Story David Bolling
Photos Courtesy of Mary’s
Food Photos Paige Green
Tvhere are only a handful of names in the Sonoma Valley that almost everyone recognizes and remembers.
General Mariano Vallejo (original city father) and Count Agoston Haraszthy (original wine baron) may top the list, followed by Hap Arnold (pioneering aviator, five-star general), a bunch of Sebastianis (later wine barons) and Chuck Williams (kitchen store baron).
But the best-known name in the entire Valley may simply be Mary, as in Mary Fazio, as in Mary’s Pizza Shack.
Mary doesn’t have the provenance of Vallejo or Haraszthy—who preceded her by a solid century—and she was hardly a baron (sorry, a baroness)—but she had recipes in her head that were equally enduring, along with a passion for cooking and feeding and making people feel at home in her house. All of which combined to create a legacy that best reflects the virtues of the Valley of the Moon.
Beginning in 1959, she built a following that simply couldn’t stay away and grew exponentially bigger over the years. And in 2019, that humble pizza shack, once parked practically on the curb of Highway 12 in Boyes Hot Springs, will be 60 years old, an improbable milestone in the risky world of restaurants, and now being celebrated with the first-ever Mary’s cookbook.
The original Shack, all 800 square-feet of it, was transplanted years ago to the shade of a massive magnolia tree about a mile down the road. And in the intervening six decades it has given birth to a succession of other shacks—19 in all—that now stretch from Highway 12 to the Sonoma Plaza, from there to Santa Rosa, Cotati, Petaluma, Napa, Novato, as far north as Redding and as far south as Walnut Creek.
That would not, in itself, be surprising if Mary’s had long since sold out and become an anonymous corporate franchise, the name merely a logo referencing a long-ago founder, just a face in a marketing campaign.
But the spirit of Mary Fazio endures because it’s in the genes of her abundant progeny, now four generations deep and still running the restaurant she started 60 years ago. Through them, Mary remains a real person, an inspiration, a guide, a model entrepreneur and a godmother emeritus. She viewed her restaurant as an extension of her family and a means to keep that family close, fed and, quite frequently, employed.
It is, in and of itself, amazing that this opinionated, impassioned and sometimes impulsive clan has worked together so long without fraying around the usual stress points that commonly divide family-owned businesses. There are so many members involved that sheer numbers alone would seem to guarantee conflict. The family tree, diagrammed in the new Mary’s cookbook, looks like a corporate flow chart, or the entire population of a small town.
So, how do they all get along?
During a family luncheon/confessional, Mary’s daughter, Anna Albano Byerly, suggests, “It’s in our DNA; we just can’t stay mad.”
Grandson and current CEO Vince Albano adds, “We learned from the fights how to work through it and stay a family. And I think that’s really important because people tend to want to avoid the fight conversation, but we’re working as a family. There’s gonna be some conflict. How you get through that and stay family is critical.”
But it wasn’t all DNA—they had some help. Mary’s son, Toto Albano, the current patriarch and a guiding spirit through the decades, explains, “I have seen other family businesses going through serious trouble here in the Valley. So when we started bringing more family members in, I called Dr. Dick Kirk (a prominent Sonoma psychiatrist), and he opened his door to all of us to teach us how to understand each other. He taught us how to get through arguments, and then he brought the wives in, or the husbands, whichever the case was, and they were taught how to handle it. We stayed with him about four years.”
Adds Vince, “We even brought management in. We did some management sessions, and we had a couple people—long-term people—change careers. It was a life-changing opportunity, and we wanted people invested, and all in.”
The roots of the business, and the family tree, were planted in San Francisco where New York–born Mary Fazio first worked in other people’s restaurants, gaining the experience and the knowledge she would eventually put to work in Sonoma.
What drove that dream wasn’t the pursuit of wealth. Toto says, “Mary created this business by being who she was. She loved to cook, she loved people, loved to give them service, loved all of that. The money was truly, truly, truly the last thing on her agenda.”
That reality was revealed over the years in numerous ways large and small.
“She had a heart of gold,” says Vince. “There were so many people on her staff she would take care of. Fifty dollars here, a hundred dollars there. She’d buy a car for somebody when they couldn’t get to work, had a hard time on their bicycle; next thing you know, she bought them a Volkswagen. Or she’d see somebody with worn-out shoes. ‘Those don’t look so good,’ she’d say. ‘What size do you wear?’”
