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Photography by Chad Spencer

 

Can an excellent restaurant live in a tiny strip mall? In Sarasota, it happens all the time. Case in point: Marcello Ristorante Italiano on South Tamiami Trail, which has been building buzz since it opened two-and-a-half years ago.

 

Park outside the unprepossessing building and step into a room that is combined dining area, bar and open kitchen, where Marcello Aquino, chef and owner, can see everybody who comes in. The place seats only about 50 in a formal arrangement of nine tables with tablecloths and black cloth napkins, background music (the Al Martino, Jerry Vale Italian-American kind, but nothing wrong with that), pleasant low lighting and a waitstaff ready with an enthusiastic welcome. When you sit down, a basket of crusty bread arrives with a dish of soft butter blended with torn basil leaves, grated cheese and garlic. Delicious with your first glass of wine or sparkling water.

 

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The decor is composed mostly of wine bottles organized on wall racks, and both black-and-white photographs of famous Italians and color prints that reference the chef’s heritage. I was seated at a table where I was eye-level with a film studio portrait of a young Marcello Mastroianni, an actor so hypnotically handsome I had trouble redirecting my attention to the rolling chalkboard that our waiter, Gus Pappas, wheeled to the table. Gus was ready with explanations about the fresh fish and veal specialties of the day, and he informed us that Walt’s Fish Market, just across the street, is chef’s personal pescivendolo, or fishmonger. Every morning Marcello hand-selects fresh fish and other seafood that he prepares, Italian-style, every evening. That means you’ll usually find olive oil, capers, tomatoes, basil, garlic, lemon and maybe some cheese in the fish dishes. Yet the fresh, distinctive fish flavors and textures come through.

 

It is not chef Marcello’s way to over-fuss with food, and he has a light touch with seasonings. Instead, he focuses on top-quality ingredients and finding that ideal harmony and balance of mingling flavors. His dishes are bright, fresh and pretty much uncomplicated—tried-and-true Italian recipes deftly done with some American inflections. Similarly, chef doesn’t drown pasta in sauce. You can actually see and taste the fresh al dente stands of spaghetti under his absolutely delicious tomato or cream sauces. Besides the changing chalkboard, your waiter will supply you with a printed menu of appetizers, pastas, seafood and meat selections that are always available.

 

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If you eat out and eat Italian regularly, you’ll recognize Gulf shrimp in marinara sauce, ravioli stuffed with spinach ($15.99), lasagna Bolognese ($16.99) or baked eggplant Parmigiano ($16.99). A veal chop, fat, succulent and on the bone, is $34. Wild mushroom ravioli is $25. Veal Milanese ($34), which my dinner companion ordered, was a beautiful thick chop, lightly pounded, breaded and fried. It was served with fresh greens and chopped tomatoes on top of the chop. The greens were dressed in olive oil and vinegar. A small tangle of thin spaghetti with marinara sauce was also on the plate. A hearty and completely successful dish. Closest to the bone, the meat was properly pink.

 

I opted for the cioppino ($28.95), wanting as much seafood as possible in my meal. This traditional Italian-American fisherman’s stew, which originated in Italian neighborhoods in San Francisco in the late 1800s, featured an aromatic tomato broth that infused the clams, mussels, shrimp, squid and octopus with delicate seasonings. In the center of the lavish platter/bowl was a portion of pasta and on top of that a piece of grouper. It was more food than I could eat, so my dinner partner got to do more than just taste.

 

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Always on the rolling chalkboard is a tableside Caesar salad for $7.99 a person, and it’s made for two. Ours was composed by Gus (white shirt, necktie, vest), a graceful master of the quintessential Caesar. He starts by mashing anchovies and garlic in a wooden bowl, and he will tell you that if you don’t approve of anchovies, he hasn’t the heart to make this salad. The salty little flavor-bomb filets are essential. The romaine lettuce pieces were dried and wrapped in a towel. I predict you’ll never have a better Caesar salad than the one Gus Pappas assembles at Marcello.

