Marcello Ristorante Italiano owner and chef Marcello Aquino.

Image: Bob McGinn

In Manhattan, there’s a saying among restaurateurs that "New Yorkers eat with their eyes," meaning that they are happy when the meal covers the plate, and more. In Sarasota, we have the opportunity to experience just that at Marcello Ristorante Italiano.

This inviting, intimate restaurant provides a dining experience unlike any other. It seems as if you’ve been invited into the home of owner and chef Marcello (pronounced "mar-chello") Aquino. This amiable chef has brought a slice of New York, combined it with a bit of Italy and deposited it on the South Trail. The huge plates came along as well. It’s not just pasta and sauce on those plates, but elaborate creations of veal, steak, duck and seafood.

Aquino is the restaurant's chef and sole cook. There's no team of assistants; every meal is prepared by him alone. The restaurant is intimate, with only nine tables and a wine room that seats 12. And what a wine room. It must be seen to be believed. Not only are you surrounded by unobtainable treasures, but salumi as well. A lovely glass partition separates the dining area from the wine room, but the view indicates a serious commitment to wine. Any wine lover is welcome to enter and absorb the ambiance of the finest wines in the world.

The Tuscan town of Montalcino, where Brunello di Montalcino is made.

Step inside, and it quickly becomes evident that this is a temple of great wine. The list is voluminous, with more than 300 selections and five pages of Brunello di Montalcino, the majestic wine of Tuscany. Brunello refers to sangiovese, the dominant grape of the Montalcino region and nearby Chianti. These wines bring elegance to a new level and balance nearly every entrée on the list. Marcello believes that Brunello is the most food-friendly wine. On a recent visit with friends, we enjoyed a 2013 Poggio Antico that was magnificent and, at $75, a steal. The hard-to-find La Scolca Gavi dei Gavi ($56) began our sumptuous meal.

Aquino’s philosophy is to not soak the customer with high markups and to offer wines that are very close to or even below retail price. Even his average entrée is only $35. He is well aware that everyone has a cell phone and can check wine prices easily. By providing fair prices, customers know they are getting a great deal and can even find older treasures not available in stores. To accomplish this, Aquino works closely with distributors to obtain the finest wines available, such as Tignanello, Ornellaia and many others.

The building formerly housed Ferrari’s, run by Aquino’s mother, and has been in the family for many years. Aquino became involved with restaurants and caterers when he was a teenager. Predominantly self-trained, he cut his teeth in Italian restaurants in New York and attended the Florida Culinary Institute prior to opening Marcello.

His vast experience has allowed him to bring great ideas, such as the roving menu board. Since most entrées are daily specials, waiters bring a board on wheels to each table. Appetizers are on one side and entrées on the other, as well as wine specials. Since high check averages attract high quality wait staff, most have 20 or more years of experience. They do have to learn to make "the greatest Caesar salad you will ever have."

Currently, Marcello is the only Italian restaurant with Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence. It deserves it.

Bob McGinn has spent his entire career in the wine industry—forming wine clubs, working in wine sales marketing and engaging in all facets of the winemaking process, including vine management, fermentation and yeast analysis. He has developed wine programs for companies such as Marriott, Sheraton and Smith & Wollensky, and consults with local restaurants. You can read more of McGinn’s work at gulfcoastwinejournal.com.

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