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After 2 decades, Juana Franco has an Italian restaurant of her own in South Philadelphia

She studied Italian cooking at restaurateur Maria Forte's side. When she needed to learn more, she turned to YouTube. Now, she runs the restaurant.

Chef-owner Juana Franco and her husband, Angel Ayala, at Cucina Maria, 768 S. Eighth St.
Chef-owner Juana Franco and her husband, Angel Ayala, at Cucina Maria, 768 S. Eighth St.Read moreMichael Klein

Mexico-born Juana Franco spent 22 years at the side of South Philly Italian chef Maria Forte, first at Mezzaluna (where Franco was a dishwasher) and later across the street at Cucina Forte (768 S. Eighth St.).

“You teach me Spanish and I’ll teach you Italian,” Franco says Forte told her. Between the day-to-day prep work and watching YouTube videos, Franco also learned to cook the dishes. She all but ran the kitchen in later years.

When Forte decided to leave the restaurant business during the pandemic, Franco bought the place. Why? “I’m working for myself,” Franco said. “I’m killing myself for me.”

“This is my American dream,” she said.

It’s now known as Cucina Maria — partly out of respect to Forte and partly in honor of her daughter (Marina) and mother-in-law (Maria).

The BYOB, which opened in June, is done up in Classic South Philly Upscale, with white tablecloths, mirrored walls, and busboys dressed in black.

The early going has not been easy, of course, given the labor shortage. Franco is doing it all with the help of her husband, Angel Ayala, who works in the kitchen after spending the better part of the day at his construction business, and a couple of friends.

You will not leave hungry or broke. Popular entrées from the homespun menu are the ricotta gnocchi ($25, in Gorgonzola or porcini sauce), chicken Parm ($22), and chicken rollatini ($23). House-made desserts include tiramisu.

Cucina Maria, 768 S. Eighth St., Philadelphia, 215-408-0020. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.