Laura DiPietro, a longtime employee and family friend who shepherded the cookbook into print, takes the point a step further. “I love the story about ‘Mary’s Bucks.’ She’d write on her business card, ‘M-two’ or ‘M-ten pizza,’ and ‘large salad,’ and give it to people…that was the original frequent-diner card.”
Then Toto steps in. “One day the bookkeeper came to me and says, ‘Toto, Toto, you gotta talk to your mom, she’s giving three thousand dollars’ worth of food away every month.’ So I say, ‘Mom, you can’t do that, we need the money.’ And, my mom, the first thing out of her mouth, she says to Peggy (Toto’s wife), ‘What am I, Peggy? Tell him who I am.’ And Peggy says, ‘She’s the president!’”
Other forms of Mary’s free-food involved gender-specific generosity. Explains Peggy, “She always made sure the men got the larger portions,” a practice that embarrassed Anna. “She’d go, ‘Anna, which is the man, which is the women?’ I’d go, ‘Ma, don’t do that, don’t you do that now.’ She’d say, ‘I do what I want to do. This is my restaurant.’ But the customers were delighted when they’d get the bigger portion. The men and the women; they were delighted. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, Ma!’”
Free food for the community remains an active Mary’s tradition, including 50,000 “Pizzetta School Certificates” each year, awarding a free pizza to students with notable achievements.
As much love as she gave, Mary demanded a lot in return. And sometimes that meant people just had to be fired.
“She fired me three times,” says Toto, “and the third time I said, ‘I’m not going back. I got a job in another pizzeria in Santa Rosa, and I’m not going back.”
But, of course, he did. “I walked in the door, she looked at me and I looked at her, and we just smiled.”
“She fired lots of us,” adds Vince. “Our generation, you didn’t get out the door before she said, ‘Where you going? Get back in here.’ She’d fire you, and then make sure you finished your job. She could be tough, but at the end of the day she gave you love when you left. And the customers … the customers came here for therapy, they were family to her, she could just be so authentic.”
Mary’s passion was the open kitchen where she could see who was eating her food. She had no grand plans to expand beyond her immediate horizons and might have never moved from her original address if a new landlord hadn’t almost quadrupled the rent.
Mary had already bought the parcel under the magnolia tree across from Fiesta Plaza, and after the rent increase she told Toto, “I just spent $14,000 to buy a lot, I’m making payments on it, because our patio is going to be under that tree.”
That move was the first of many big steps; growth seemed to be built into the fabric of the business, like a cheese culture.
But Peggy explains that the family’s ambitions were modest. “Between Toto and I, our goal was always five stores. Little did we know more family and in-laws were going to come into it, and they were encouraging me to build even more. We were able to because of that. My son-in-law, Cully, was very instrumental in it.”
But growing a family restaurant into multiple locations, all propelled by the purpose, the vision and the habits of a single matriarch, presented a unique problem. The food had to be Mary’s food, the same from one location to another. But all Mary’s recipes were in her head, most of them gleaned from her native Italian father, and she refused to write them down. Her measurements were a pinch of this and a dash of that, and she relied on the basic ingredients on hand in her kitchen.
It fell upon Cully to initiate a clandestine campaign to record Mary’s secrets. “We were starting to grow a little,” says Toto, “and Cully says to her, ‘Noni, we gotta start measuring—salt, pepper, whatever, to make the sauces, salad dressing, everything. We gotta measure. No more just pick it up and put it in.’ He gave up after a while. Then he came back and started again.”
Laura picks up the thread. “He ended up fooling her, videotaping and walking around with a camera when she was cooking, and he’d say ‘Noni, how much did you put in of that garlic?’ She’d say, ‘Oh, a pinch.’ He’d say, ‘No! What?’ That was one of the fun stories that came out of all the interviews we did for the cookbook.”
The cookbook is, in fact, an eclectic collection of recipes and “Mary’s Moments,” anecdotes that bring to life not only Mary, but also the entire Sonoma community over a span of 60 years. It is flush with 130 historic and contemporary photos of family, friends and employees, along with menus, newspaper clippings and the mouthwatering food photography of Paige Green.
The 256-page cookbook has 94 recipes—covering the culinary arc from appetizers to cocktails, including more than 30 for pizzas, pastas, soups and
In the end, it is a compelling cookbook and a whole lot more. In these pages, Mary emerges as the definitive embodiment of the spirit of Sonoma—generous, opinionated, industrious, celebratory, nurturing, friendly, informal, strict, forgiving and fundamentally family-focused.
Turns out you don’t need to be part of the bloodline to be related to Mary, because we are all now related through her food and her spirit.