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Mary’s Pizza Shack releases cookbook marking 60 years in Sonoma County

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It’s just another Tuesday evening, but the Mary’s Pizza Shack in Rohnert Park is bustling. Several pizza chefs are working at a fast clip behind the bake counter, assembling pie after pie to slide into the furiously hot gas ovens.

A customer arrives to grab her take-out order — a large, classic crust cheese pizza — and asks a pizzaiolo if she can view her pie, since she asked for it to be “lightly baked.” A glance, and little more time in the oven would be perfect, she decides. He humors her with a grin, agreeing that there’s an artful balance for the perfect golden cheese, not pale, but not brown either, customized to each guest’s liking.

Mary’s lengthy menu offers more than 60 dishes, an amount that could overwhelm a typical restaurant kitchen. Add to that the many special requests accommodated, and it’s an extra challenge, as customers ask for salads dressed half-and-half in Italian and blue cheese, and gluten-free pasta or pizza crust made from ancient grains including sorghum, amaranth and teff. Guests ponder over choices of some half dozen homemade pasta sauces, and sandwiches served hot or cold with a myriad of optional toppings and sides.

Yet it’s a scenario that Mary’s employees are used to, as they greet up to 490 guests a day on weekends. As the chain celebrates its 60th anniversary next year, the team has had a long time to work out details.

And considering that 26 of Mary’s 750 employees have worked with Mary’s for at least 20 years, the operation glides pretty smoothly across Mary’s 18 locations.

The success is even more considerable, perhaps, since after founder Mary Fazio opened her Mary’s Pizza Shack in Boyes Hot Springs in 1959, all the stores remain family owned. Mary’s son Toto Albano took over daily operations in 1978, working as he had for decades alongside his wife, Peggy Albano, and his sister Anna Albano-Byerly. Fazio passed away in 1999, and today, Toto’s son Vince Albano is CEO, with various other Fazio grandchildren, great grandchildren and Albano in-laws working in positions all across the company.

The family isn’t resting on its laurels, either. To commemorate the six-decade milestone, the Albanos have just released a cookbook that is as much an historical telling of family heritage as it is a collection of recipes. As the stories and 95 recipes unfold over the 256-page, hardcover tome, it’s a celebration of Sonoma County, too, and its growth from a quiet farming community to the still rural but much more cosmopolitan region it is now.

The book, titled “Mary’s Italian Family Cookbook,” is also a salute to a very strong woman ahead of her time. When Fazio began dreaming of opening a pizzeria, she was 45, on her second divorce, and a single mother with just $700 to her name. Except for waitressing at a few Bay area restaurants for 50 cents an hour, she had little experience outside of cooking for her own family.

Toto, now 83, recalls that he was adamant that his mother should not risk everything, insisting she needed to save for retirement. But Fazio would not listen, explaining that this was the only way she could afford to keep the family together. She also wanted to save him from his agonizing weekday commute from the family’s Sonoma hometown to the San Francisco shipyards. Then, serendipitously, a friend offered her a pink painted, 800 square foot cottage across from the Sonoma Fairmont Mission Inn & Spa on Hwy. 12. There was room for just seven tables, and rent was $60 a month.

“She brought her pots and pans from home,” said Toto. “She bought equipment and mix-and-match furniture at garage sales, and only had 30 dinner plates to start.”

Fazio’s days began at 5:30 a.m., simmering pots of homemade soup and tomato sauce on the four-burner stove, kneading homemade pizza dough, slicing salami, chopping vegetables and grating fresh mozzarella. And in a very unusual touch for the time, she built the kitchen open to the dining room, so she could chat with and wait on her guests even as she made their hand-rolled gnocchi that was served as a full meal for $3.45.

“She only had one part time server,” said Toto. “So in 1961, I started working weekends there, while still commuting to the shipyards for another six years until I could afford to be at the restaurant full time.”

