October 15, 2019
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Scenes from an Italian restaurant: How one classic Maine eatery thrives in changing times

PORTLAND, Maine — In restaurant-rich Portland, what’s immediately noticeable about Maria’s Restaurant is what isn’t there. The now-familiar buzz that newish city bistros radiate. The staccato of cocktail shakers, or eclectic soundtracks piped from hidden speakers.

Foodies don’t flock to the Cumberland Avenue eatery to Instagram artfully plated delicacies. It would almost seem like an affront to the black and white photos of the owners’ parents gracing the walls.

And co-owner Anthony Napolitano will probably never be nominated for a James Beard Award — the food Oscar that so many city restaurateurs covet. But he’s not in it for glory. He’s carrying on the family trade, as if a carpenter or firefighter.

“My mother cried when I dropped out of college to work here,” said Anthony Napolitano, a large man with a warm personality. “They didn’t want me in the restaurant business. Mom and Dad wanted me to do something else.”

Anthony Napolitano and his brother Gregory Napolitano grew up in Maria’s, the classic Italian eatery their parents opened in 1960. Six decades and three different addresses later, not much has changed. Diners can still order a half carafe of chianti, dig into chicken cacciatore, and enjoy a long, relaxed evening meal far from the frenzy of the Old Port.

Gregory Napolitano works the front of the house. Anthony Napolitano works in the kitchen. The waiter is a friend from Cheverus High School. The recipes for staples such as house-made veal sausage date back, like Maria’s Restaurant itself, a half century.

As owners of the 1,200-square-foot restaurant (complete with a parking lot), the brothers inherited gold in a real-estate hungry city. Other restaurateurs fret over rising rents, while Maria’s plans for the next 50 years. No overhead and few excessive costs gives them more security than a positive review on TripAdvisor.

So does their approach to seating guests. Maria’s motto is to only seat as many people as the chef-owner, who largely works solo, can handle. There’s no waiting list, or buzzer, and little chance for a seat at 6:30 p.m. on a weeknight without a reservation.

“If we can’t take [walk-ins] and treat them the way they want to be taken care of, if they can’t get the best service or meal,” they will be turned away, Anthony Napolitano said.

Turning tables is not how this family business has stayed popular since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

“We want the people to be happy. To do that, you need personalized service,” said Anthony Napolitano, who prepares every meal that leaves his kitchen.

He learned from his father, Anthony Napolitano Sr., to cook with intent, not volume.

“We are not food on demand. It’s not a fast restaurant,” Anthony Napolitano said.

When Maria’s opened on Cumberland Avenue in the early 1970s, there were few options for Italian cuisine in what’s now Maine’s foodiest city.

“There was Valle’s Steakhouse, the Village Cafe and Maria’s,” said Kevin Gildart of Portland, a longtime regular. “No one was doing the style that Maria’s was doing 30 years ago.”

Anthony Napolitano’s father cooked genuine Italian meals, such as octopus and sea snails — dishes that you would find in Naples — while other spots dished out pasta and meatballs. With Anthony Napolitano Sr. at the stove and their mother, Madeline, greeting customers, it was (and still is) much more than food that keeps regulars coming back.

Though the Napolitanos’ parents are passed, their hospitality remains.

“It’s family owned, family style. We tried it, we liked it. And [we] have been going ever since,” said Gildart, who drives in from Cape Elizabeth with his wife once per week for dinner.

Named after the brothers’ great-grandmother Maria, the well-loved venue is a living tribute to a Munjoy Hill family who built their lives around feeding the community. Located first on Veranda Street, when it was called Napoli’s Restaurant, and moving to Westbrook until 1972, when the restaurateurs found a permanent home on Cumberland Avenue.

Today, business is steady, but as Portland has changed, so have Maria’s rhythms.

On weeknights, Maria’s serves 50 to 60 people. On weekends, there are more often 120 to 180 diners. The brothers take pride in their product, which goes beyond sustenance.

“It is our family restaurant,” said Anthony Napolitano. “It’s not mine, it’s ours, it’s our daughters. We are running it and will always be there running it.”

To him, cooking Wednesday through Sunday is his way of life. Despite the workload, there’s no place he’d rather be.

“I worked with dad for 35 years. On a busy Saturday night we’d feed 200 people,” he said. “It was just my dad and myself, whereas in other places it would be six or seven people behind the line.”

And the family tradition may live on.

“My triplet daughters help out in the kitchen and fold napkins,” said Anthony Napolitano, who still lives on Munjoy Hill. “I can already tell they have interest in the restaurant. That’s the next generation.”



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