Summer ends this month, if you believe in the pronouncements of calendars, but warm weather blesses Southern California long after the rest of the country prepares for fall and winter--giving restaurant owners a long while indeed to entice people through their doors with the bounty of the summer harvest.
Take, for example, the summer specials on the new menus of the five Maria's Italian Kitchen restaurants, including the newest one in Valencia.
The restaurants' regular menu looks much as it always did, but the "chef's creations" are new, and they evoke summer indeed: an arugula salad with baby yellow tomatoes in a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and shaved ricotta; a fresh corn soup with roasted peppers and sage; a chicken lasagna with portabello mushrooms, fontina cheese and spinach layered in a whole-wheat pasta; a potato and garlic ravioli with a sauce of Gorgonzola cheese and fresh sage; and last but not least, a fresh fruit crumble with nectarines, peaches, berries, or whatever else happens to ripen at the right time.
The crumble comes with the best ice cream made by mortal man--a scoop of Dandy Don's vanilla bean ice cream, made by Don Whittemore of Van Nuys--and if someone at the next table asks for a taste of yours, just say no.
Prices run from $3.95 for the soup to $9.95 for the ravioli and the chicken lasagna. The fresh fruit crumble goes for $4.50.
Madelyn Alfano Reitzin, who runs the six Maria's Italian Kitchen restaurants from headquarters in Van Nuys, says she wants the restaurants informal and communal--the way she remembers her own home as a child, with her mother Marie Alfano, the founder and namesake of the operation, holding court in the kitchen, and people coming and going all the time.
The tables in a Maria's Italian Kitchen stand close together, and conversation goes from table to table as people connect, Reitzin says.
"The informality comes from my family," Reitzin says. "It's even the smell of the place, because when you walk in you get this great aroma, just like you do at home, of home-style Italian cooking."
The family moved to Southern California from Long Island, N.Y., in 1968 to open a grocery in Brentwood. Everybody pitched in, Reitzin says, and her mother set up a hot plate in the back to keep her family fed. Customers wanted to know what was cooking, so Marie started making sandwiches for folks.
The family took over some space next to the grocery to open the first Maria's a dozen years ago.
"My mom no longer cooks," says Reitzin, "but she sure still directs."
The newest Maria's Italian Kitchen, in Valencia, opened in July, with Reitzin's brother Matthew Alfano, who usually holds down the fort as chef in the Northridge Maria's Italian Kitchen, running the kitchen. He's back in Northridge now, and Raul Pelayo is chef in Valencia, with Don Froehlich as general manager.
The Valencia restaurant seats 70, including room for 15 on a patio, and like the other Maria's restaurants, it does a brisk takeout business. It is at 23460 Cinema Drive, Valencia (805) 287-3773. The other Maria's Italian Kitchen restaurants are at 13353 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks (818) 906-0783; at 16508 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818) 783-2920; at 23000 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills (818) 341-5114; and at 9161 Reseda Blvd., Northridge (818) 786-4833.
A restaurant succeeds when it becomes a kind of joint undertaking between itself and its customers, right? The restaurant gives its customers what they want, and the customers give the restaurant their business in return.
But you know you have a real fan when the customer starts bringing in others--and that's what Rama Crystal wants to do for the Thai Spoon restaurant in Canoga Park, featured in this column last week.
Crystal is a fan of Thai food in general and of the food at the Thai Spoon in particular. He eats at the little restaurant at least once a week, and he wants others to enjoy the food there, too, so his band The Awakening will play a free gig there starting at 8 p.m. Friday.
Thai Spoon is at 20021 Roscoe Blvd., Canoga Park, (818) 341-7002.
* Juan Hovey writes about the restaurant scene in the San Fernando Valley and outlying points. He may be reached at (805) 492-7909 or fax (805) 492-5139 or via e-mail at Jhoveycompuserve.com