Eat with the family: Maria's is a Rockford institution for good reason
ROCKFORD, Ill.—People often tell me about their favorite restaurants in the area and how I need to try them. But few have had the ardor of David when speaking about Maria's Italian Café in Rockford, Ill.
As he's sharing stories of office parties and steak dinners over the years, his face takes on a glow like someone talking about his first love. That much devotion cannot be denied, and so we met David and Julie at Maria's on a recent Friday night.
Maria's has been in the same spot since the early 1930s and is owned by the third generation of the Cason family. It started as a grocery store across the street from the current location around 1915, when the neighborhood was staunchly Italian.
The neighborhood has changed since then, and not for the better. The area looked pretty sketchy as we parked in the adjacent lot, but Maria's was busy.
As we walked into the bar, the Billy Joel song "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" started looping through my brain. The dark paneling, long bar, walls stuffed with old family photos ... I half expected to see Tony Soprano drinking a beer.
The tables were covered with the customary red-and-white checkered oilcloths. There were strings of empty wine bottles with little white Christmas lights around them. David was delighted: It hadn't changed a bit.
Neither has the menu. Maria's is a Rockford institution that has a legion of devotees. I'm guessing it's more for the tradition than the food, which is good but not great.
The menu is very simple. It has no appetizers or desserts. No Alfredo or cream sauces. No wine list, although you can get a glass of Chianti from the bar. This is a quintessential red-sauce joint-take it or leave it. However, the portions are so large, you don't need more.
Julie ordered the medium ravioli ($8.25), which was still a good-sized bowl of food. The pasta tasted fresh and homemade. It was stuffed with a pleasant mixture of meat and cheese. The red sauce-a central ingredient of just about every dish at Maria's-was thick and bursting with tomato flavor. It was very simple. I couldn't taste much going on beyond the tomato. For an extra $1, you can order it spicier. A sprinkle of grated Parmesan is also advised.
I ordered the medium half spaghetti and half ravioli special with sausage, mushrooms and meatballs ($10.50). I was expecting ground sausage in the sauce, but what arrived was a large hunk of sausage and a couple of meatballs on top of the pasta, smothered with the red sauce. Not elegant, but tasty.
The sausage had a nice balance of fennel and garlic. The meatballs were fantastic-moist, nicely seasoned with some cheese inside. They were larger than golf balls, but not the meatloaf size some restaurants serve. Perfect.
David was yearning for the Steak Fiesta, which requires at least two at your table to order. Richard pitched in to help him out. They ordered the New York strip ($26) and the sides ($14), which were almost comical in proportion when they arrived.
The Fiesta started with a plate of garlic and pizza bread that was big enough for our table of four. The bread was fine, but nothing memorable.
The house salad, however, was a head-turner. It was a big bowl, again enough for four, that was loaded with slices of sausage, egg, olives and pepperoncini. The chopped iceberg lettuce was dressed in a light Italian vinaigrette that had a pleasant tang of vinegar. It was very good, and the bowl was quickly emptied.
The steak came with a baked potato, which was ironic because it also came with a large bowl of penne pasta, another bowl of tortellini and yet another bowl with a sausage and a meatball in sauce. The meal had enough carbohydrates for someone to run three marathons.
The steak was huge, tender and cooked more on the medium side of medium-rare. People rave about Maria's steaks, and the praise seems justified. The kitchen knows how to season a steak. It was so big that David and Richard shared a rather large hunk with me.
Our server was professional in a no-nonsense sort of way. I wouldn't call her friendly, but she got the food on the table promptly and the dishes cleared in the same manner. There were no desserts, although if you still have stomach capacity, the bar apparently offers grasshoppers.
The entire meal cost $60, and we took bags of food home. As we left, the bartender who gave us a Maria's history lesson and the occupants of the stools waved a friendly good night with a couple of good-natured cheesehead comments thrown in.
It was a sentimental journey, no doubt about it. David walked away happy, and I was glad I got to share the journey with him.
Joan Neeno is a freelance writer who reviews regional restaurants for The Gazette.