MIDDLETOWN — The first week Francesca Vitale re-opened Marino’s Pizzeria, all the old customers came back, clamoring for the hamburg pizza her mother made famous.
“On the first day, we did like 100 pizzas,” Vitale said.
Vitale’s grandfather, Sebastiano Marino immigrated from Sicily in 1898 and opened a bakery on Ferry Street in Middletown’s North End in 1920. Vitale’s mother, Constance Marino-Vitale, opened Marino’s Restaurant in 1941. Both were staples of the Italian-American community in Middletown until the restaurant closed in 1992.
When Vitale and her friend Carla Marino opened back up Marino’s in a new location on William Street, near the Wesleyan University campus, thirty years of pent-up demand for the hamburg pizza had the phone ringing almost constantly.
The restaurant went through 120 pounds of ground beef in the first week, Vitale said, and customers placed orders two days in advance.
Vitale credits her mother with the recipe – a Sicilian-style crust topped with cheese and a seasoned ground beef sauce, which Vitale said customers go “berserk” for.
“I received a phone call yesterday from my girl friend Maria – we all grew up in the North End – she said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it, there’s nothing like Marino’s,’ she said ‘The whole North End is coming there,’” Vitale said. “All our old customers came, it was amazing.”
Marino’s opened Wednesday through Saturday, and the orders came in so quickly that they had to stop taking them the first Saturday. After four days of making, weighing and rolling dough, Vitale said she was exhausted by Sunday.
She said she expects the rush will slow down eventually, and then she’d like to expand the menu to include some of the old favorites. Vitale said that customers have been asking about another one of her mother’s specialties, the scacciata – a sort of flatbread stuffed with meat, cheese and vegetables that is a staple in Sicilian households on Christmas Eve.
“They ask, ‘Are you gonna make spaghetti, are you gonna make meatballs?’ My mother used to make these famous, big stuffed clams,” Vitale said. “All these recipes – the hamburg sauce for the pizza, the stuffing for the clams – she created all of them. And she never went to culinary school, she just dove into it.”
Marino’s current location is smaller than the original restaurant on the North End, with less prep space in the kitchen, and Vitale said that makes it harder to make some of the dishes her mother was known for.
“We had an Italian woman who worked in the kitchen until she was in her 80s, and I mean making pasta sauce and meatballs, doing the hamburg, shucking the clams, grinding them and filling them up,” Vitale said. “They baked the eggplant, they’d layer it with fresh breadcrumbs. Everything was from scratch, they worked so hard.”
Vitale said the old Marino’s had booths with table top jukeboxes, and the family used to sit in “booth one.”
Vitale said she was going to get some metal stools for customers — the new restaurant doesn’t have much room for seating — but Carla Marino had a better idea.
“She texted me, she said, ‘I’m buying a booth, we’re going to call it booth one,’” said Vitale.
She said growing up in Marino’s Restaurant was amazing. The whole family was there helping out, and she started when she was young, making boxes, sweeping the floor and answering calls, she said.
The North End was like “Little Italy,” Vitale said, and it seemed like everyone worked at Marino’s, including many young immigrants from Italy whose families didn’t have much money.
People stop her all the time, Vitale said, to tell her they used to work for her mother at the restaurant.
“We used to have these pepper parties, and my father would get like 10, 12 bushels of peppers, and my mother would invite her neighbors and friends, and the nuns, and they’d sit in our parking lot and cut the peppers,” Vitale said. “I used to be so excited, because there’s so many people around, it was fun.”
Vitale said the restaurant would be packed after high school football games, and all her friends would be there. They still text her, she said, to reminisce about Marino’s, and about how kind her mother was to them.
As Vitale tells it, her mother, Constance Marino-Vitale was a giver. The restaurant catered funerals, and when her mother died, one of the pizza makers told Vitale that she didn’t want to know how many funerals she catered for free.
“She was so good, she used to tell me, ‘Do good and forget about it, do bad and think about it,’” Vitale said.