Marcellino’s redefines romance in the restaurant business

Being a romantic restaurant isn’t just about candlelight, exclusivity and good design. Although those are all qualities of Old Town Scottsdale’s Marcellino’s, too, true romance is embodied in the artistry of the menu items, the story behind its owners and the dedication of its kitchen staff.

Marcellino's

Marcellino’s

Marcellino’s Ristorante has made a quiet spot of its own in Old Town Scottsdale. With a “piazza” feel to its outdoor patio, the dark wood and candlelit dining room that bring a romantic flair designed and built by its chef, Marcellino’s is a piece of Italy in the center of downtown Scottsdale.

Just last week, there were three engagements at Marcellino’s, says its public relations spokeswoman Nadine Allen, president of Rockingwood Studio. As she spoke, white petals were being crushed and camera flashes were going off during the restaurant’s first wedding ceremony, taking place on an intimate patio outside the window behind her.

This event has some special meaning for Chef and his wife (and business partner), Sima Venzino, who were married in 1996 at a restaurant in New York. In fact, his first restaurant gig after moving to New York from Rome started two days after their wedding.

Marcellino is more than a chef, Venzino says. He’s an artist. He designed a fountain constructed out of wine bottles on the restaurant’s patio used for the wedding ceremony, he decorated (and built portions) of the restaurant’s interior, he cultivates a garden at home and in planters outside the restaurant, and he designs menu items that Venzino says he never tastes until it’s completed.

Chef Marcellino

Chef Marcellino

You’ll never see salt and pepper on any of the tables at Marcellino’s either. This is part of the aforementioned artistry, Venzino says. Everything is prepared exactly as patrons should experience it. However, waiters will offer pepper and Parmesan when delivering plates of pasta or salad.

Though Marcellino has cultivated his skills in the kitchens of various restaurants, everything goes back to his roots on a farm. Marcellino was 11 when his mother passed away. He took her role in the kitchen and began preparing meals for his sister and father. In terms of training, that’s as far as Marcellino ever got. Family remains an important quality in the restaurant; staff eat at a big family table in the back of the restaurant around 4 p.m., Venzino says.

Table for two at Marcellino's

Table for two at Marcellino’s

Playing into Marcellino’s roots on an Italian farm, everything at the restaurant is fresh. Chef Marcellino roasts eight eggplants a day for a red pepper, eggplant and basil spread served with table bread. On the patio, Marcellino has a herb garden that he and his bartenders use for dishes and drinks. Marcellino also has an impressive garden at his home in Moon Valley, says Allen. While many chefs use fresh ingredients or may have strong roots to a homeland of their cuisine, Venzino articulates what sets Marcellino’s apart.

“It’s a tremendous gift,” says Venzino of her husband’s approach to food. “He takes a classic recipe and puts an enhancement on it with the respect for the dish intact.”

The way to structure dinner at Marcellino’s is as such: antipasti (appetizer), pasta, secondo (main course/protein) and dolce (dessert).

Make a reservation, though. During the peak season (read: now), Venzino says the restaurant can turn down up to 50 couples who try to get a seat for dinner.

Bright plates and vibrant platefuls.

Bright plates and vibrant platefuls.

Dinner began with an antipasto of buffalo mozzarella wrapped in pancetta and served with basil, red peppers and a sundried tomato.

The pasta dishes we tried were Paccatelli al Ragu di Salsiccia — a pasta served with tomato sauce and sausage ragu — and spinach ricotta ravioli with sage butter sauce. All pasta is handmade. For secondo, Chef served up seared ahi tuna with a tomato balsamic vinegar sauce and a dollop of mashed potato.

Dessert was a win all-around — and it comes with flaming sugar cubes in tow, by the way. Tiramisu was light and perhaps the best we’ve had at Scottsdale Living. Panna cotta, a baked vanilla cream, is made with vanilla beans from halfway around the world. And the chocolate mousse is a rich, yet light dish that is big enough to share, if you can get yourself to part with a bite of it — now that’s a true test of romance.

Visit Marcellino’s Ristorante: 7114 E. Stetson Dr., Scottsdale, marcellinoristorante.com