 

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The wine list leans to the Italian reds, but there are enough whites to complement all the seafood offerings, and they come from a variety of countries. Wines are available by the glass or bottle. Desserts are three or four of the usual Italian offerings (cannoli among them), but only the tiramisu is house-made. We split a tasty and refreshing tartufo that we were too blissfully full to finish. Add Marcello’s to the list of exemplary Italian restaurants in our region.

 

The Verdict: At chef-owned Marcello Ristorante Italiano, the building isn’t much but the food is sublime and the service topnotch.

 

Marcello Ristorante Italiano

 

4155 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 921-6794

 

HOURS:  Open nightly for dinner from 5-9-ish. Marcello is flexible about closing time. Reservations necessary due to limited seating.

 

Credit cards: all major cards accepted

 

Parking in front of the restaurant; handicapped accessible

 

Polo’s Small Plates

 

The arrival of so many new restaurants at the Mall at University Town Center has upped the dining ante out east, and Lakewood Ranch’s long-running Polo Grill has responded with new menu offerings that are globally inspired and sized for modern dining. Raised in the hospitality business, creative chef/owner Tommy Klauber is always looking for something new; right now he’s interested in small plates, acknowledging and celebrating that a significant portion of the dining public is invested in this kind of grazing and sharing. It’s not at all unusual for two, four or more people to compose a meal out of an assortment of small plates and platters. The hardest decision is choosing the wine. The rest can be exciting. Do you cross continents or make your grouping all Asian or all South American? Salads are included in this small plate spontaneous meal planning, expanding potential custom combinations.

 

Recently two of us headed to Lakewood Ranch, determined to try as many of Klauber’s small plates as we could. The hand-picked blue crab cakes ($8) with a chipotle remoulade got things off to a nice start, traditional in New Orleans flavor and preparation except for that little kick of chipotle pepper. We paired that with Parmesan-crusted zucchini ribbons ($6) before moving on to the seafood flash fry ($9), a composition of pink shrimp, calamari and baby scallops bathed in a peanut-enriched sweet chili glaze.

 

Still in a seafood mood, we dove into the tuna tartare wonton tacos with wasabi caviar and sakimole ($9). For me, this was the hit of the night, a terrific few bites of inspired Asian-Mexican fusion. The dish comes three to a plate and the chunks of raw tuna were sushi grade and meltingly flavorful, while the petite wonton tacos were crisp. The avocado-based accompaniment was just right. It was so good we ordered another round. We then ventured onto mole chicken quesadillas composed with house-made guacamole, pico de gallo and Mexican crema ($7). Substantial, and properly gooey and rich.

 

The Down South pulled pork spring roll with jalapeño and jack barbecue sauce refers to both south of the border and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and it works at $6. More meat comes in the form of skewers of lime-marinated black Angus skirt steak on skewers with chimichurri sauce for $8 (that’s worth two orders at least) and honey chipotle chicken wing lollipops with ranch dipping sauce. They’re cute and a little gimmicky at $8, but the lollipops deliver a sweet-hot-sour layered taste that is just fine. And they make a good photo to share on your Facebook page.

 

There are plenty of sides and salads to add to a small-plate night of dining, but we didn’t go there on this occasion. Just beer for him and a split of Prosecco for me, because I believe that Prosecco goes with anything.

 

There are all kinds of options for gourmet meals at the posh but relaxed Polo Grill. The centerpiece of the dining room is the glass-enclosed wine room, which gives you an idea about how seriously everyone takes wine at this restaurant. The list will satisfy the extravagant explorer but also nods to the budget-minded, and many wines come by the glass. Dinners average $25 and include offerings such as Kobe meatloaf, lasagna, filet mignon with merlot-braised mushrooms, grilled salmon, miso-glazed Chilean seabass, cantina chilaquiles verdes (layered corn tortillas), grilled black grouper or brick-pressed chicken breast. But the menu changes seasonally since the kitchen likes to source ingredients locally, so always ask for what’s new in the category of big meals as well as for those tasty small plates.

 

Polo Grill and Bar

 

10670 Boardwalk Loop, Lakewood Ranch, (941) 782-0899

 

HOURS: Lunch and dinner: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. until closing. Closed Sunday.

 

Full bar including signature craft cocktails

 

Credit cards: all major cards accepted

 

Parking in lots near the entrance; handicapped accessible

 

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