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“I couldn’t believe the support the community continued to give me, even when all I could offer was very little,” Maria Maroni. (Photos by David Benthal)

Working in the restaurant industry since the age of 15, Maria Maroni knows the importance of caring for her customers and her staff. It was something her late husband, Michael Maroni, always put first. 

“Michael was social. He was so loving and generous and kind,” Maria said. “Connecting to the customer fed his soul.” 

For nearly two decades, Michael made a name for himself throughout the Long Island culinary scene not only as a visionary chef but as someone who made the effort to truly care for his customers and staff. The couple was in the process of bringing their brand to the North Fork with a new venture, Maroni Southold, but the dream was nearly derailed by Michael’s sudden passing in March 2019, at age 57. 

Serving good food and great experiences was at the center of Michael and Maria’s relationship from the beginning. The couple met at a restaurant in Oyster Bay in 1994, when Maria was a waitress and Michael was a private catering chef. A year later, the pair were married and opened up their first business: Mirepoix, a French-American “fine dining” restaurant in Glen Head.

“About six or seven years after we opened, Michael had an idea to start serving his grandma Maroni’s meatballs in take-home pots,” Maria recalled. “He wanted to get away from formal dining. He wasn’t happy with [the culture] — he thought traditional fine dining was too pretentious. Michael couldn’t be down to earth in an environment like that.”

The couple quickly found a small new space overlooking the water in Northport Village. In 2001, Maroni Cuisine opened, serving meatballs in a signature cherry red enamel crock to eat at the restaurant or take home. The century-old family recipe quickly garnered a following. 

The Maronis began their culinary journey with meatballs. (Credit: David Benthal)

Yet Michael felt dissatisfied with the constraints of preparing the same menu every night of the week. With the support of Maria, Maroni’s shifted gear and began to serve a revolving 20-course tasting menu — which gave Michael the ability to experiment with flavors and the freedom to serve whatever he wanted on any given night — creative dining, if you will.

“Michael didn’t want to be stuck in a menu, he just wanted to cook,” Maria said. 

Maroni Cuisine became a menu-less tasting experience. For a fixed price, patrons no longer had to worry about making decisions. Rather, Michael prepared a carousel of his own creations, from “Million Dollar Potato Chips,” topped with creme fraiche and caviar, to Kobe beef sliders with tater tots, truffle grilled cheese, and even sushi. 

Michael and Maria knew they had something special on their hands. The eclectic restaurant garnered national notoriety in 2007 after Michael won a Food Network Throwdown for his meatballs against celebrity chef Bobby Flay. While Michael continued to experiment with new recipes, Maria took care of the rapidly growing business. 

“I waitressed my whole life and kind of never stopped,” Maria said. “I’m that owner who’s busing the table right along with my staff. Michael was the chef and the personality, but I did everything else.” 

Like many successful restaurateurs, Maria and Michael were looking for quasi-retirement in a smaller, slower-paced environment. Their Northport eatery put the couple on the culinary map as curators of an innovative and unique dining experience, but they both were ready to slow things down. 

“We had accomplished so much together and [Michael] had achieved so much with his craft. He was ready to tone it down and do something fun again — he wanted to start small,” Maria said. 

As a little girl, Maria grew up coming out to Southold to visit her grandfather, a fisherman. As an adult, she and Michael spent their time off exploring the vineyards and restaurants of the North Fork and purchased a home in Southold in 2012. 

Maria knew the North Fork would be the perfect place to ease into a relaxed pace and allow Michael to return to what he loved — connecting with customers. 

“Before Northport grew so big, he had a connection with every customer here,” said Maria. “Then as it grew, there were so many more pressures, that he lost that a little bit. He was trying to get back to what he once had.” 

Michael and Maria found a location on Main Road in Southold. For the next year, the couple embarked on building out a smaller, more intimate version of Maroni’s where they could better connect with their customers. 

In March 2019, two months before opening their new location and in the midst of constructing the restaurant’s kitchen, Michael suddenly passed away after a medical event in the couple’s Northport home. Maria was devastated, losing her partner both in business and in life. 

“This whole place was still under construction, not even anywhere near finished,” said Maria. “It felt like my life, and my heart, were under construction. And he was gone and it all stopped. Everything became darkness.” 

Maria Maroni found light in the world through her faith, her staff, and her new community. (Credit: David Benthal)

But Maria never could have predicted the outpouring of love and support she would receive from both the Northport and Southold communities. 

