WORDS BY MEGAN GREENBERG
PHOTOS BY KATHRYN BRASS-PIPER
“I use garlic and olive oil like a condiment,
the way most people use ketchup and mustard”
“I use garlic and olive oil like a condiment, the way most people use ketchup and mustard,” says Marcello Aquino, clearly a culinary genius.
If you’ve already eaten at Marcello’s Ristorante, the cozy, unassuming gem nestled into the tiniest of shopping strips on U.S. 41, then you don’t need one single word of this article to convince you how special this nine-table Italian eatery is.
If you haven’t eaten there, please don’t. It’s already hard enough to snag a table among Marcello’s devotees and one bite of his mealtime magic would undoubtedly work its spell on you too, leaving you helpless to do anything but join the rest of the legion camped outside the door all day, nose pressed against the glass, just waiting for the burners to fire up.
Marcello is a quintessential New York Italian chef, with bold words and big flavors, and his restaurant a reflection of a time when folks gathered at the family’s favorite neighborhood boîte for simple dishes with robust flavors, waiters who remember your favorite order, truly stellar wine choices and ingredients from local markets meant to remind you of what fresh food tastes like.
His dishes are uncomplicated and straightforward, which feels like a new sense of culinary ingenuity in today’s society of foie gras foams and yuzu pearls. To be clear, simple does not mean Marcello’s is serving elementary fare. Quite the contrary. Marcello uses just a handful of easily recognizable ingredients (tomatoes, parsley, garlic, wine, lemon, butter) to create dishes that even an advanced home cook would need years and years to master.
It’s because he’s fearless. Where some would use a splash of this and a dash of that and others would prepare their entrees ‘just so,’ Marcello goes in whole hog, paying no attention to measurements and minutia. There’s no mistaking the lemon in his Limonata. His veal medallion is pounded so perfectly thin you could use it as a paper towel. His cioppino is a boat of fresh shells and seafood in a tomato broth so absurdly delicious that it seems absolutely reasonable to ask for a barrel of it to take home to bathe in. Some people are just born with talent. Whitney was born to sing. Ernest was born to write. Marcello was born to cook. Period.
To understand the restaurant is to understand
Marcello. Because he is the restaurant. “I built the entire restaurant myself, with my own hands. I screwed the sheet rock to the wall,” he explains. “I built myself a job. It’s a place for me to cook. The restaurant is small, so I can be hands on and cook everything myself.
I’m the first guy in and the last guy out. I’m the one with the keys.”
He’s also the one with the pots, pans, oven, grill and fryer in his open kitchen, which he manages all at once in the style of an old-fashioned one-man band. Marcello stands in a small square, roughly the size of an SUV. On one side stretches a small counter which serves as his prep and serving station. Against the other wall lies a full-service kitchen that can’t be longer than the man’s wingspan. The flames from the burner spike higher than his head and the pasta water acts as his sous-chef, becoming a base for sauces, the constant companion that doesn’t leave his side.
Marcello’s is built around freshness. Each day, Marcello picks up fresh catch from Walt’s Fish Market and his specials board reflects what’s good. Season and weekends are generally too busy for Marcello to create dishes that require too much time or energy, like risotto—which he refuses to par-cook ahead of time—or rabbit, dishes he saves for the upcoming slower days of summer. There is a menu that boasts tried and true Italian favorites, which are absolutely wonderful, but the specials are, well, special.
The servers at Marcello’s are also spectacular.
They know their stuff. They recognize you when you walk in. They remember your last conversation. They know your favorite bottle of wine. They don’t rush you. They want you to enjoy your experience. “I like cooking, they like serving. We find it fun. We like people coming in for a good time,” Marcello adds matter of factly, which you would think would be par for the course at restaurants, but alas, good servers and good chefs are few and far between.
“It’s not that I am an awesome chef with all the secrets,” he says. “It’s that I do it the right way: smaller, simpler things done right.”
Yeah, uh huh. If you say so, Marcello. Your secret’s safe with us.
4155 S Tamiami Trl, Sarasota