Tucking into a hearty portion of farfalle topped with arrabbiata sauce and sausage, I find it hard to put my fork down for a second to catch up with the friend who brought me to Maria’s Pantry. “It’s one of the best places to eat in the city right now. I wish I could be here for lunch every day,” he’d said. From the texture of the perfect handmade pasta to the sauce’s rich simplicity and chunky sausage, every bite presents a perfect marriage of flavours. “Oh wow,” I finally say, pushing the plate away.
There aren’t many people making pasta by hand in the city. Sure, you might get a dish or two with that attention to detail from time to time, but all the pasta is made expertly by hand at Maria’s Pantry. You can dine there or take home frozen entrees, fresh pasta, surf the fridge for packages of meatballs, authentic pizza, and grab jars of various sauces—it’s not called Maria’s Pantry just to sound cute. Downtown Dartmouth is blessed with incredible authentic Italian food that is ridiculously easy to put together at home.
Tastes of family and home
Chef and owner of Maria’s Pantry Michael Dolente named his place in honour of his grandmother, Maria. “The whole of my dad’s side of the family immigrated here from the Abruzzo region of Italy through Pier 21 in 1960, and my Nonna Maria was a huge influence on me; I grew up making fresh pasta with her,” he explains. The most adorable old photograph of a tiny Michael, aged two-and-a-half, and his big sister Elisa, aged five, cooking with their Nonna Maria is framed on the restaurant’s wall. It’s one of those family photos that radiates love.
Nonna Maria made an impact on everyone that knew her, says Dolente, “She was a seamstress and made clothes, and my sister went into fashion. We were both influenced by her.” The love of cooking entitled by grandma took Dolente to culinary school and led him to spend 15 years working in kitchens—first here, then for six years in Toronto.
While in Toronto, Dolente worked at several hotels and helped with the opening of the super-luxe five-star Shangri-La hotel. “That was a great experience; I was running the banquet and events kitchen there for a while. Then I did a year at Pusateri’s, which is like Pete’s Frootique but on a larger scale,” Dolente says, “Then my wife and I wanted to buy a house that wouldn’t cost a million dollars, start a family and be around our own families, so we made the move home almost four years ago.”
Coming home, Dolente always imagined he’d start something here. However, he spent several years in The Carleton’s kitchen after arriving home (an essential part of “getting his feet wet” in Halifax and getting a feel for the market, he says). Many of the friends he made working at the Carlton are with him at Maria’s Pantry.
As for choosing to make Italian food his focus, that is where he feels most comfortable. “I’ve cooked a lot of different styles of cuisine, at the Shangri-La, for example, I was making a lot of Asian food, but this is what I eat all the time, so it made sense to go with pasta,” he says.
When asked what his favourites are on the menu, Dolente admits that he can’t make a batch of meatballs without eating one, but pasta-wise he loves the capellini (the skinny noodle, as he puts it). “That reminds me most of what my nonna used to make. Her food and our family heritage inspire everything we make. In the Abruzzo region, where we are from, everything is tomato-based. If you go further north in Italy, then there are a lot of white sauces, risotto, and polenta, but for us, it’s all about the tomato,” Dolente says.
When you eat at Maria’s Pantry, the plated food is simple, hearty, and uncomplicated. “We don’t mess around with a bunch of garnishes that don’t make sense to the dish; we keep things simple. It’s all about high-quality ingredients, handmade food,” Dolente explains. The locals have fully embraced what the pantry provides: “Once you’ve tried fresh pasta, well, there’s nothing quite like it.” Dolente says that a fair few of his regulars have lived in cities like Ottawa and Montreal, where this kind of set-up with fresh-made pasta was more readily available, and they are so pleased to have that option here now.
As you’d expect, the business supports locally sourced ingredients wherever possible. “We use Getaway farms beef for our meatballs and bolognese sauce, their pork shoulder for our housemade sausage. The egg farmer just dropped off eggs before you got here,” Dolente tells me. They try to make everything they can from scratch, even going so far as to buy raw curds straight from the farm to make their own mozzarella and burrata.