“After he passed, I received so many stories and memories from people about how they remembered the time he spent with them at the table,” Maria said. “The dream to open this second location, to get back to that, was so ingrained in us. I felt like after the loss, if I didn’t continue on, he would have died twice.” 

Although Maria was not ready to dive into the chaos of running a restaurant by herself, she began taking small steps, day by day. Picking out wooden dining room tables or lighting fixtures were huge accomplishments for Maria. Little by little, the darkness began to dissipate.

“Every time I tried to turn away it felt as if Mike and God brought me right back to my path,” she said. “When I wanted to give up, especially early on when I was grieving, somebody would come and say, ‘Oh, here, I’m gonna do this for you.’ It was incredible. I was not allowed to let go.” 

With 30 employees spread across Maroni Cuisine and Maroni Southold, Maria knew she had to lead the people who depended on her. A few weeks after Michael’s death, Maria had the vision to return to the original Maroni roots — serving a heat-at-home menu of chicken Parmesan, chicken Milanese, and, of course, Grandma Maroni’s famous meatballs. 

Maria’s biggest fear with the Southold venture was failing to achieve the same high-quality menu and service that made their name famous. She knew all eyes would be on her, wondering if it would be the same without Michael in the kitchen. 

“I didn’t want to do anything that I knew wouldn’t be excellent,” she said. “I’m carrying on his legacy of quality. We started small. I would only serve what I knew we could execute to perfection.” 

Maria began to trust herself, her staff, and the community to help pick up the pieces. The village of Southold supported Maria and many individuals — most of them strangers — offered their help to finish building out the restaurant. By June, four months after Michael’s passing, Maroni Southold opened for take-out only, serving meatballs and other home-cooked staples from the small window behind the restaurant. 

“Mike once said, and I quote it all the time, ‘Maroni’s isn’t a restaurant, it’s a beating heart,’ ” Maria said. “Our team at Northport has been with us for 20 years and came with us to Southold. We are family, not just a staff. I know everyone says that about their team, but it’s true for us. The restaurant was always an extension of our home.” 

North Forkers continued to support Maria as Maroni Southold slowly established itself within the community. She was amazed by the generosity she received from people she was still getting to know. 

“I couldn’t believe the support the community continued to give me, even when all I could offer was very little,” Maria said. “It’s because of the people in Southold that I was able to continue forward, able to move through my grief, and even get through a pandemic. Without the support of this community, I don’t think I’d be able to be where I am today. I am so extremely grateful for their generosity.” 

The combination of Maria’s love for hospitality and Michael’s talent as a chef were always at the heart of everything they accomplished. For the Maronis, owning a restaurant was never about money. 

The couple knew the day they became concerned about how much money they made would be the day they would lock the door. They wanted to love every person who came into their restaurants, staff and customer alike. 

“In this really sad tragedy, to watch the beautifulness of our community come alive, gave me hope,” Maria said. “I believe in God and I believe in love. There was no way that God wouldn’t turn this around. I wasn’t gonna give up on my faith and the people who supported me.” 

Walking into the Southold location today feels like walking into Michael and Maria’s home. The small restaurant is brightly lit and welcoming, adorned with Maria’s self-described “pretty things,” like fresh flowers and quotes from scripture. The staff is enthusiastic and attentive, wanting to ensure the best experience for each and every customer. 

But at its heart, Maroni Southold is an homage to the caring, culinary genius Michael was. On almost every wall is a piece of rock-and-roll memorabilia honoring him: autographed guitars and framed records donated by those impacted by his spirit throughout the years. Over the bar hangs a large illustrated portrait of the beloved chef, watching over his staff, his customers, and his wife. 

“Of course, I wish my husband was here to see [the restaurant],” Maria said. “But in a way, he is. I feel him, we all do. That love still drives us all to continue to strive for excellence.”

In the four years since Michael’s passing, Maroni Southold expanded beyond heat-at-home takeout. The dine-in restaurant serves a full a la carte menu including some of Michael’s most popular recipes: pastrami and rye egg rolls, penne alla vodka, Korean-style ribs with gummy bear garnish, and, of course, Grandma Maroni’s meatballs. Maroni Southold also offers a version of their signature tasting menu, featuring 17 to 20 small plates and drinks for $200 per person. On Tuesdays, Michael’s sushi menu is available for dine-in and takeout — an addition that has been a hit with the community. 

Maroni Southold is open Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays from noon to 8 p.m. In Northport, the restaurant is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 4 to 10 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you can find Maria in Southold, still managing the restaurant with a smile on her face.