written by Megin Potter | Photos by Konrad Odhiambo Photography
When Mario Cardenas told a friend he was going to open a pizza shop in Saratoga, his friend gave him some heartfelt advice, he said, “You better be good.”
Then, he added, “And, you have to love it. Don’t do it if you don’t love it.”
After Mario’s first year in business, which saw the opening of not one, but two restaurants, West Avenue Pizzeria and West Avenue Chicken, Mario said, “I’ve been here a year but it feels like it’s been forever.”
For him, it’s a year that’s been a lifetime in the making, and Mario wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than creating something people love,” he said.
The Mother of All Pizzas
For Mario, who’s been in the pizza business for more than 20 years and still eats a slice every day, owning a shop with his sister, Jennifer, and brother-in-law, Santos, is all about family.
“I used to love pizza. I don’t love it anymore,” said Mario. “I’m obsessed with it.”
In 1999, just three years after the conclusion of a 36-year civil war between the government and guerilla forces in Guatemala, Susana Alarcon Moscoso brought her two children, Mario, and his sister, Jennifer, to America.
Guatemala, located at the culinary crossroads between North and South America, has, for centuries, blended the influences of both to create its cuisine. While living in Guatemala City, Susana ran a puposa stand, selling the filled corn flatbread she made from a traditional Salvadorean family recipe and dreaming of a different life.
After living in Los Angeles for a year, Susana, a single mother, moved to Schenectady to be closer to her friend. She began working for Metro 20 (before its name changed to the Capital City Diner). Jennifer would later join her there but not before 2002, when Mario got his first job, working at Primo Pizza (the shop where he ended up spending the majority of the next two decades).
West Avenue pizzas, available in rounds or squares and loaded with toppings, are the result of that experience combined with their special family flair. These mammoth handmade creations (from the customer favorite: the pepperoni and honey, to the lasagna, or the mac and cheese pizza are making an impression.
Shortly after their June 2021 opening, Barstool Sports’ Dave Portnoy reviewed the business. Mario kisses his fingers and gestures “perfecto” as he described what happened next.
“At this point, it’s done. The business is given a boost at the right time. The pizzeria just took off and is doing phenomenal,” he said.
By the summer, it’s clear, West Avenue Pizza is no passing trend. They were selected by SPAC to cater for visiting musicians including the Dave Matthews Band and were thrilled to meet rapper Wiz Khalifa on Mario’s son, Christopher’s, 19th birthday. They were ecstatic when he said how much he liked their food.
“It had to be the greatest summer of our lives,” said Mario. “We haven’t slowed down since. We’re gaining momentum as we go. The response has been unbelievable. It’s amazing. We never thought, in a million years, it would be like this. It’s overwhelming. My mother is looking down on us and smiling right now.”
Sweet and Savory
Just months after they opened West Avenue Pizzeria, their neighbor, Joe Hill, the owner of Wings Over Saratoga, approached them about purchasing his space. Joe’s business was struggling under 2021’s franchising restrictions and dramatically higher operating expenses. His restaurant’s specialty, chicken wings, had more than doubled in price (from $60/case to $180/case).
Meanwhile, Mario and his family, who purchased West Avenue Pizzeria because it was already-established (and even kept the same name as the previous owners) were quickly outgrowing its limited storage capacity and older equipment. Some of Joe’s items, including the walk-in cooler next door, were just want they needed.
As a test run, a pop-up menu offering different chicken dishes was added to West Avenue Pizzeria’s menu. Then, West Avenue Chicken opened offering them.
“It’s a very unique experience,” said Mario. “From the outside we look like two different businesses, but from the inside we work as one. Everyone in here is cross-trained to work for either.”
The one drawback? The two restaurants aren’t connected by an interior door so they must go outside to exit one shop and to enter the other.
“We go in circles, from one door to the other, all day long,” said Mario.
Tying Hold to the Hitching Post
While the pair of West Avenue restaurants were steadily winning recognition on area “Best of…” lists for their hearty chicken sandwiches and monster-sized burgers coated in their mother’s homemade special sauce, another, quieter, revolution was taking place.
At West Avenue Chicken, there was another secret pop-up menu. This one featuring traditional Spanish dishes as requested by the backstretch workers looking for the familiar taste of home.
“That caught the attention of a lot of people but I didn’t think people were ready. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When the menu surfaced, it just blew up,” said Mario.
These were the foods that Susana made and the family grew up eating; papusas, taquitos, tamales, empanadas, Spanish rice, street corn, and more.
Word spread just in time for the Saratoga International Flavor Feast in early October.
“Wow! What a phenomenal response that was!” recalled Mario about the line of customers that stretched across the parking lot to the Stewart’s at the intersection of West Avenue and Washington Street. They sold out of what he called an “astronomical amount of food” by 11:15 a.m. that morning.
A Ticket to Ride
By slowly introducing this new menu, Mario is building the launching pad for his next venture - opening a Guatemalan restaurant and rum bar. Currently looking for a space, he said fulfilling this dream would be like coming full-circle for his family and other immigrants like him.
Inside the restaurant, he envisions seating within a renovated Chicken Bus, modeled after the ones he used to see barreling down the road in Guatemala when he was a boy. The Chicken Bus, uniquely embellished with vivid colors and bright lights boldly announces its arrival (and that of the passengers and their cargo, which sometimes includes live chickens and thus earned the refashioned school bus its name).
The restaurant would be a daring exclamation of ethnic pride from the family that endured an expensive and grueling seven-year battle over their immigration status that was eventually resolved in 2015.
“For us it was like it was for the 11 million other immigrants who had to go through it,” explains Mario, who was 14 when he arrived in America. “It’s scary because of the uncertainty. It’s something that you carry with you for a lifetime.”
“I’ve been here more than half my life. I own property and have family here,” he continued. “If I was sent back to Guatemala, I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know the language. My life is here.”
It is a life the family has never stopped fighting for.
“We fought very, very hard every day of the week. Fourteen hours a day, seven days a week,” said Mario.
His advice for others?
“You just gotta do it. Follow your dreams and work hard on it. Believe in yourself.”
Mario also credits the supportive community around him for his success in Saratoga, what he calls “a pro-business city where everybody helps everybody else.”
“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he said. “It takes a village and WOW! did I pick the right one.”
Find West Avenue Pizzeria and West Avenue Chicken in the West Hill Plaza, 99 West Ave, Saratoga, on Facebook and Instagram.