Il Grano is one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, and there wouldn’t be an Il Grano, or a chef Sal Marino, without Marino Ristorante. His father Ciro and mother Maria opened their eponymous restaurant in 1983, building on Ciro’s success at bygone Hollywood landmark Martoni’s. Ciro passed away last year, but Maria and son Mario are carrying on the family tradition. To reintroduce their restaurant to Angelenos, the Marinos hired a PR firm and invited a small group of bloggers to dine at Marino, including e*starLA, Caroline on Crack and me. Mario said that since the passing of his father, he’s still “sticking to authenticity and sticking to traditions,” but added, “Who says the old and the new don’t mix?”
The Marinos concede that the dining room needs refreshing, and later this year, that’s exactly what will happen. We got a peak of what to expect. The back room hosts overflow crowds and private business meals. The tasteful update features wood paneling, white tablecloths and just enough mirrors so the space doesn’t scream funhouse.
Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of dining at Marino under Ciro’s watch, but based on Mario’s showing, it’s clear that his father schooled him on hospitality. Mario was a charming host, and instantly gained our trust, to the point that we submitted to his menu choices.
We started with a dish of fried calamari, with the crunchy cephalopods sourced from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. On the side, we received a dish of zesty marinara sauce. Check that: bold, since zesty is overused.
Antipasti change with the seasons. Highlights included tart, thin-shaved zucchini; grilled thin-sliced eggplant flavored with red wine vinegar; sweet beets oven-baked in foil with olive oil, white vinegar and white onion; sweet roasted peppers (red and yellow) with capers; and a centralized cipollini strewn with sweet and sour marinara.
Mario doled out Risotto alla Salsiccia e Funghi ($21.50) mixed with crumbled homemade sausage, two cheeses and three kinds of mushrooms – shitake, oyster and porcini – the last of which dissolved into the risotto. Better yet were the Maccheroncini, homemade ridged macaroni spooned with Amatriciana, a spicy marinara spiked with caramelized white onion and pancetta.
Marseilles branzino is available three ways at Marino: baked in a Kosher salt crust, grilled, scales down, or baked in a sauce. We received the latter, and it turned out to be the best dish of the night.
Mario peeled back the skin and de-boned the bass, which was baked with salt, pepper, olive oil, garlic and marinara, then topped with poached spinach and more marinara. It appears like the dish is oily, but almost all the oil is natural, from the fish.
At this point, we were all getting full, but Mario said he still planned to deliver two meat courses and dessert. “What do you expect? We’re Italian,” said Mario.
With our food, we received pours of wine from the family’s Italian vineyard – Terrabianca – which is owned by Mario’s sister-in-law. We started with Scassino, which contains 97% Sangiovese and 3% Carnarolo grapes.
Filleto alla Sinatra ($24.50) featured slices of filet mignon sautéed with green peppers, mushrooms and red wine. The dish is named for longtime Marino customer Frank Sinatra, who used to sit at our table. This was the only dish of the night that I wouldn’t order again, since the beef was too lean and at least on this night, overcooked.
We each finished with a thin slice of house-made ricotta cheesecake, flavored with candied lemon peel and zest, orange and rose waters. Our slices also sported Graham cracker crusts and crushed hazelnuts for added sweetness.
Marino offered a solid southern Italian experience, though Il Grano is my favorite Marino family restaurant. Still, it’s worth trying both.