her with Canadian bacon and pineapple and she was like 'No way! You're not putting that on my pizza.'" Cully won that battle, but Mary won the war, insisting that menu changes be undertaken democratically.
When a new dish is recommended for the menu, the whole family gathers, crowding around one big table. The tasting involves lots of healthy discussion, with dissent and debate sometimes getting raucous. "It's like Thanksgiving with attitude," laughs Vince. "One of us is picking on the dish, someone else loves it." The restaurant débuts a handful of seasonal specials each year, all chosen with Mary's standards in mind.
It's an American story, Mary Fazio's story, a classic tale of grit and determination, a woman alone building something big, brick by brick. The house Mary built is both vast and complex, sheltering four generations in its shade. Not bad for an Italian girl on her own.
From the Summer 2009 issue of SONOMA