Chef Maria Abbenante, owner of Lynora’s Italian Restaurant

There are so many celebrity chefs that we could envision cooking for us in their kitchens, giving us the gift of deliciousness in every morsel we tried. Think Bartolomeo Scappi and Marie-Antoine Carême. But, really, we don’t need to go back in time to search for a star chef that would honestly say, “When you come here, it’s like I invited you to my house to eat.” Chef Maria Abbenante, owner of Lynora’s Italian Restaurant, said that to me, and I believed her. Her eggplant is fabulous. Her pizzas are delicious, and for those who are vegetarians, she also offers a vegan pizza—the Adamo, which is an Italian name that means “man from the red earth.”

Seating with her in a cozy corner of her restaurant, tasting some of her signature items like Lynora’s homemade meatballs, was like seating next to my Tia Maria, watching her cook and listening to memorable stories about her as a child in Ponza, Italy.

Chef Maria Abbenante speaks with Martiza Cosano at Lynora’s Restaurant on Clematis Street

Never far from her heart, Chef Maria regularly visits her hometown Ponza, a tiny island paradise famed for its grottos, botanical gardens and underground Roman tunnels just a few hours from Rome. It is there where Chef Maria learned how to cook, as she stood side-by-side her grandmother Lynora, and clocked countless hours honing her culinary skills. This pastime soon became her passion, and as she tells it, “This is not a job, this is my heart.”

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Today, Chef Maria directs the kitchen at Lynora’s on Clematis Street. This labor of love is shared with her husband Raffaelle, who even though both retired in 2004, are daily fixtures at Lynora’s.

This family-run restaurant sits on a historical site. In the 1890s, 207 Clematis Street [Lot 13, Block 2] was the first lot sold for cash on the west shore [West Palm Beach.] The brothers, Louis and Henry Burkhardt bought it for $400, and later Henry sold his half for $500.

Chef Maria Abbenante

“When you come here, it’s like I invited you to my house to eat.”
—Chef Maria Abbenante

The Abbenante Family has created their own history with Lynora’s, named for Maria’s grandmother. The restaurant first opened in 1976 in Lake Worth, Florida, and Rafaelle and Maria ran it until they retired in 2004. Missing the kitchen action too much, a decade later the husband-wife dynamic duo came out of retirement and reopened Lynora’s on 207 Clematis Street. Today, together with their son Angelo, who manages the place, the Abbenantes continue taking tremendous pride in the food they serve. They’ve also opened a second Lynora’s restaurant in Jupiter, where Italian-born Chef Mario Mette, who trained under Chef Maria, has been directing the kitchen there.

For those who are fans of Lynora’s signature dishes and artisanal pizzas, as I am, the addition of Lynora’s Maket & Deli last June on Antique Row on South Dixie Highway would have you running to that tiny food market. There, you’ll catch Lynora’s crew in full swing. Preparing fresh, homemade pasta and sauces that are distributed to their restaurants, but are also comestibles that you can take home to cook your authentic Italian dish. But even if you’re not grocery-shopping, it’s worth paying a visit to have lunch with a friend or to soak up the authentic atmosphere, and of course, to buy some Italian bread. The market, as most Italian food markets, has that distinct European flair and also offers fresh ricotta, steaks, lamb shanks, spices—the list goes on. And the prices are excellent!

Chef Maria takes Italian food seriously. In her kitchen, everything is homemade, nothing comes out of a can or package. All produce and products are fresh. In an exclusive interview, she took us back into her kitchen at Lynora’s on Clematis Street, where she shared her passion for cooking and some of her recipes.

Do you make your own pastas? Yes, our pastas are fresh because we make them here. You put it in the water, and make sure that it is nice and loose. Add a little bit of salt, very little.

How long does it take to cook your pasta? No more than three minutes. It’s fresh pasta! We make it at our deli, you know where it is… Lynora’s Market and Deli on Dixie Highway. We sell so much pasta.

Yes, I was there recently and had the best meatball sandwich I’ve ever had in my life! What’s your secret? [smiling humbly] Yes, our meatballs are the best. People come sometimes just to have our meatballs. Everything is fresh. The meat, the produce, garlic, onions… all is fresh. Nothing comes out of a can or package. I never fry. I sauté. I use good wine… That’s my secret.

Your dishes are authentic Italian, and yet I taste a difference in your cooking, which to me is light and delicious, like a fluffy cake. What are some classic dishes that you like to do differently? That’s good. I like that you appreciate that. The gnocchi, for instance is usually made with potato. But, the potato is very heavy and everybody is on a diet these days. People tell me, “I love it but it’s too heavy.” So I make my gnocchi with Ricotta cheese. You need to taste. Sometime when you come back, I make it for you. It’s so light, after an hour you want to try again. Because you know, it is a protein and it is digested right away.

