It was the crowded patio area in front of Maria's Italian Kitchen that first drew my attention to this trattoria --every time I drove past, it seemed to be filled with people. Curiosity got the best of me, but when I learned no reservations were accepted, I suggested my guest meet me at 6:45 p.m. on a Wednesday evening.
The plan worked well--although the restaurant was packed, only a couple parties were waiting when we arrived. On another visit, a friend and I successfully beat the crowds by meeting for lunch on a Tuesday at 11:30 a.m.
Driving by, I couldn't tell that the patio is just a waiting area--no beverages or food are served. While sitting in the partially enclosed area, warmed by heat lamps in cool weather, there's the regular menu as well as nightly specials to peruse and sometimes bread to nibble.
The restaurant itself has a simple black and white-checked decor, accented by shelves of imported Italian ingredients--boxes of pasta and tins of olive oil--running down one side wall, a few pieces of art down the other. In the back is an open kitchen with large deli cases, behind which hang an assortment of sausages and cheeses. There is little to muffle sound, and because Maria's is almost always bustling with activity, it's rather noisy.
A basket of rosemary bread wedges, made from pizza dough, is served as soon as you're seated and makes a good complement to either of the two antipasto salads offered on the menu. I preferred the regular over the chopped version, but both were full of flavor and ample enough to satisfy three or four people as an appetizer.
Pizzas, too, are generous. The individual or bambino size is about nine inches in diameter with a medium-thick crust. Try the boulevard special, with meatball, pepperoni, mushroom, onion and green pepper.
All the classic pasta dishes are offered, some featuring homemade pasta. However, traditional manicotti, cannelloni, lasagna and fettuccine Alfredo share the bill with the more unusual linguine aglio-olio (oil and garlic) and calamari fra diavolo (spicy marinara sauce with calamari over linguine).
Of the entrees, chicken Maria--small pieces of boneless breast meat, mushrooms, red and green peppers in a white wine and garlic butter sauce--gets our recommendation. There are also a number of seafood, eggplant and veal selections, along with Pritikin entrees for the diet-conscious.
Some choices we made were not altogether satisfying. Raviolini porcini, a special one evening, was so rich even half the serving was overwhelming. On another visit the aroma of shrimp Maria was unusually fishy and shrimp were overcooked to the point of being tough.
In addition to items already mentioned, the lunch and take-out menu includes both hot and cold hero sandwiches, served on sesame seed French rolls. Incidentally, take-out service is another way to beat the crowds during busy hours.
Wine is served in the more traditional Bormioli cylinders rather than stemmed wine glasses. House wines are a Sonoma Chardonnay and Belli Sauret red table wine. Premium wines offered by the glass include a Pinot Grigio, Soave, Sauvignon Blanc, White Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chianti Riserva.
For dessert there's homemade cannoli (very rich), cappuccino or rocky road brownies, chocolate or Kahlua mousse cake, New York-style cheesecake (flown in from Santa Rosa), Tartufo and spumoni ice creams. Espresso, cappuccino and cafe latte are all available in both regular and decaf.
Despite the busy pace of the restaurant, service is polite and efficient, and we felt no pressure to rush through our meals. Moderate prices draw a varied group of diners, including families.
I like Maria's but would probably go more often if they accepted reservations. Waiting for a table is not something I enjoy doing, even though owner Madelyn Reitzin said the average time is only 15 to 20 minutes. But that's a personal opinion--and one you may not share. It certainly doesn't seem to keep many folks away from this popular restaurant.
Maria's Italian Kitchen, 13353 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 906-0783. Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; dinner only, Sunday from 3 to 11 p.m. Visa and MasterCard accepted. No reservations. Street parking. Lunch entrees from $3.95 to $13.95; dinner entrees from $5.95 to $13.95.