In 1959, Mary Fazio had $700 and a dream. She wanted to open her own pizzeria — nothing fancy, just a place to feed people the good Italian food she’d been cooking for years at home and in other peoples’ restaurants.
Her son Toto was doubtful. “I told her, Mom, if you have $700, that’s your life savings. You had better save that for your retirement,” he said.
Instead, she opened Mary’s Pizza Shack in Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County. Today, the restaurant is still family owned and operated, and it has grown into a group that includes 19 locations in Northern California, from Redding to Walnut Creek.
These sites include the Mary’s Pizza Shack on Jefferson Street in Napa, where Mary’s children, Anna Albano-Byerly, and Toto (Antony) Albano, and his wife, Peggy, gathered to discuss their mother, her legacy and her recipes, now gathered into a new cookbook, “Mary’s Italian Family Cookbook, A Celebration of Family, Friends and Italian Comfort Food.”
“Mom loved two things — family and cooking,” said Anna Albano-Byerly. One of the reasons, Mary decided to open a restaurant was so that Toto wouldn’t have to keep commuting to San Francisco where he was working in the shipyards.
Toto and Anna helped their mom open the first pizza shack, and as years went on, their children and grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other extended family joined the business.
It quickly became clear, Mary’s children agreed, that “family” also included anyone who came in to eat. “She loved to feed people,” said Toto, describing one time, early on, when a family came in to her new restaurant and ordered for four of them, one small pizza.
“Mom said, ‘That’s not enough,’” he said. And because she sensed that money might be the issue, she sent out more food. “She didn’t want anyone to be hungry.”
Stories of Mary’s quiet generosity multiplied over the years. She closed the restaurant on Christmas Day for the family to have a meal together, but if anyone knocked on the backdoor, looking for sauce or meatballs, they often ended up joining the dinner.
“She loved to feed people,” Anna said.
Mary Fazio was born in 1913 in “the rough and tumble part of Manhattan known as Hell’s Kitchen,” according to the book. Her parents, Francesco and Maria Josephina Mattera, had come to New York from Ischia, an Italian island not far from Capri. Finding Hell’s Kitchen to be “less than welcoming to Italian immigrants,” they headed for California and found a home in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Francesco became a fisherman, operating his own 30-foot boat out of Fisherman’s Wharf.
Italian fishermen tended to be good cooks under all kinds of conditions; the fishermen of San Francisco are credited with creating the local specialty, cioppino, a seafood stew that has become a traditional holiday dish as Dungeness crabs become available in December.
Mary got her first cooking lessons from her father, when he was not at sea, and later she used many of his recipes in her restaurant.
At 15, Mary eloped with Vincenzo Albano, another fisherman from Ischia, and moved to San Pedro in Southern California. In the 1940s, they divorced and she moved back to San Francisco with her children, and began working as a waitress in a North Beach restaurant. Her second husband, Frenchy, was a barker from a nearby burlesque theater. When he inherited property in Sonoma, the family moved, and she went to work at the original Sonoma Mission Inn.
When her children were grown, and she began toying with the idea of a restaurant of her own, a friend offered her the use of a rental cottage. That would become the first Pizza Shack.
“She was ahead of her time,” Toto said, “She said, ‘I am going to do this so you don’t have to commute. We can all live here in Sonoma and you can have a job down the road. And that’s what she did.”
“We grew up in a shack, a bustling, aromatic, love-filled shack,” Mary’s grandchildren write in a preface to the new cookbook. “When we were little, we would hear our Noni humming as she made her soups and sauces...smiling and chatting with her beloved customers as she chopped vegetables in a kitchen specially designed so she could greet her guests and make sure they were happy.
“Given time, our children’s children will grow up in the Shack,” they conclude.
Mary Fazio died in 1999 but her memories live on in “Mary’s Italian Family Cookbook,” rich with stories and photos from family albums. But fair warning: It’s going to make you hungry for a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, lasagne or one of Mary’s pizzas. It is also filled with recipes and mouth-watering photos of dishes like linguine with clams, stuffed pasta shells, minestrone, pasta e fagioli and Sunday ragu.
A whole section is devoted to pizza, “the heart of Mary’s original restaurant,” including directions to duplicate her “Legendary Pizza Dough,” along with variations for Toto’s Combo or a family favorite, Loaded Potato Skin Pizza.
Basic recipes, like Anna’s Blue Cheese Dressing, or Mary’s Marinara Sauce, are also included.
Nanette, Terri, Marie, Vince, Mary, Rob and Charlew, Mary’s grandchildren, conclude, “For those who love to cook and share, let these dishes be your guide to Italian comfort food — from our family to yours, made with love and in honor of our Noni, Mary.”
“Mary’s Italian Family Cookbook” is available at Mary’s Pizza Shack, 3085 Jefferson St., Napa, as well as the other restaurant locations and online at amazon.com.