So, you don’t like to cook with potatoes? Not so much, because women don’t like that heavy feeling in their stomachs.

So how does that recipe work? I put an egg in the flour and then mix it with the Ricotta, but the one with no water. So, you make sure it is very, very dry. We do the lasagne, manicotti, and bucatini the same way.

The Pasticcio [Lasagne] is such an Italian classic dish. And again, I’ve never tasted one quite like yours. What’s your secret, Maria? I make our Pasticcio Bolognese with crepe lasagne, bolognese sauce, fresh mozzarella, béchamel, and prosciutto. Then, I bake it in our wood burning oven. The crepes make it so much lighter and gives it a good taste.

Chef Luigi works with Chef Maria in her kitchen, creating wonderful dishes. Here he is adding the béchamel sauce to the Pasticcio Bolognese.

Is prosciutto Italian or Greek? Greeks adore eating greens and prosciutto, but Italians love it too.

In Spain, we have the chorizo. So, I guess cured meats, or sausages like the prosciutto, are Europe’s answer to America’s cold cut, but so much more rich and savory, I think. They should be. They have been perfected for hundreds of years. But I make my pasticcio with crepes, which makes it lighter. I like making them in regular sized pans; I don’t like those big pans some chefs use. People ask me: ‘why, isn’t that more work?’ No! I like to cook as if I was in my grandma’s kitchen, helping her cook for my family.

What other dishes are particularly favorites at Lynora’s? The Cannelloni Al Forno is very good too. I make it with veal, beef, pork, plus spinach, then I roll it in crepe with bolognese sauce and I bake it with mozzarella cheese sprinkled on top.

Lynora’s Dolci [desserts] are positively divine. I love your Cannoli, Tiramisu Classico, and your Tartufo icea cream, but I hear you have a new Bacardi Rum Cake that’s over the top! My mama made this all the time. I bake the cake, and when it is still very hot, I boil the sugar and water [to make the glaze] then stir in the rum, then I pour that over the top of the cake. You see the rum sipping in all the way to the bottom. Every bite is filled with it. Instead of using Mascarpone, I use la crema pasticcera [pastry cream], like my mama and grandmama did.

A great way to eat the Tiramisu Classico is with a shot of Italian Espresso.

Is it the same pastry cream used in many Italian pastries and cakes? Yes, it’s a creamy, custardy filling that we use for layering cakes or pastries like tarts or the millefoglie. We use it in the cornetti [Italian-style croissant] too.

The Tiramisu is my favorite Italian cake, and it’s actually a prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale [traditional food product] of Italy. Your recipe is simply delicious; I love the way you add chunks of dark and white chocolate on the top, instead of powder chocolate like most restaurants and even bakeries do. I make this with espresso, dark chocolate, and Mascarpone, which is an Italian cream cheese.  Yes, many places use powder chocolate, in Italy too, but I use the real pieces of chocolate as you can see. The pieces melt in your mouth.

All great chefs have a secret ingredient. What’s yours? I love cooking with porcini [mushrooms]. They add to the Italian cooking, especially the dense, rich portobellos that I like to add my sauces and pastas and make a great meat substitute. But really, my best secret ingredient is not so much an ingredient, but that I sauté everything; I don’t fry anything.  

RECIPE | Lynora’s Pasticcio (Lasagne) Bolognese

Crepes

1 cup  flour
2 large brown eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Directions

In a blender, combine flour, sugar, salt, milk, eggs, and butter.
Puree until mixture is smooth and bubbles form on top, about 30 seconds.
Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium.
Loosen edge of crepe with a rubber spatula, then with your fingers, quickly flip.

Bolognese Sauce

Step 1

1 pound combined minced beef, veal and pork
2 carrots chopped
2 stalks celery chopped
1 small onion chopped
5 basil leaves
1 tablespoon parsley
1 cup white wine
1 fresh tomato
1 pound fresh tomatoes

Step 2

Brown the meat in hot pan with some olive oil without overcrowding the pan
Remove the meat when browned
Turn down the heat to low
Add salt pinch of black pepper
Cook for two hours
When the wine has reduced, add the tomato
Slow cook for two hours

Bechamel Sauce

3 ½ tablespoons butter
½ cup  flour
2 cups cold milk
3 ½ ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese

Melt butter in pan and before it begins to color add flour and stir with a wooden spoon cooking the flour for a few minutes.
Add the milk, stir until smooth.
Cook until it just coats the back of the spoon.

Start lining bottom of pan with crepes then add:

  1. ¼ cup of Bachamel and Bolognese sauce then grated cheese
  2. Repeat this step till the pan is filled to the top
  3. Finish with topping of fresh mozzarella
  4. Bake in oven at 325 degrees for 20 minutes