John and Karen Acompora hadn’t been to Maroni Cuisine since chef-co-owner Michael Maroni died in March. The couple had been regular customers since the Northport restaurant opened in 2001, but they were nervous about returning.
“We knew it would be hard to be here without Mike,” Karen said.
“But we knew we had to do it,” John said.
On a September evening, after embracing Maria Maroni, Mike’s wife and business partner, and one of the longtime servers, they settled in for the Maroni experience: an onslaught of delectable courses and unlimited wine that’s less of tasting menu and more of a gustatory endurance test.
Soon, they were oohing over the million-dollar potato chips (topped with creme fraiche and caviar), aahing over the wild boar chop Parmesan whose edges overhung the platter, and reminiscing about Mike.
“I remember one night Mike brought out something that he explained was a puree of cauliflower in a glass with a little lamb chop hanging off the side,” John said. “Then he brings out something he tells us are Vietnamese ribs. Then he brings out these big spoons with pieces of lobster on them. ‘What is that?’ I ask. ‘What do you think it is?’ he says. ‘It’s lobster on a spoon!’”
Now, more than a decade later, the evening turned out to be much sweeter than bitter. The couple reaffirmed their connection to their “special place.” John pronounced “no difference in the food.” Karen said, “I’m going to explode.”
This was the reaction Maria Maroni had been hoping for. In the months after Mike’s death at 57 (of natural causes), her goal has not been just to keep the restaurant open, but to keep it a receptacle of great food, warmth and joy.
“Early on it was uncomfortable,” she recalled. “Who wants to go out to dinner and be sad? But now, customers pull me aside, [and] they say ‘You’ll never believe this. I feel terrible saying this. But it’s better than ever.’”
For this, she credits her staff. “Mike gave them his life and they are pouring it out to honor him.”
THE KITCHEN SERVES
When patrons ask what’s going to happen to the menu, Maria has a resounding answer: nothing.
“We have such a deep repertoire of fan favorites,” she said. “Even when Mike tried, he couldn’t take the chips off the menu, or the Kobe burger or the lobster bisque. ‘It’s like a Rolling Stones concert,’ he’d say. ‘People want the greatest hits.’"
The kitchen is led by Jimmy Vasquez whose title, according to Maria, is “Mike’s main guy.” The two men met in 1996 when Mike was chef at Northport’s Ritz Cafe and Jimmy, newly arrived from El Salvador, was washing dishes. Jimmy’s name is actually Jose but, he recalled, “Mike said, ‘There are a lot of Joses here, I’m going to call you Jimmy.’”
“Jimmy” worked quickly, and his boss took note. “He told me that, if I wanted it, I’d have a job for life.” Within a few months Mike invited the dishwasher to join him on “the line,” and began teaching him to cook and speak English.
In 1997 the Maronis opened Mirepoix in Glen Head and Jimmy, who didn’t have a car, stayed at Ritz Cafe — but helped out at the new restaurant whenever he could get a lift there. When Maroni Cuisine opened in Northport in 2001, he came on board full time and Mike started training him to be second in command.
Mike’s help ranged from the prosaic — how to tell the temperature of meat by touching it — to the profound. “He always said, ‘When you think you know everything, you know nothing. Always be nervous, that means you are still learning.'”
The help ran both ways. Jimmy hired the kitchen team, many of whom are relatives from his hometown of Las Marias, none of whom knew how to cook when they arrived. It was this crew and the servers that buoyed Maria in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death.
“That first day we came back after the funeral,” Maria recalled, “Avi [Jimmy's wife’s nephew] told me he’d had a dream: All the guys were in the kitchen with Mike, and Mike said to them ‘do you love me?’ He asked them three times. They all said ‘yes, papa.’ And Mike said “then please cook from your heart for me.’”
“At that point,” she said, “I knew they could do it, and I knew I could do it.”
MARIA STEPS UP
It wasn’t that Maria lacked the experience. She’d waitressed since she was a 15-year-old growing up in Bellerose, Queens. When she met Mike in 1994, he had mostly cooked for caterers and country clubs. It was Maria who had the restaurant chops, and it was Maria who tasted everything before it went on the menu, first at Mirepoix and then at Maroni. “But Mike was the leader,” she said. “He’d been in the military, but he knew instinctively how to get the best out of people. And not always by asking politely. His famous line was 'Don't confuse my passion for anger!' — yelling it of course.”
“Mike always said, and I knew it was profound the first time he said it, ‘Maroni’s is not just a restaurant, it’s a heart, a beating heart.”Maria Maroni
Mike was as demanding of his wife as his crew. And it wasn’t easy being newlyweds who were also new to owning a business. “You’re hardest on the ones you love,” Maria recalled. “The pressure made me strong, made me able to do what I’m doing now, but it was a tough time. One day, around 2001, I reached a breaking point. I said, 'No, I can’t handle it.' And I surrendered my life to God.”
Initially, this didn’t sit too well with her vocally irreligious spouse, but gradually, Maria said, Mike softened toward her faith, and even embarked on his own spiritual journey. One day, about two years ago, I asked him, ‘Have you had some sort of change?’ He pulled out his phone and showed me the Sinner’s Prayer that he kept there."
Right after the funeral, she added her husband’s wedding band to the cross she wears on a chain around her neck.
In coming months, Maria will decide if the Maroni satellite that opened in Southold this summer will remain primarily a takeout-meatball depot or evolve into a full-service restaurant. But her larger plan is "to spend my life making God and Mike proud of me." If that sounds like an unusual goal for a small-business owner, sometimes Maria has to remind herself that it is, in fact, a business of which she finds herself in charge. “Mike always said, and I knew it was profound the first time he said it, ‘Maroni’s is not just a restaurant, it’s a heart, a beating heart.”
18 Woodbine Ave., Northport
Open Wednesday to Saturday from 4 p.m. to closing.
The all-inclusive price (tasting menu, wine, beer, soft drinks, coffee, dessert and tip) ranges from $100 to $160, depending on time and day of week.