CLIFTON, N.J. -- Waitress Kathy Van Duffelen of Glen Rock was skeptical when a new owner took over Clifton's oldest pizzeria.
"I was sitting right at one of these tables and Kathy took care of me and I got the feeling I could do this and be proud," said Alberto Molina of Ridgewood of the day he negotiated to buy Mario's Restaurant & Pizzeria.
Molina has proven himself a worthy leader of the corner Italian restaurant that Mario and Emma Barilari opened on Van Houten Avenue in 1945.
"I always wanted my own business. This is a big commitment. You can make more money doing a lot less but I like it," he said of running a restaurant. His background is in finance.
The father of two was drawn to Mario's because of its reputation and solid foundation in the community.
"It’s amazing to me. So many people know Mario. People know the bar; it's been here since 1939," he said.
Joe Bellini's Bar opened in 1939 and later became Mario's Friendly Tavern. The original counter and stools are still in place.
Van Duffelen has been serving Emma's thin-sliced pies and other Italian specialties to returning customers for 40 years.
Her corner of the restaurant near the bar is even marked by a hanging sign that reads "Kathy's Corner."
Emma was the "force" behind Mario's in the early days, Van Duffelen said.
Emma was also the inspiration behind the paper-thin, but also amazingly chewy "Emma-style" pies Mario's is famous for.
"A lot of people come for the Emma pizza," she said.
Much of the staff stayed on when Molina bought the restaurant from Mario's grandson Ken Barilari in 2010, including the pizza chef Eddie who has been there for 27 years.
"This is a place that has touched a lot of lives," Molina said.
The new owner left the basics of the menu the same, stripping out the extraneous offerings to focus on what they do best.
"The old menu was too big. It's impossible to offer everything. There won't be consistency."
He also rehabbed the interior, pulling out the drop ceilings and upgrading the electrical.
"Little by little I've been making improvements," he said.
For more information see its website or call (973) 777-1559.
The restaurant is located at 710 Van Houten Ave., Clifton.
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