"I told her she needed to work at her aunt's restaurant before she thought of opening her own place," Maria says.
Elizabeth agreed. For some time she could be seen at Mona Lisa restaurant in San Francisco, waiting and busing tables, fulfilling her management duties, even standing just outside the doorway, encouraging North Beach strollers to come in and sample the food.
It was hard work, sometimes beginning at noon and ending at 3 in the morning. But it didn't change her mind.
The Menlo-Atherton High School grad persisted in trying to persuade her parents to join her in her dream enterprise of operating a family restaurant, and last fall, opportunity knocked. Family friends Renato and Diane Cusimano of Atherton were looking for buyers of their Palermo restaurant, which they opened in 2005 in the Menlo Center, near Kepler's bookstore and Cafe Borrone. It seemed as if it were meant to be.
The Nevigatos, longtime Menlo Park residents, took over the comfortable, smartly designed space that was formerly Palermo by mid-November, and have been serving up lunch and dinner every day, and breakfast on the weekends, ever since. Elizabeth is at the helm of the business — at the tender age of 23 — and her mother is executive chef, an important element of Elizabeth's dream of a family restaurant.
"I told my mom, 'If you cook the way you cook at home, (the restaurant) will succeed,'" Elizabeth says.
Elizabeth's father, Giuseppe, and one of her brothers, David, also work at the restaurant, although Giuseppe also works as a distributor and David is a college student.
The restaurant's name changed with the new owners: It is now Cedro Ristorante Italiano — the cedro being the large citrus fruit grown by Elizabeth's grandfather, Osilio Nevigato, in the Italian region of Calabria.
It was Osilio's wife, also named Maria, who taught the woman who would become her daughter-in-law how to cook, according to the younger Maria Nevigato. That was when Maria's mother and her future mother-in-law were good friends, working together at the long defunct Parsons Manufacturing Co. in Menlo Park.
"She was like a second mom to me," the younger Maria says, adding that she was in her early teens when her own mother died.
Growing up in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, Maria started cooking when she was about 9, and regularly cooked for her large family.
Before the restaurant opened, she worked as a personal chef, which became easier as her own children got older and developed a love of cooking themselves. "My brothers and I all know how to cook," Elizabeth says, adding that growing up they would rotate cooking nights. "The kitchen has always felt more like a family room to us than any other room in our home."
Maria hasn't had any trouble adapting to the larger kitchen and greater number of people at the restaurant because her cooking standards haven't changed, she says. "When people come here, they're coming to my home," she says. And that means the freshest ingredients available, homemade sauces and stocks, and creative desserts.
Elizabeth says she and her mother shop for the restaurant, choosing organic and local foods whenever possible. The goal, she adds, is to eventually be "100 percent sustainable" in everything they serve.
The lunch and dinner menus feature a range of pastas, risottos and salads. Panini are also available for lunch, and the dinner menu includes meat and fish dishes. Wine and beer are available, and there's a full bar.
The family is eager to open the restaurant's doors to community events, and on Feb. 24 Cedro co-hosted an event with its neighbor, Kepler's bookstore, that included a presentation by author Valentina Cirasola, whose cookbook, "Come Mia Nonna — A Return to Simplicity," features food from the Puglia region of Italy. The event also included a five-course meal cooked by Maria Nevigato, showcasing some of the recipes in the cookbook, Elizabeth says.
Meanwhile, a fundraising breakfast for Haitian emergency relief is set for Sunday, March 14, from 6 to 11 a.m. Elizabeth explains that on a recent day, her youngest brother, Josef, an eighth-grader, came home from school "really distraught" and wanting to do something for the Haitians suffering from the effects of the earthquake.
"We came up with this idea for an event, 'Pancakes for Haiti,'" Elizabeth says. On that morning, the restaurant will serve only Maria's signature buttermilk and whole wheat pancakes, with all the proceeds going to relief efforts in Haiti, she says.
Also this month, the restaurant will begin a series of "opera nights" with professional singers. Plans are in the works to host other live music, but details are still being developed, Elizabeth says.
Cedro Ristorante Italiano
1010 El Camino Real, No. 140, Menlo Park