Profile: Anna Muze
Jan Hostyn / firstname.lastname@example.org
Imagine having a job that makes you feel like you’re in the midst of one big party. Most of us dream about such a possibility, but Anna Muze, owner, general manager and jack-of-all-trades of Il Forno, actually lives it. “It’s like hosting a party all the time, but one that you don’t have to pay for.” And, for the most part, she loves it.
But, like most of us, Muze hasn’t always been partying. This is just her most recent (and perhaps final) stop in a career surrounded by restaurants and food. The difference—Muze is now a restaurant owner.
It’s funny where life can take you. Almost 30 years ago, Muze met a friend at Sorrentino’s for dinner. While she was impressed with the food, she wasn’t quite as impressed with the organization factor. And that’s exactly what she told Carmelo Rago, Sorrentino’s owner and friend of her friend, when he stopped by their table to chat. “You need someone who can organize this place.” And that’s exactly what she did for the next 15 years.
After that, she spent eight years managing Packrat Louie and was about to embark upon another adventure when the opportunity to buy Il Forno came up and she grabbed it.
About two and a half years ago, she was having dinner with her son Steven at Il Forno—ironically, in celebration of a new job she had just landed—when Ralph Maio (the owner, and a friend of hers) came over and sat down with them for a bit. Their conversation turned to the restaurant and Maio admitted that he wished he could retire. Muze didn’t give it any more thought until, during the drive home, Steven mentioned that he thought Il Forno would be a great place for them. So the following day she went to talk to Maio. “Fifteen minutes later we shook hands and that was that.”
She went from being a regular customer—”My kids and I came here pretty much every Sunday night”—to the owner of Il Forno.
At the very beginning, Muze thought about changing the welcoming, comfortable décor to give it more of a modern edge. But when customers immediately began weighing in with their opinions, she decided against it. The customers didn’t want change, they loved the place just the way it was. So she listened to them.
“And why would I change anything? I bought it because I liked the concept. I grew up with that kind of cooking. I was in the kitchen with my grandmother all the time making tomato sauces and pastas and all that stuff. I was nine years old when I put a meal on the table for my family.”
During her time at Packrat Louie, under the tutelage of Peter Johner, she began to hone her skills in the baking department as well. The day I sat down with her, she had just emerged from the kitchen, where she had been in the middle of whipping up a batch of tiramisu. And she can just as easily come from peeling potatoes. She does whatever is most needed at the moment.
Il Forno is all about traditional Italian cooking. “We still cook a lot like we used to back home, like our grandmothers did. Your braised meats, ribs and lamb osso bucco that you cook in the oven for four hours. The pastas are all cooked al dente. We don’t go crazy. We stick to the Italian thing.”
Except for the daily specials. That’s the one place her chefs are allowed to go out of the Italian box a bit and use their creative license.
At lunchtime, the most popular dish on the menu is spaghetti and meatballs. Muze says they can never seem to make enough. And at dinner, it’s a toss-up between whatever is on the special board and Fettucine Amalfi, a combination of egg fettucine, prawns, spinach and a white wine cream sauce, all studded with big chunks of roasted garlic.
Their thin-crust pizzas, cooked in a stone oven, are also in demand.
Muze thinks of Il Forno as a home—”A home that you can come to and relax and enjoy a five-star meal or wear your jeans and rubber boots and have a plate of pasta and glass of wine—anything goes.”
That family theme is seen throughout. Steven is the assistant manager, bartender, grocery shopper—a man of many talents and responsibilities. And her daughter, Marina, does all the marketing.
On Thursday nights, when harpist David Humphreys entertains the diners, Muze says it seems like the whole neighbourhood comes. It’s a weekly ritual for many of the regulars and everybody seems to know each other, just like one big family.
The staff even eats together every day. After lunch, when the customers are all gone and everything is cleaned up, they all sit down—the kitchen staff, the front-of-the-house staff, everybody—and eat whatever happens to be left over that day. They talk about everything and nothing and how they might have done things differently.
Muze feels that, to be successful, you really have to enjoy what you’re doing, whether it’s cooking, running a restaurant or yes, even partying. “It’s got to come from the bottom of your heart.” And that’s where she thinks Il Forno comes from. V
Il Forno Restaurant
14981 Stony Plain Road, 780.455.0443