With the exception of Mexican restaurants with names ending in “betos” or “bertos,” the one thing this city could use less of is Italian restaurants. They’re everywhere. With no disrespect intended to Italians or the amazing culture in Italy, “red sauce Italian joints” must rank among the lowest common culinary denominator. Any college kid can tell you how to boil some pasta, warm-up some red sauce and sprinkle on some grated cheese from a green can. Simply put: mediocre Italian food is everywhere you look and sometimes Chef Boyardee from the can is better than what you can get down the street.
Enter Marcellino Ristorante. Inconspicuously set in a non-descript strip mall on Northern, it’s a few stores down from the Spy Shop which I’ve noticed for nearly 15 years, always wanted to check out, and never have. I don’t know how long Marcellino was there, but I know it’s been at least a few years. First recommended to me by my son’s cardiothoracic surgeon (a “real” Italian, with an Italian wife) who said it’s where he goes when he wants pasta, we’ve been meaning to get there for years. This guy saved my son’s life; it’s the least we could do. So were excited when our friends recommended it and said it was one of their favorite places. Finally, a reason to go.
Marcellino did not disappoint. The front of the house is adeptly run by Sima Verzino, who could be cast as a character in The Sopranos, while her husband toils away in the kitchen making straightforward, approachable Italian classics rooted in quality ingredients, simple preparations, and clarity of flavor. This is not “fancy” food; it’s simple food prepared well…one of my favorite things.
Our group started with four appetizers: Tortolloni stuffed with filet mignon and Italian cheeses, Prosciutto-wrapped Mozzarella imported from Italy, Caprese Salad, and Grilled Shrimp on Feta Cheese. With the exception of the Caprese Salad, which I found a bit dull and the tomato lacking ripeness, all were hearty, well portioned, and simple enough that they let the quality of the ingredients shine through. The Tortolloni, in particular, was rich in flavor but served in a small enough portion that its richness wasn’t going to spoil the rest of the meal.
The main courses perplexed me a bit. We came there for Chef Marcellino’s freshly made pastas, and we had already settled on our choices as we waited for our guests to arrive. But then our server brought out a platter of the fresh pastas (shown at the beginning of this review) and our minds changed. My wife is a woman with humble roots who was raised by two school teachers, yet somehow she ate more fresh lobsters as a child than I’ve had in my while life. I swear that the New York City Department of Education supplemented her parent’s salaries with lobsters. So she couldn’t resist the Squid Ink Pasta in a red sauce with calamari, mussels, and shrimp served on top of half of a one pound lobster. It was as good as it sounds…fresh seafood, perfectly cooked lobster, and a red sauce with a subtle kick. It was like Cioppino without the mess.
I selected Saffron Linguini with Fresh Clams and Broccoli Rabe. Admittedly, I would order the Saffron Grand Slam Breakfast if it was offered at Denny’s, so my mind was made up as soon as I heard the word “saffron.” The saffron flavoring was understated, but enhanced the flavor of the clams, and the simple sauce was velvety and luxurious. I inhaled it. I wanted more. I wanted leftovers to eat the next morning.
Several Chowhound regulars (I’m referring to you, Hunt) have raved about Macrellino’s wine list and the many “off the list” offerings made available by the proprietors. Not knowing much about wine (except that I like most of it), I went with our server’s suggestion of a bottle of Chianti when two of us at the table were going to order by-the-glass. I’ll let Hunt take me to Marcellino next time and choose the juice.
Marcellino Ristorante was a pleasant and much-needed departure from “complicated food.” There was no burrata in sight, I never heard the words “farm to table,” and the cast of characters could have served Brenda and Eddie in Billy Joel’s “Scene’s from an Italian Restaurant.” It felt authentic, comfortable, unpretentious and seasoned.
In today’s trying times, it’s just what we need.
Photos of the meal can be found at www.ericeatsout.com
1301 East Northern Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85020