You get a taste of Len Ruggiero’s big New York family when picking an entree at Mother Mary’s Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria.
Ruggiero is co-owner of the cozy restaurant on Willow Avenue, where the menu is sprinkled with family member’s names on interesting and intriguing dishes.
For example, there’s Grandma R’s Sausage Pasta. It’s named for Ruggiero’s mother, Laura, and it features a creamy blend of cheeses with sausage, peas and onions, served over rigatoni pasta.
A mother is always a mother, even if her son is grown up and running a restaurant.
“Grandma R” — who moved from New York to Florida — tells Ruggiero he’s working too hard when she visits Clovis.
Another family member —Aunt Jeannie —is one of many relatives represented among the restaurant’s 19 signature pizzas. Aunt Jeannie’s Meatball Pizza is made with homemade meatballs, roasted red peppers and roasted garlic, plus the restaurant’s special blend of cheeses.
“There’s a theme to our pizzas,” Ruggiero says. “If you can put it on pasta, you can put it on pizza.”
Mother Mary is perhaps the most important family member, befitting her place in the restaurant’s name. She is Mary Ruggiero, Len Ruggiero’s wife.
Ironically, she isn’t Italian, but Irish. Nevertheless, Mary Ruggiero mastered the taste of her husband’s family.
“She can knock out the Italian stuff with the best of them,” Len Ruggiero says, with a smile. “In fact — and this may be blasphemy — she improved the dishes.”
Mary Ruggiero created many of the restaurant’s sauces, and they are the foundation of Mother Mary’s cuisine.
“The names of the pizzas are novelties to make us stand out,” Len Ruggiero says. “But the experience we’re trying to have people enjoy comes from the sauces and how we make them from scratch.”
Italian sauces need pasta dishes, of course. Mother Mary’s has an assortment, starting at $12.99. The dishes include Baked Ziti – rigatoni tossed with marinara, herbed ricotta and whole milk mozzarella. There’s also Old World Bolgonese — ground pork, beef and veal in a hearty red sauce.
Mother Mary’s also offers calzones (starting at $5.99) and specialties, including veal parmigiana and Italian baked chicken. They start at $16.99.
Cooks at Mother Mary’s follow the sauce recipes with no improvising, Len Ruggiero says. “I don’t think they would mess with an Italian guy from New York,” he laughingly adds.
Ruggiero, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island, possesses the assertive, confident manner of a New Yorker.
He and his partner, Don McMurtrey, operate Mother Mary’s at 1345 N. Willow Ave. in a neighborhood shopping center north of Nees Avenue. The restaurant opened in September 2010.
The interior has an urban chic look with a high ceiling and exposed duct work painted black. A mural measuring about 45 by 25 feet fills one wall and adds to the atmosphere with its images of a rustic Italian village.
Before Ruggiero opened on Willow, he and family members operated a pizza restaurant (delivery and takeout), first at Blackstone and Herndon avenues and then at Champlain and Perrin avenues.
Pizza remains a staple of the menu at Mother Mary’s. Dough is made from scratch in the restaurant every day, and cooks hand toss every pizza and bake in a Wood Stone ceramic deck oven.
Furthermore, the New York-style thin pizza crust is made with specially-filtered water so impurities in tap water don’t affect the taste, Ruggiero says. Premium cheeses also are used.
If you can put it on pasta, you can put it on pizza.
Len Ruggiero, owner
Guests can choose from more than 40 toppings. Other pizzas include Maria’s Garden of Eatin’. Maria is one of Ruggiero’s daughters, and her namesake features baby spinach, marinated artichoke hearts, sun dried and fresh tomatoes, grilled eggplant, purple onions, mushrooms, roasted peppers, feta cheese and garlic sauce.
Pizzas come in small, medium, large and family sizes. Starting prices range from $6.99 to $9.99.
Mother Mary’s serves beer, wine and cocktails.
Ruggiero, who works full time as a financial planner, comes to the restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays. On a recent Friday evening, he circulated through the restaurant, chatting with guests.
“I try to bring a bit of New York, playing the mayor and getting people comfortable,” he says.
Sheena Netser of Clovis was dining at Mother Mary’s for the second time that week. “They have awesome calzones – the best in town,” Netser says.
At another table, Mary and Al Esparza of Clovis finished up their meal. In addition to praising the food, the Esparzas enjoyed the atmosphere. “It’s very comfortable, and you can bring a family here,” Mary Esparza says.
How appropriate at a restaurant where so many Ruggiero family members are listed on the menu – along with the pasta and pizzas.
(Hours vary. A listing is available at mothermarys.com. The restaurant offers catering, has a banquet room and delivers within a 3-mile radius. Mother Mary’s hosts an open mic comedy night at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays as well as periodically scheduling comedy acts. The phone number is (559) 299-4242.
Dining with Doug appears every other week in the Independent. We welcome suggestions from restaurant owners and customers about eateries to feature in the future. Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.