Gene Todaro does it again, ordering up another culinary classic. Marcello’s Wine Market and Café in Lafayette feels like dining in your grandmother’s house: old black and white photos line the walls, oriental rugs underfoot soothe the cacophony of conversation, and Mama Rosa’s spaghetti bolognese comforts body and soul on a cold winter’s night.
Translating that familiar feeling to the glitter of the big city is no small undertaking.
The New Orleans Marcello’s Restaurant and Wine Bar is located in a 1930s building on St. Charles Avenue, a former cabaret space that’s right on the streetcar line in the Crescent City’s Central Business District. The clack of the streetcar on the rails lays down the soundtrack of the subconscious for residents of the Big Easy. Inside the door, the front dining room and bar feel like a postcard from the 19th century.
Tile floors, high ceilings, glittering chandeliers and sparkling glassware intimate what is to come. Food both modern and classic fill the menu, but the road to the table, as Lafayette regulars know, winds through racks of wine, the restaurant’s trademark.
Marcello’s offers wines by the glass, but the real value here is on the rack, wines at retail prices that make dining at Gene Todaro’s table one of the best deals in town. Chris Curtis, the general manager, offers knowledgeable guidance. With more than 20 wine regions and hundreds of grape varieties, choosing an Italian wine is challenging at best. Curtis knows his business and will guide you based on food pairing and price. There are also lots of French and American wines, a bit more familiar for folks like me.
Sitting in the main dining room, amid all that wine, with a view of the open kitchen is the way to go. The room is a bit more modern and elegant than Marcello’s in Lafayette, and yet fits like a kid glove, an old one you have worn and loved for years.Under the direction of Executive Chef Blakley Kymen, the team at Marcello’s New Orleans re-creates many of the Lafayette restaurant’s most popular dishes like Veal Molli, sautéed scaloppini with roasted artichoke hearts, and lamb ragu over fettuccine topped with grilled lamb lollipops. But there are some new stars to discover in NOLA, where the Sicilian-born Todaro and his son, Gene Jr., have quickly gained a loyal following and garnered rave reviews. Among other accolades, the restaurant — open since the summer — landed on The Times- Picayune’s 2014 list of the top five new restaurants in the city.
The first surprise was a homey delight. On the antipasti menu, the diminutive lamb meatballs are ordinarily served with mint pesto, a delicious pairing. The night I had dinner chez Marcello, it was a blustery winter evening, and those meatballs came in the zuppa d’iere (yesterday’s soup.) The soup itself verged on wine infused gravy, prime for bread dipping. The bowl was returned to the kitchen wiped clean.
If you are of the eggplant faith, don’t miss the caponata. There is something special about the melded flavors of celery, olives, capers, tomatoes, eggplants and the touch of sweetness that makes caponata, in my book, agreeable as an antipasti or dessert. Marcello’s comes with a fried goat cheese crostini. Inspired.
Be sure to have enough people at the table to really investigate the pasta specials. Right now, fettuccine and fried oysters with a classic vodka tomato cream sauce is in season. The Tritone (king of the seafood of course) melds lobster, shrimp and crab in a sherry cream sauce as deep as the depths of the sea god’s castle. And I do so love the lamb ragu.
But the supernova on the list is the Marsala pork cheek over angel hair pasta. The pork cheek has been slow braised to a fall apart tenderness, sauced with shiitake mushrooms and a super rich Marsala demi-glace, and then the whole dish superheated to put a slight crust on the pork. It’s stupendous.
I like to stretch my legs and change environments when it comes to dessert, so I wandered over to the bar. There is only one dessert in the world that I fall for every time, hoping for perfection, rarely finding it. Marcello’s tiramisu is the best I’ve ever eaten. Really. Full on coffee and cocoa flavors, rich whipped cream, lovely sponge cake, and never a hint of sogginess, which ruins most iterations of this classic. Follow it with a flight of grappa if you dare, or a beautiful bitter like Amaro Averna or Fernet Branca. I swear it’s good for the digestion, especially if you plan to sway home through the fragrant New Orleans spring night on the street car.
Read The IND's January 2009 cover story on the Lafayette Marcello's here.
Marcello’s Restaurant and Wine Bar
715 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans
(504) 581-6333, marcelloscafe.com
Hours: Monday–Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., Saturday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.