When it opened in 2001, Marcello was the latest in a string of Southern Italian ristorantes to inhabit this Roosevelt address.
When it opened in 2001, Marcello was the latest in a string of Southern Italian ristorantes to inhabit this Roosevelt address. Filing that news under “Italian restaurants/revolving door,” I promptly ignored the place as it prospered over the next six years.
Foolish me. While I stayed home making minestrone, chicken Marsala with golden roasted potatoes and sautéed spinach and our “house special” spaghetti Bolognese, I could have been eating those very dishes in the company of the magnanimous Magalettis!
At Marcello I met Dario, who greeted my family at the door as if we were his own. And when I turned to marvel at the lovely little wine bar, a new addition to the restaurant’s surprisingly elegant interior, he turned to mama Magaletti and — speaking Italian — said something I can only assume was: “Take our new friends to the table by the window. And when they order a glass of Chianti, pour them a big one!”
As we followed his mama into this low-slung dining room the color of ripe apricots, I admired the terrazzo floors, a circular fireplace, candle-lit tables set with white linen and double-doors leading to a rustic patio where statuary burbled in a fountain.
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I watched as mama’s warm brown eyes lit up while she seated us. And again when she returned with a basket of La Panzanella bread. And later still when she brought my son his favorite dessert: imported Bindi sorbetto stuffed in a frozen lemon.
Perhaps she was recalling the days when Dario was growing up in the harbor city of Taranto, chasing his little brother Marcello around the kitchen.
Today it’s Marcello — doubling as chief-cook and waiter — who chases after Dario, a former UW microbiologist who gave up his longtime career to join his brother as a full-fledged restaurateur. You’ll find them moving from kitchen to dining room, arms laden with abbondanza — platters of pasta so generously apportioned we ate till we said “Basta! Basta!” and left with laden arms ourselves.
So, where’s papa? In the cucina, of course, lending a hand with the dishes and prep work. His friends call him Michele and he, like his wife, Silvana, is a retired school teacher who speaks little English.
Together the Magalettis have created a restaurant so very personal and achingly familial, it’s easy to overlook a few shortcomings. Service that can slow to a crawl. Calamari skinny-dipping in a tasteless broth. Caesar salad drowning in a dressing that could have come from a gallon jug.
But if this were my neighborhood, I’d be like my friend Val, whose romantic first date with the guy who is now her husband took place right here; in the scores of visits since, she never notices such things. Like her, I’d return again and again to peruse the tomato-soaked menu — long on pastas, pizza, chicken and veal — before settling on a few favorites.
I’d start with gamberi rosé, an aromatic appetizer with eight (!) tiger prawns pretty in pink, the rosy tomato sauce sweet with Madeira. And insist on sharing bruschetta, each slice of toast showered with ripe tomatoes and basil, soaking in the flavors of garlic, tomato and olive oil. I’d have pizza salsiccia, whose sturdy crust holds more mozzarella than you’d find at one of those “authentic” Neapolitan pizza joints, and whose salsiccia (sausage) is fragrant with fennel.
My boy is a connoisseur of Bolognese, and his special order for spaghetti rather than fettuccine got the nod from Dario, a waiter of rare refine who returned with the meaty classic. Its wine-enhanced sauce resonated with carrot and celery. “This,” said my chip-off-the-old-block “is the best Bolognese I’ve ever had — in a restaurant.”
You, however, might be swayed by the coarse-ground sausage bending the “little ears” of orecchiette, orbs of imported Rustichella pasta tossed with tomato sauce, bell peppers and Pecorino. Then there’s the conundrum: chicken or veal? Culled from about a dozen variations of the scaloppini theme, these hefty portions of pounded meat come tenderly pan-seared and richly sauced.
My favorites: pollo Valtellina in a creamy blanket of provolone, mushroom, prosciutto and slivered almonds. Or the super-smoky pollo affumicato, powerfully scented with smoked mozzarella in a creamy tomato sauce that made this a dead-ringer for the “butter chicken” recipe beloved at Indian restaurants everywhere. Sure there’s vitello saltimbocca, but the veal that jumped in my mouth is vitello al porto hinting of fresh rosemary and roasted garlic, sweetened with dried figs and port and garnished with crumbled gorgonzola.
You might be used to splitting pasta before a meat course, but with Marcello’s portions, that’s a mistake. Make it anyway, and you’d best order spaghetti bella, simply sauced with olive oil, capers, pine nuts, garlic and diced romas — a summer substitute for sun-dried tomatoes. As for dessert, have mama pull you an espresso and hope there’s panna cotta. If this sweet finish is available, say “Si!” and you’ll see how this baked cream shimmies to the table, fruit sauced and fabulous.
Come alone and sit at the wine bar. Come with friends and spend an evening. But do come and get to know the Magalettis, whose warmth and generosity cannot — and should not — be ignored.