One of the greatest compliments Jordanian-born George Keshek, owner of Ristorante da Maria in San Jose, ever received was when members of the Italian-American Heritage Foundation asked him to hold a class on how to cook his classic Bolognese.
“Teaching Italians how to make Italian food,” he told San José Spotlight. “But we do it in a very traditional style, with plum tomatoes, carrots, celery, mushrooms, onions and some other things. Everything is fresh, and we make it in-house every day.”
Diner Alexander Mohr said his favorite dish is a combo pizza with lasagna, spaghetti, meatballs and mista salad. “His food has so much consistent umami,” he told San José Spotlight. “I don’t know what his secret is, but he makes everywhere else taste bland.”
Keshek graduated from the University of Jordan with a degree in agriculture and irrigation before coming to America in 1992 to study at Santa Clara University. He graduated with an MBA. After working at several banks and online businesses, he bought Ristorante da Maria in 2016.
“I was thinking I could be a passive investor,” he said. “I hired a guy to run the place, and he ended up moving two months later. So I ended up taking it over myself.” He turned to his friends, Mario and Gino Landino, for assistance, telling them that he would name the restaurant after Mario’s wife if they would help. “He gave me some recipes and taught me to make a vegan dough,” Keshek said. “He told me to use East Coast (Double Zero) flour and East Coast cheese. And we use the best water, as good as in New York.”
Keshek uses that dough in a multitude of ways. Rolled thin, it becomes pizza crust or wrapped as a stromboli. Rolled a little thicker, it turns into horn-shaped calzones. Twisted around, it creates chewy baked knots that are thickly covered with garlic. He infuses the dough with rosemary and thyme and allows it to rise for three hours, becoming an airy house focaccia, toasted and topped with caramelized onions.
One of the key ingredients, according to Keshek, is his water— a particular point of pride. It goes through a triple filtration system that produces the purest, sweetest water you are likely to taste, and it tumbles out of the ice maker in cubes as clear as a raindrop.
“As a water engineer, I like everything about it,” he said. “I like that there are no minerals, no petroleum, no heavy metals. You get coffee and iced tea that does not need any sugar and will be the best you have ever tasted in your life.”
But there is more to the restaurant than just great water. One easy way to test the quality of an Italian restaurant is to order chicken parmigiana, a dish that is easily found on Italian restaurant menus but deceptively difficult to make well. Da Maria’s version is stellar.
Pounded flat and then dipped in flour before sauteing rather than coated with breading, the flavors and juices of the tender chicken breast come through cleanly. Topped with the house marinara and a generous slab of mozzarella cheese, it is served with penne pasta.
The Margherita pizza is another classic done right, with sliced Roma tomatoes and crushed garlic roasted on a bed of mozzarella and topped with a generous sprinkling of fresh basil. The aroma is so full and bright, you could almost dine off that alone.
Baked rigatoni with Italian sausage and pepperoni is regular customer Fernando Ramirez’s favorite, but his 8-year-old daughter loves the spaghetti and meatballs while his 7-year-old daughter likes the fettuccine Alfredo with shrimp.
“They both think everything here is delicious,” he told San José Spotlight. “Everything is cooked perfectly to the right temperature, the sauce is super saucy and the desserts are great. It’s a great spot, especially for families.” Working seven days a week, Keshek’s love for the business is readily apparent in the care he takes as he checks out every dish that leaves the kitchen.
“The support of those who appreciate what we do is way more important than money,” Keshek told San José Spotlight. “I can make money doing anything, so what keeps me in this business is really the love we get from our customers.”