Marcello’s Moves North

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris June 26, 2021 12:00 in Dining Diary

Since the day it arrived on the scene in New Orleans, Marcello’s has been a personal favorite. 

Located on St. Charles in a fast-gentrifying block between Poydras and Lee Circle, Gene Todaro senior and junior moved into the space that had been recently vacated by Le Chat Noir in 2014.

This gregarious father/son duo brought a very personal and really appealing vibe to the space after extensive renovations. More important, they brought the kind of food they knew well, the soul-satisfying Sicilian food that is their heritage.

This heritage was at their core, and they spent time and energy keeping the connection strong. The restaurant’s decor was uniquely theirs - an eclectic mix of expensive and peculiar things brought back from regular visits to the old country. A knight in shining armor greeted guests upon arrival, and colorful Italian terra cotta pots were displayed throughout the place. 

The two dining rooms there had their own personality. I couldn’t tell which I preferred. The front one was bright and glamorous with a large bar as the focal point. Striped banquettes beckoned me each time I arrived.

The back room featured an open kitchen with a flaming hearth. It was warm and sultry. Here was the main theme of the restaurant: wine at wholesale prices, with racks between tables for you to peruse. This wine-price incentive was unique to Marcello’s, (it has since been copied) and it began in the Lafayette flagship restaurant, which branched out from the Todaro’s wine wholesale business. 

Marcello’s was so well received in the city that another location opened in 2015 in Metairie on the site now occupied by Saltgrass Steakhouse. It was short-lived not because it wasn’t popular, but because it sat on real estate so prime that it was hard to say no to a check such a large chain could offer.

Not long after that, the Todaro’s sold their controlling interest on St. Charles to Chef Blakely Kymen and went back to Lafayette.

It wasn’t the surroundings or the wine program that made Marcello’s special, though both contributed to its success. The food at Marcello’s was like your Italian grandmother made, but only if she was inventive and generally superb in the kitchen. All of the recipes actually do come from Gene Sr’s mother, straight from Palermo, where Gene was born and returns often.The red sauce at Marcello’s was always memorable - thick and deep crimson, smooth and bursting with tomato flavor. The lasagna was a big block of deliciousness that never had enough sauce. Not because they were withholding it, but because one always wanted more, more, more of this.

All the roasted meats and delicious risotto and anything with mushrooms was hearty and full-flavored but rustically simple at the same time. And I always thought the Caesar salad unique and special because the croutons were fried eggplant, and the dressing unapologetically Caesar (meaning anchovies.) 

Enter COVID, and Marcello’s was an early casualty. Of all such closures, that one upset me most. And then one day while driving on Boston Street in downtown Covington I noticed that work was being done on a building I never really liked which had one of those revolving doors where businesses came and went quickly. 

Since I am nosy by nature and in the business by marriage, I stopped to inquire who was up next in this particular revolving door. “Marcello’s,” was an answer I did not expect, but one that excited me. 

“The Italian place from across the lake?” I asked, trying not to seem ridiculously giddy. With that affirmation I drove away delighted that we had not seen the last of this delicious restaurant, and that this poor building was getting what I call the curse-breaker. (A restaurant good enough to change the space into a winner.)

I was curious to see what would be done with this peculiar cottage that was Mac’s on Boston for so long, and then a succession of Latin American food places since then. How would the elegant and eclectic spirit that was Marcello’s be interpreted here?

The footprint of the place remains unchanged. I would love to see them do something special with the large outdoor patio. As a committed alfresco diner, this would be downright exciting. And it has such potential. A Tuscan-inspired garden? Bellissimo! This would be my go-to dining spot.

What has been done inside isn’t really much. There is a peculiar tiny enclosed space that must have been a porch in the front of the building. The wine racks are placed around the exterior walls and some cold bottles are in the porch area.

All of the Todaro’s cool stuff has returned to Lafayette, but the colorful Italianate pots are seen here and there. It is mildly disappointing, but on our first visit it was the food that was most disturbing. It wasn’t bad at all, but it was not Marcello’s dreamy.

That was in January, and in the ensuing months Marcello’s has its groove back. Blakely the chef has moved to the front of the house, and her fiance is in the kitchen now, faithfully executing the recipes Gene’s mother brought  from Palermo when Gene moved to this country with the family as a boy.

On our visit this week we sat in the light-filled porch area which is quiet and secluded from the rest of the building by a room divider wall filled with wine and pots. I was curious to see if the menu had grown back to its original size since our January visit, but it remained small. All the essentials are here though.

I had meatballs and spaghetti on my mind, and that is what I ordered. Tom got the Pollo Arrostito with mushroom risotto and broccoli florets.

But we had two starters. Oysters, because it was Tom, and I got the soup du jour. It was a hearty Old Country style potato soup with pancetta, whose broth was thickened with potato rather than cream. With chunks of potato and generous bits of pancetta, this was light and hearty at the same time. Like something passed down from a great grandmother, this was the anti-hip potage.

Tom’s oysters were light and crisp fried golden brown, large and prettily arranged on a long plate over a Gorgonzola sauce. This was good, because how can the combination of those magic ingredients be anything but yummy? It was not exceptional.

Exceptional was saved for the entrees. A large plate of meatballs and spaghetti was placed before me. The sauce was so thick it clung to the spaghetti. It was dark crimson, almost to the point of being pasty. This is not a bad thing to me. When ingredients have cooked so long as to be almost solidly caramelized, especially red sauce, the flavor goes right to my soul. This was divine. I had no intention of eating it all, because I wanted to help Tom with his chicken. The meatballs were the perfect size and texture, just slightly more firm than my perfect mark, and that sauce made me eat the entire thing.

Meanwhile, Tom had this slab of a half-chicken, crispy skin and a lot of “stuff” on it, placed atop a mound of mushroom risotto with broccoli florets scattered throughout. The richness of flavor in both the spaghetti sauce and the mushroom risotto was a real statement, and that statement was ‘MMMMM.” The way you say it with your eyes rolled back and a grin from ear to ear. The risotto was properly creamy with an intense mushroom flavor, the chicken cooked to perfection. A great dish.

The waiter mentioned to another table that it was happy hour and both wines and appetizers were half price.

I immediately started thinking about returning for a meal of two glasses of wine and the antipasti platter. But who am I kidding? We will keep going, The food here is simply irresistible.