Valley Bounty: Alina’s Ristorante

Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 12, 2021, by Jacob Nelson

Gratitude, hard work and delicious food are themes that run deeply in the lives of Martin Amaya and Maritza Amaya-Branche. Together, the couple has run Alina’s Ristorante, now in Hadley, since 2010 with Maritza managing operations while Martin serves as the culinary maestro. Martin describes their cuisine as “Italian with a Mediterranean flair,” with a menu inspired by the bounty of local farms.

“In the spring, I cannot get enough asparagus,” Martin shares. “In summer, it’s fresh tomatoes and corn. I love stopping on my morning drive to buy produce from farm stands by the road.” During warmer months, Pipczynski Farm in Hadley delivers produce to Alina’s daily, and Martin says he can’t help but adapt his dishes to showcase these fresh, local ingredients.

Unfortunately, these sunny times feel far away amid a pandemic that hasn’t affected all restaurants equally. Some have done OK offering takeout, but the dining experience at a place like Alina’s doesn’t fit neatly into a to-go container. Presentation, ambiance, the joy of watching your food made in an open kitchen — these can’t be replicated.

Still, Alina’s has soldiered on, offering takeout and operating at 25% capacity for indoor dining. “The most important thing for us is to be safe,” Maritza says. “We follow CDC guidelines, sanitize everything, wear gloves and masks, and keep our six feet apart. Even though the state now allows 40% occupancy capacity we’re not going to change, because it’s working for us.”

It’s working in large part because after years of welcoming people with open arms, the community has their back. The immense gratitude they have for this solidarity is clear. “We are just so blessed to have such support and love from our customers,” Maritza says.

Some stories really stand out. “There was one woman who sent us a letter just a few days ago,” Maritza explains. “She and her husband used to come to Alina’s often, but can’t now because of their age. Still, they sent us a $100 check in gratitude for the service we provide and fond memories they have of eating here. We are grateful to have such wonderful customers, and for her to return that sentiment … I was deeply touched.”

Martin and Maritza seem determined to succeed in part because of what it took to get to where they are. It means a lot to them to be a symbol of success as first-generation Americans.

“We are two immigrants that came to this country with nothing,” Martin says. Maritza continues: “It was never easy, but eventually we were able to accomplish our dream of owning our own restaurant and providing jobs in our community. We want to set a good example.”

Martin’s road to becoming an accomplished chef started in the very building they own in Hadley. Back then it was Carmelina’s, owned by his mentor, Damien DiPaola.

“I started there in 1994 when I was 18 and first came to this county. I was working long hours as a dishwasher and was getting up early to be a baker at another restaurant too. When I got the chance to cook, I fell in love with it.”

In 2010 Martin left his position, Maritza broke from her career in corporate banking, and the two poured their collective skills into launching the first iteration of Alina’s. They first opened in South Deerfield, but when the old Carmelina’s building came up for sale in 2013 they jumped on it and moved Alina’s there.

“Going back to Hadley,” Martin says, “that was like going back home.”

Another reason the couple holds on so tight is because this community is home, and these people, their customers, are family.

“Going back to 1994, I’ve cooked for the same people’s high school graduations, college graduations, rehearsal dinners when they got married, baby showers … man, I’m getting old,” Martin says with a chuckle. “But that’s the kind of connection we have with this community.”

“What I love most about Alina’s is that you get to meet so many people, and they become family,” Maritza says. “You celebrate with them and experience their sad moments, too. It really affects us.”

Restaurants need support right now. Many are in dire straits. But when our lives become intertwined with restaurants like Alina’s, turning to them can help us get through difficult times too.

“People are just happy to eat out these days,” Maritza says. “They can forget about what’s happening in the world for a short time. We’ve had customers come from as far away as Conway and Greenfield to get takeout and support us.”

To Maritza, it’s simple: “Restaurants make a difference in people’s lives, and customers are the reason we keep going.”

“We’re just trying to make it through this pandemic,” Martin adds, “and there’s no doubt in our minds that we’ll make it through, because that’s who we are. We won’t give up.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).