Restaurant dishes Brooklyn wit along with knishes, matzah balls

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When she opened Hilary's Little Kitchen to serve Jewish food in the woodsy Marin town of Fairfax, Hilary Ghiringhelli was a little worried.

"I thought people would walk in, look at the menu, and say, `What's bosh?'" — misreading and misunderstanding the word `borscht.'

Instead, to her delight, that wasn't the case. "I sell out of borscht."

In a town filled with cafes, crystal shops and Third World clothing stores, "the niche is definitely here for just good old Jewish food," says Ghiringhelli.

Since last summer's opening, demand for her home cooking is "bigger than I ever imagined," she says in her Brooklyn accent. "I never thought I'd be making 60 to 80 matzah balls a day."

Her Friday-night special is brisket with potato latkes and kasha varnishkas, smothered in paprika gravy, with horseradish and sour pickle. It's so popular, says Ghiringhelli, "they start calling on Wednesday to order it." Customers not only come from Fairfax and Mill Valley, but from Petaluma, Berkeley and even Sacramento. About a quarter of them are nostalgic New Yorkers seeking comfort food, she says.

Her knishes are "made from a famous Brighton Beach recipe," according to the menu.

As for her chicken noodle soup with matzah balls, "Jewish bubbes tell me my matzah balls are as good as theirs are," she says unabashedly. However, Ghiringhelli, nee Kinsler, gives all the credit for her cooking skills to her own bubbe.

Beyond her cooking, though, there is something else drawing people to this small, storefront eatery. It's Ghiringhelli, Jewish Momma of the neighborhood, who's never too busy to visit with those who stop by.

She pauses during an interview to chat with a customer who asks for "one of those round things."

"A knish," Ghiringhelli interjects. Then the two catch up on news about a mutual friend.

Moments later, Ghiringhelli's landlady, who lives upstairs, drops by. Before departing, the landlady tells a visitor, "She's a good cook," adding what most mothers hate to admit, "My son loves her cooking."

Though Ghiringhelli and husband Mike have operated a pizza parlor just a few doors down the street for 15 years, since she moved to Fairfax, she says she's met far more locals since opening her own business. "I don't even call them customers. It's like extended family."

The feeling seems mutual. As one satisfied customer leaves, he pronounces the food "delicious as always," then adds that what really appeals to him is "the hominess of the whole thing."

Says Ghiringhelli: "People feel like they're in their own kitchen."

She hadn't anticipated the demand for seating. "I thought I'd have a teeny little takeout place," she says, but "more of it needs to be takeout because everybody wants to sit down." She doesn't take reservations for one obvious reason — lack of space.

In a tiny haimish restaurant that can barely hold 12 chairs, three small tables and a short counter, one entire wall is covered with family photos of Ghiringhelli, her husband and their six kids, and her customers. "They bring in pictures of their families," she says, adding, "They go away and bring me gifts."

Since opening Hilary's Little Kitchen, Ghiringhelli has already reached her one-year business plan goals. "I've been looking at this spot for years," she says. "I'm not into auras, but the minute I walked in, I said, `I have to have this place.'"

She'd considered opening her own place for a while. Always known as a good cook at home, Ghiringhelli — born and raised in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn — warmed to the idea of starting a restaurant that would allow her to get back to her Jewish roots.

Fittingly, she made up her mind during a visit to New York last year. A friend who was planning a first birthday party for her child, asked Ghiringhelli to do all the cooking for the event. "They were inviting 73 people, New Yorkers, Jersey Shore, you know, a tough crowd," she says. On top of that pressure, it was during Passover, "so you're really put to the test."

Her cooking was such a success, she says, "everybody who left, their mouths were hanging open." Figuring she had already passed the most difficult test, Ghiringhelli set out to start her own business when she returned to Fairfax.

She plunged right in, committing 16-hour days six days a week, making everything from scratch, even cooking whole turkeys, corned beef and pastrami. And she did it all herself. Recently she hired a Salvadoran man to help out, and he's learned to cook matzah balls, "real floaters," she says.

Despite the long hours and hard work, she jokes that it's easier than staying home with her kids. Still, home is not far away, only two blocks, so her younger children often come by after school for snacks, and she visits home briefly to serve dinner, then returns to the restaurant and works till at least 9:30 at night.

Some of her children, who range in age from 10 to 24, occasionally work alongside Mom in the restaurant. Ghiringhelli enjoys passing on her culinary skills to the next generation because "we get one-on-one time we never get at home…It's been a good experience for them because they won't be afraid to get out and work."

Now that she's achieved success, will she expand her Little Kitchen?

"I like it like this," she says. "Bigger doesn't always mean better. This is a nice group of people."

She asks a woman at one table, who has turned around to talk to a man at another, if everything is OK. The woman says, "I'm socializing." Ghiringhelli responds, "That's OK, kibitzing's allowed."