Soon, other family members joined in, bussing tables, tossing pizza dough, folding pizza boxes, washing dishes and learning bookkeeping, even as they kept other full-time jobs. The tiny eatery gained more and more fame, often with standing-room-only inside and on the little front porch. Fazio opened a tongue-in-cheek VIP room next to the kitchen, actually a storage closet with a couple of tables squeezed in next to hanging salamis. Take out boomed, too, with neighbors showing up the restaurant’s back door bearing pots for loading up with steaming hot spaghetti smothered in deeply seasoned, slow simmered ragù.

“We got so busy, we had to take the phone off the hook so the kitchen could keep up,” said Vince, 56, who remembers his first job was crawling under the original Shack’s porch to retrieve cutlery that fell off the picnic tables. “And it was a pay phone.”

Finally, in 1997, Mary’s was able to expand, relocating to its much larger, current space on Hwy. 12 north of Verano Avenue in Boyes Hot Springs. The growth caused new nervousness among family members, yet everyone pitched in, with Anna even bringing in her children – once they reached the ripe old age of five - to help make pizzas. They were too small to handle the heavy wood pizza boards, so she would lift the slabs into the ovens for them.

“I remember upsets between my dad and family on business decisions, but they always worked through it,” said Vince. “And then people started coming from all over the Bay area. Noni (what the grandkids called Mary) just kept repeating her mantra, ‘you can do it.’ And we did.”

“She didn’t have to keep doing it,” added Anna, 84. “Toto and I would have taken care of her. But the restaurant was the love of her life. And I think she liked being a local celebrity.”

In 1983, Fazio and Toto opened a second location in Petaluma. The main concern was whether the food would be as good as the original, but Toto says the somehow, the family pulled it off.

From day one, community connection was as important to Fazio as her cooking. The family proudly notes that more than 50 couples met at various Mary’s over the years and ended up getting married, including Anna herself. And then there was the Sonoma customer who raised pigs and rabbits; Mary would save kitchen scraps for his pigs, and he would gift her with rabbits so she could make her beloved cacciatori.

Today, the company gives back with efforts like a School Lunch Program that offers specially discounted rates on pizzas and pastas for schools and teachers, a free pizza certificate program for outstanding students, and a Dine & Donate Program benefitting local non-profit groups like Santa Rosa’s Muttopia/Compassion without Borders dog rescue.

In 2016, Mary’s Pizza Shack was the first Sonoma County business to partner with Santa Rosa’s autism services nonprofit, Anova, offering free use of “sensory friendly kits” at the restaurant’s Sonoma County locations. The toolboxes include calming items such as noise-reduction earmuffs and weighted lap blankets to help kids and adults avoid feeling overwhelmed in a busy restaurant.

Over the years, the family has expanded the menu, adding a few more modern dishes like garlic shrimp tumbled with zucchini and squash noodles, or spicy chicken chimichurri pizza spritzed with lime. But the core remains the hearty, soul-warming classics: overstuffed ravioli, saucy, cheese-blanketed chicken Parmesan, and the Mary’s Combo pizza buried in salami, pepperoni, cotto, mushrooms, Italian sausage and homemade marinara sauce on dough that takes 48 hours to rise and rest.

“The He & She” is another bestseller, named after a unisex beauty salon that used to operate near the original Shack and delivering two giant meatballs smothered in meat sauce under a mantle of melted mozzarella. The salon owners ordered so many of the mouthwatering orbs, that the dish eventually was named in their honor. The secret to the recipe, the new cookbook shares, is sweet Italian sausage blended with ground beef, quality sourdough bread tufts, and plenty of Parmesan, fennel seeds, basil, garlic, and a splash of beer.

Another thing that will never change, promises Toto: his mother always insisted that meals be full affairs, and to this day, all entrees include warm sourdough bread and butter plus a cup of homemade soup du jour or a Caesar or signature salad. Regulars tend to go for the signature salad, bringing a generous toss of mozzarella, salami, marinated three-bean salad, hard-boiled egg, pickled beets, carrots, mushrooms, tomato, red onion and coarse black pepper mounded over iceberg.

Creating the cookbook took three years, partly because Fazio cooked from memory, Toto noted. Once the company started expanding, her team had to watch her in the kitchen to figure out recipes and measurements, then later, translate the notes so a home cook could follow along. The pressure was on, Toto joked, “to do things the Mary way.”

