On Friday, December 18, the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Milford presented Franco and Sal Laragione with the Citizens of the Year Award. The award was given in recognition for the actions of the two brothers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are here to recognize the Laragione’s and Mama Maria’s Restaurant for the outstanding service to the community during the pandemic,” Angel Hodges, CCGM President, said. “Our community depends on people like this to keep us going in times of trial. We wanted to recognize their work in feeding those who may not have had a hot meal otherwise.”
In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first began, the Laragione’s decided that they needed a way to keep their staff busy since the restaurant was only permitted to do carry out meals.
“Our business dropped by 75 percent in March,” Franco said. “We decided that we would donate meals to people in the community. We started with 300 meal kits which included a jar of our homemade sauce, a pound of pasta that came from Naples, Italy and rolls we handmade each day. I knew I needed help getting information out, so I reached out to Milford School District. We partnered with them to get meals to those who needed it.” Franco wanted to especially mention that the pasta came from Naples, his hometown, as they were hit hard by the pandemic as well.
As word spread, Franco stated that customers would offer $25, $50 even $100 toward the cost of the meals. He and his brother did not want to make money on the project, so, with each donation, they added more meals each day. By the end of June, they had given away almost 5,000 meals to people in the community who needed them.
Mama Maria’s opened in 1979 as Attilio’s in the Milford Plaza Shopping Center. The first location was a pizza and sub shop owned by a friend of Giuseppe Laragione, the father of Sal and Franco. Giuseppe was born in Naples, Italy, and worked for an oxygen company before moving to the United States after the plant was sold. He lived in New Jersey until his friend, Attilio, made him an offer to run a new store he was opening in Milford. Giuseppe accepted and moved to Milford in 1979 while his family remained in Italy.
Sal arrived in the United States in 1980 and the rest of the family a year and a half later. Franco began working at Attilio’s when he was 13, washing dishes and cleaning. His father built him a wooden box to stand on so he could reach the pizza ovens. In 1985, the family opened Mama Maria’s in the Milford Village Shopping Center. The restaurant was named for Giuseppe’s mother who had passed away at a young age and served authentic Italian dishes using recipes handed down in the Laragione family.
Franco graduated from the New England Culinary Institute and worked with some of famous chefs for a few years before he decided to return to Milford to work in the family restaurant.
“I decided to come home and revamp some of Dad’s menu,” Franco said. “At the time, Attilio’s was failing so Dad handed me the reigns and told me to go ahead and do what I wanted with the menu. I did and it was a success. Eventually, we combined the two locations, keeping the Mama Maria’s name since Attilio’s was not really part of our family. The menu we have today has dishes I created although we do use some of the family recipes, like our sauce. I just tweaked it a little.”
The Laragione’s built a new shopping center in front of Food Lion several years ago and moved the restaurant to that location. On Christmas Eve and Valentine’s Day, the transform their casual dining room into a 5-star dining experience with a special menu. Franco explained that they have been very fortunate and, when the pandemic hit, knew they needed to do something to give back. Giuseppe retired several years ago, so now the two brothers operate the Milford and Dewey locations on their own. Franco concentrates on operating the back of the house, creating menus and dishes while Sal is more hands-on, taking care of the front of the house.
“We have been here more than 30 years,” Franco said. “I grew up in Milford. We are so very fortunate and have been very successful here and in Dewey. We knew we needed to give back to a community that has given so much to us.”