The menu changes up a little every few months, but you’ll always find the staples available, like the carbonara. “That’s our most popular dish, and you can find that at other places, but they’ll put bacon in it and cream and use dried pasta—they’re not done in the class way. So we try to stick to classic methods where possible,” Dolente says. Worth noting, these plated dishes are substantial (I had to take half of mine home with me) and are priced at a very reasonable $14.
One helluva year to start a business
Maria’s Pantry is tiny. Tucked out of the way on Prince Street, you have to walk past New Scotland Clothing Company to find it. Encompassing just 800 sq ft, with most of the space taken up by the kitchen, there are just a few tables inside and a four-seat counter that runs along the window, with a couple of picnic benches outside. From the outset, Maria’s Pantry was designed to cater mainly to those looking to grab and go—something that helped the business thrive despite opening during a global pandemic.
“It was a big shock when Covid happened, and it slowed us down. We were supposed to open a couple of months earlier, but then there were huge delays with building materials and restrictions for contractors, so we ran into some problems,” says Dolente. “We’d been selling the sauces at the market before we opened, from October, then Covid hit, and we were past the point of return in terms of our lease and build-out. We had to dive right in,” Dolente says. Before he could open the pantry, Dolente was doing deliveries a couple of days a week and on weekends and built up a bit of a customer base. As soon as the pantry opened, it had a steady clientele.
Maria’s Pantry has been hugely successful straight out of the gate, and you’re hard-pressed to get a table on Thursdays and Fridays. With 15 years in the food business, though, Dolente knows, “There’s a perception that if you’re busy, you’re doing well, but that’s not the case. Margins are so thin you can be busy all the time, but this is still an extremely hard business, so I always knew when I opened that I needed to multiply revenue streams.”
The pantry side of things was always a core part of Dolente’s business plan. “I always felt that there was a lot of potential for growth with the jarred sauces and our product line, but it has been shifting more towards that rather than a la carte. Right now, sales outside of the pantry are around 10 to 15%,” he says. You can already find Dolente’s pasta and sauces sold at Pete’s Frootique in Bedford and downtown Halifax, Arthurs on Hollis, Getaway Farm’s Hydrostone location, Simply for Life locations, and Local Source. The roaring success of the take-out sauces and pasta led to Dolente removing a dining table to make room for another freezer.
When it comes to growing the business, maybe 800 sq ft isn’t going to cut it.
“The next step for us, I think, would be a bigger production facility that could potentially feed this location with some products and keep up with retail as well,” Dolente says, “there’s so little space in the kitchen that there’s only so many jars of sauce that you can make in a batch. When Pete’s will call us and tell us that they want 12 cases, that’s a big hit to our inventory every time.” To supply a bigger supermarket chain, Sobey’s, for example, Dolente, would have to sign a contract to supply all stores in the Atlantic Region, “So we’d have to be able to produce a lot more.”
Maria’s Pantry’s business model was always well-suited to starting a food business during a pandemic. Curbside delivery and take-out? No problem! The fact that the business is thriving is a testament to Dolente’s ability to give Downtown Dartmouth something fresh and exciting and to have the savvy to get his products out in upscale markets. However, the initial plan was to set up in Halifax but finding a suitable space was challenging. And Dartmouth has worked out great. “I’m happy that we landed in Dartmouth. I was struck at the sense of community here. Everybody around here supports each other and has been so helpful,” Dolente says.
Being back in HRM makes Dolente truly happy. “Coming here was such a good move. My wife and I have a 16-month-old and are expecting a son. I did love Toronto, but I was working so much I barely saw the city or my wife. This is so good for us,” he says. His move home was great for those who care about great food, too; Italian cuisine isn’t just Dolente’s passion, it is his heritage, and he wants to share how good it should taste with everyone.