Mary’s Pizza Shack releases cookbook marking 60 years in Sonoma County
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 myriad 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. The chain celebrates its 60th anniversary next year, and 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.
At first, a risky venture
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 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 Highway 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.”
Lines out the door
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. Takeout 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.