Maria’s Pizza delivers dose of nostalgia

Good food, small-town charm, old-fashioned joint

The other day I came home from the grocery store, weighed down with a heap of miscellaneous stuff, only to discover I’d forgotten to buy the one item I’d entered the store intending to purchase: frozen meatballs for my suddenly meatball-craving boys. Thankfully, a solution to my forgetfulness sprang to mind: Maria’s Pizza, a family-run Italian restaurant in nearby Oregon.

A friend had rhapsodized to me about the place a while back–fantastic pizza and massive portions of pasta smothered with excellent red sauce. And, if you’re smart like my friend, you top your pasta with the restaurant’s handball-sized meatballs made by the Sicilian-native chef and owner.

And although it sounded great to me–much like the now sadly departed family-run, corner-joint Italian restaurants I loved growing up in Milwaukee–I held off proposing Maria’s to my children. Their dining-out tastes tend toward burgers and chicken tenders, the bland staples of so many kids’ menus. And, to be honest, if Maria’s didn’t pass muster with them, I didn’t want their grumbling to spoil my enjoyment of the sort of low-key spot that, from the sound of it, was likely to fill me with happy nostalgia.

But then meatballs called–an urge that can’t be denied–and I saw my opportunity. My boys, one of their friends and I arrived at Maria’s on a soggy Sunday night, stepping out of the fog and mist to join the families and friends gathered in Maria’s cozy South Main Street dining room. The place is decorated with flashing beer signs, posters of Italy and the restaurant’s first five dollars, hanging in a frame above the open portal to the kitchen, where we could see the white-haired chef and his wife hustling pizzas in and out of the oven. It was about the nicest feeling you can have entering a restaurant. These people, making the food and eating it, are all into it, big-time, and we were about to join them.

We followed my friend’s instructions and ordered spaghetti and mostaccioli with meatballs. And after we downed the first two tender, juicy balls of meat sitting atop our pasta, we ordered more to share, or, more accurately, squabble over.

They came to us swimming in Maria’s slightly spicy and refreshingly not-too-sweet tomato sauce. An elderly couple seated next to us, regulars who drive in from the country every time they’re hankering for pizza, goggled at the boys’ appetites and laughed as my younger son, age five, swiped his saucy mouth again and again with his shirtsleeve.

Eating at Maria’s, I’m pleased to report, reminded me a lot of being back in one of those unpretentious, but now vanished, restaurants I used to love in my native Milwaukee. Right down to the waitstaff hustling hard to deliver luminously pale iceberg salads, refill soda glasses and make sure huge slabs of homemade lasagna arrived at tables piping hot. The crowd was complaining about the Packers’ defense, busting up over dirty jokes and, at one table, singing “Happy Birthday” to a grandma over cannoli trucked up from Chicago. Maria’s desserts are the only menu items not made in-house, and they are excellent, according to my newly open-minded children. I had the almond cake, a delicate, fluffy dream.

As the crowd thinned out, owner John Indelicato, who’s been working at Maria’s six days a week since it opened in 1978, came out from the kitchen, with flour on his shoes, to ride a regular picking up a pizza. “That’ll be double the price for you!” he teased, before turning on his heels and heading back to knead more dough.

After such a fine and friendly meal, it was hard to leave Maria’s. But the boys and I agreed we’d come back soon. There was that lovely-looking lasagna to try and, of course, the house pizza, which we saw people waiting by the door to carry out all night. And knowing that we would be back soon was the only thing that enabled us, finally, to push back our chairs and say goodnight.