As the Northern California area has grown, Mary’s stores now see many new faces stopping in for monster portions of lasagna layered with Italian sausage, salami, pepperoni, spinach, mozzarella and ricotta, capped in chunky meat sauce and melted mozzarella. Yet according to Vince, newcomers often become as loyal as longtime locals, appreciating the filling, full flavored cooking at reasonable prices. The restaurants still operate as neighborhood hubs as they have for so many decades, hosting birthdays, high school sports teams celebrating wins, and families craving authentic Italian American home cooking.

“Noni would be so happy,” he said.

“My only sadness is that she didn’t see the book,” added Anna. “She would have loved it.”

Books, $35, are available at all Mary’s Pizza Shack locations. Order books online at www.maryspizzashack.com/marys-italian-family-cookbook

Mary’s Signature Meatballs

Makes 12 large meatballs; 6 servings

— Olive oil for preparing pan

1/4 pound sourdough bread (about 1⁄4 loaf), crust trimmed off and cut into chunks

2 large eggs

1/2 yellow onion, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons water

1 1/2 pound lean ground beef

1/2 pound bulk sweet Italian sausage

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon dried basil

— Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce

1 1/4 cups fine dried bread crumbs

1/2 cup lager-style beer

Mary’s Meat Sauce (recipe below), amount as desired

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

1. To make the meatballs, position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 450°F. Brush a large sheet pan with oil.

2. In a bowl, soak the bread in cold water to cover for 10 minutes. In a blender, blend the eggs, onion, parsley, and water for 10 seconds. In a large bowl, combine the beef, sausage, Parmesan, fennel seeds, basil, 3⁄4 teaspoon salt, 1⁄2 teaspoon pepper, and garlic and mix gently with your hands to distribute the ingredients evenly. Add the egg mixture and mix until incorporated.

3. Drain the bread in a colander, pressing it gently to remove any excess water. Add the bread and tomato sauce to the meat mixture and mix gently. Add the dried bread crumbs and mix until combined.

4. Divide the meat mixture into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball and arrange in a single layer on the prepared pan, spacing evenly.

5. Roast the meatballs, turning once halfway through, for 20 minutes. Turn the meatballs again and pour the beer evenly over them. Continue to roast until well browned and glazed, about 5 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and discard any liquid. Leave the oven on.

6. In a stockpot over medium heat, warm the meat sauce. When the sauce is hot, add the meatballs and simmer until they are cooked through, about 5 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball should register 165°F.

7. Transfer the meatballs and sauce to a baking dish in a single layer (alternatively, transfer 2 meatballs to individual baking dishes and divide the sauce evenly among the dishes).

8. Top the meatballs evenly with the mozzarella, and heat in the oven until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling, 5 to 10 minutes. Garnish the meatballs with the parsley and serve, with the bread alongside.

Note: For smaller meatballs, divide the meat mixture into 48 equal portions (each about 11⁄3 ounce), shape the portions into balls, and arrange on 2 large sheet pans, spacing them evenly. Preheat the oven as directed, then cook the pans one at a time, turning the balls halfway through as directed and reducing the cooking time to 15 minutes. Top with the beer and glaze as directed for 5 minutes.

Mary’s Meat Sauce

Makes about 8 cups

1 can (28 ounce) whole plum tomatoes with juices

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 large yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1 1⁄2 cups)

2 ribs celery, diced (about 1⁄2 cup)

1 large carrot, peeled and shredded on the small holes of a box grater (about 1 cup)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/4 pound bulk sweet Italian sausage

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 can (28 ounce) tomato sauce

1 bay leaf

1. Pour the tomatoes and their juices into a blender and process on high speed until smooth, about 15 seconds. Set aside.

2. In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the onion, celery, carrot, salt, and black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until softened and starting to brown, about 7 minutes. Add the sausage and cook, stirring and breaking up the sausage with the wooden spoon, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add the fennel seeds, basil, granulated garlic, and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 3 minutes.

3. Add the reserved puréed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and bay leaf, raise the heat to high, and bring the sauce to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 40 minutes longer.

Note: Use right away, or let cool to room temperature, transfer to an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months.