Thursday, May 01, 2008

Marco Polo

There are few restaurants these days that are actually interested in real tableside service. Those places that make steak tartare and crepes Suzette at your table while you look on hungrily are all but extinct. You'd be really hard pushed to find one. That is, unless you find yourself in Carroll Gardens, in which case I can recommend a really good one.

Marco Polo's owner, Joe Chirico, arrived in the USA in 1964 buzzing with energy and entrepreneurial spirit after having grown up in San Martino in southern Italy. After two other successful ventures in the trade, Joe eventually opened Marco Polo (named after the great Italian explorer) in 1983 to cater to the multitude of Italians in the Carroll Gardens area.

Marco Polo has a huge asset in its Italian chef - Puglian Bruno Milone. As all good Italian cooks in America know, authenticity comes down to the use of top quality ingredients, simple preparation, and making the best use of nature's seasonal bounty, just like they do in the Old Country. The menu at Macro Polo changes every 3 months or so, and Milone takes full advantage of what's at it 's best at that time to produce a variety of hot and cold appetizers, salads, pasta, seafood and meat dishes. Chirico matches Chef's masterpiece dishes with a fantastic wine list from around the World, with a slight bias towards Italian vintages.

Service is top notch here. A well made Negroni, white wine and water are on the table almost before Mona and I sat down, and I was very happy with the amount of room we had to eat. In addition to a large and airy dining room, our table for two is big enough to hold a few plates with wine and water glasses, plus two pairs of elbows.

An appetizer of squid was just that - four white cones of beautifully cooked seafood, shining with a delicious extra-virgin olive oil varnish and dainty seasoning. Another appetizer of mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto was another hit. I should have asked where they got the stuff from (the cheese) because it's some of the best I've had. Slightly chewy with an aloof milky flavor, it stood up well to its salty cloak of cured ham. Mona confessed to feeling decadent when a pair of plump 'Oysters Rockefeller' were presented to us. My, oh my, what a great rendition they were, all briny and muscular, embellished with superb garlic cream freckled with pancetta.

Milone makes all the restaurant’s pasta on the premises, and has a special technique for making fettuccine. He mixes reduced red wine, eggs, semolina and olive oil to produce a pink pasta. ‘Fettucine al Vino Rosso’ is a signature dish at Marco Polo and I found out why. Our waiter brought out the cooked pink pasta and placed it next to a giant wheel of Parmigiano on a trolley, which was rolled gently towards our table. The concave wheel is scraped to yield some salty slivers, the hot pasta is tossed in with some olive oil. The heat from the pasta melts the cheese and it adheres to the fettuccine strands resulting in a brilliant pasta dish and it fills the restaurant with a mouth-watering vapor. We could feel lots of eyes on our table while the waiter went through the motions. This sort of showmanship is sadly absent from modern restaurants. We were also recommended the cavatelli with seafood, a sublime combination of mussels and shrimp tossed with little ears of cavatelli and tomato sauce, a dish and choice of pasta betraying the Chef's Puglian roots.

We selected a toothsome Sicilian Nero D’Avola 2001 from the sensational cellar to go with both of the pasta dishes, a decision we didn’t regret.

Milone demonstrated his Grandmother’s faultless fish cooking technique with a succulent whole sea bass, presented to us at the table and filleted skillfully before plating simply with some sautĂ©ed potatoes. In keeping with the chef’s seasonal ideal, an incredible plate of ‘Carre D’Agnello’ (rack of lamb, chops) hit the table, making both Mona and I practically weep in appreciation. The chops were mounted on spinach leaves, which had clearly been treated correctly in the kitchen retaining all their bitterness, seasoned perfectly and sparkling with just enough butter. A remarkable meat course.

Were we done yet? No, of course not. To complete this wonderful education in Italian cooking, we were treated to a light and airy chocolate soufflé, which tasted doubly rich when paired up with the remnants of our wine.

The chef has a polished touch with great ingredients. Joe Chirico is a wonderful host. He greets you like an old friend he’s not seen for ages. He will explain what’s great on the menu, he’ll make sure you’re having a good time when he passes your table. The waitstaff are proud of their restaurant and they smile. It’s the little things that make Marco Polo a great restaurant and it has them in abundance.

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