Born and raised in Italy, Franco Laragioni says he remembers Sunday dinners with his grandparents and parents cooking the old-fashioned way. He says it was that love of cooking that brought his father, Giuseppe, to the United States in 1981.
“My father’s best friend had a chain of restaurants in New Jersey,” Franco said. “His name was Attilio and that was what he called the restaurant. After he opened a location in Milford, he called my father and asked him if he would come to this country to take over that location. My dad agreed and came here to start running the restaurant. My brother, Sal, followed soon after. My mother, twin sisters and I came here in 1983.”
Franco said that he literally grew up in the restaurant, starting his work there at the age of 13. He started washing dishes and cleaning, learning the ropes from his father. He recalled his father building him a wooden box so that he could reach the ovens where the pizzas were cooked. He said his father did everything in the business, telling his sons that just because they were owners, they were not “too good to sweep the floors.”
In 1985, the family opened Mama Maria’s in the Milford Village Shopping Center across the highway from Attilio’s, keeping both businesses open. Attilio’s focused on pizza and sandwiches while Mama Maria’s focused on authentic Italian cuisine. In 1993, they took over an old Mexican restaurant in Dewey Beach, opening a new Mama Maria’s location in the beach town.
“In 1996, we made the decision to combine Mama Maria’s and Attilio’s,” Franco said. “We dropped the name Attilio’s and became Mama Maria’s, offering authentic Italian food at the Milford Plaza location. My brother, Sal, continued to work at the store while I attended the New England Culinary Institute. It was there that I met my best friend who has been our chef since 2000.” Franco said that he completed an internship at a restaurant just a few blocks from the White House, the Galileo under Master Chef, Roberto Donna. Chef Donna is a James Beard Award winning chef who has been widely recognized for dishes that bring the real flavors of Italy to this country.
After returning from culinary school, Franco began implementing some of the dishes he learned during his studies, expanding the menu at the family restaurant. He said the menu expanded quickly beyond the pizza and subs that the restaurant was known for in the area.
“The sauce we use is my father’s recipe,” Franco said. “We tweaked it just a little, but the basics are his own, the one he learned from my grandmother. The Italian recipes we use at the restaurant were created by myself or our chef, but there are a few old-world recipes still there.”
The restaurant was named after Giuseppe’s mother, Maria. Franco said that there is a saying in Italy that people who have passed on bring luck to the living. His father chose the name in memory of his mother, believing that it would bring him luck.
“One of the ways we plan to honor my grandmother and my mother is through a few special entrees on Mother’s Day,” Franco said. “We were considering a four-course Italian meal that day, but with so many people eating healthier, we thought that may be too much food. Instead, we are doing a special fish dish and are offering a specially-priced New York Strip on Mother’s Day.”
Franco said that although he grew up in Italy, he has not travelled back to his home country much since leaving culinary school. His wife is Cuban and the couple has travelled to Cuba several times. The family plans to open a lounge next door in the future that will have a Cuban flare, featuring traditional Cuban drinks including the mojito canciancera and the famous Cuba libre invented buy Ernest Hemingway.
Mama Maria’s is located at 945 North Dupont Boulevard in Milford. They are open Monday through Thursday from 10 AM until 10 PM as well as Friday and Saturday from 10 AM until 11 PM. They are open on Sunday from 11 AM until 10 PM. Menu items are available for both dine-in and carry-out.
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