Cafe Reviews

The Prince of Pasta

I've been jonesing of late for some really excellent house-made pasta. No doubt what brought this on was my slightly disappointing visit a couple of weeks back to the James Hotel's Fiamma Trattoria, where it seemed like everything but its house-made pasta was first-class. Since the James tirelessly trumpets the laurels of its chefs and offers its pasta as the restaurant's specialty, the listless, unappetizing semolina squiggles I ate there sent me into a tailspin of depression. Why, the only thing that's left me more morose of late has been the demise of that musty, old grande dame of an eatery Beef Eaters on West Camelback.

Golly, I wondered to my lonesome, there must be some place in town that serves primo pasta worthy of its ancient Italian heritage. That's when it struck me that I'd never gotten around to visiting Marcellino Ristorante on Northern Avenue near 13th Street. The restaurant has been in business for about a year, and the scuttlebutt has been overwhelmingly positive. So with a spring in my step and an emptiness in my belly crying out to be filled, I set out in search of what I hoped would be a pasta house worthy of my appreciation.

As I quickly discovered, "pasta palace" is more like it, run by a Principe della Pasta (Prince of Pasta), along with his vivacious, beautiful spouse. I speak here of owners Marcellino and Sima Verzino, who have quickly carved a place for themselves in the Valley's culinary scene. Marcellino was born in the Italian village of Reino, in southern Italy's Campania region, and he has run successful, highly praised restaurants both in Rome and New York. It was while still in Rome that he met his wife of eight years, Sima, a native New Yorker who was in Italy at the time working as a Broadway-style singer and dancer. Together, they ran restaurants in Gotham for several years before visiting Arizona, and deciding to make the big move to the desert.

The space Marcellino's inhabits is warm and cozy, redesigned by the Verzinos keeping only some of the former tenant's green slate, while painting the walls terra cotta and transforming the ceiling into a beige, faux canopy. There's a chic bar in the back, to the left of which is a reproduction of La Bocca della Verità, or the Mouth of Truth, located just outside Rome's Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. (Used to great effect in the 1953 William Wyler film Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn.) To the right of the bar is a wine-tasting room that can be closed off by curtains if need be. It's here that Governor Janet Napolitano, a frequent guest of the Verzinos, dines. Indeed, according to Sima, Napolitano supped here with Ron Reagan the night before ASU's historic Gammage Auditorium debate.

Before the bar are candlelit tables, with beige tablecloths set with orange bread plates. On the left-hand side of the establishment is a slightly elevated area with more tables. The lighting is soft, and the stereo plays jazzy standards by Rosemary Clooney, Louis Prima and an assortment of Italian singers. Waiters are clad in black and provide superb service, with Sima making the rounds as hostess to assure everyone is as happy as they ought to be. If things are going well in the kitchen, Marcellino himself might make an appearance, taking a drink at the bar or saying hello to regular customers.

The menu offers pastas, as well as fish, fowl and meat entrees. The latter are a bit pricier, but if you stick to the pasta dishes, two persons can eat dinner with appetizers and dessert for about $100, excluding tip. That's quite a bargain when you consider these are fresh, handmade, gourmet pastas that are so perfect they'd make Tony Soprano weep tears of joy. My first night at Marcellino's, I had a bowl of the paccatelli al ragu di salciccia. These squat, thick rectangles of pasta (a creation of the chef's) came in a ragu of ground sausage and tomatoes that was the perfect complement to the paccatelli's springy consistency. This paccatelli is a regular item on the menu, but my companion chose one of the pastas of the day, a saffron linguini served with clams and broccoli di rape, a slightly bitter broccoli that's so soft it caresses the tongue as you eat it. The saffron linguini was flavorful and fresh, akin to eating the best just-baked bread you can imagine.

During my next visit, I wised up and decided to do a chef's tasting of three pastas, which Marcellino's will do if there are three in your party, for a mere $21.95 a plate. It made for a splendid repast, with gnocchi, porcini-infused fettuccine, and one very large ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta. I particularly adored the gnocchi, those starchy nuggets of joy, made of potato, pasta and mozzarella and bathed in a light tomato sauce. Stuffing those delightful dumplings into my gluttonous gullet made me thank my lucky stars I'm a food critic!

The porcini-infused fettuccine was exquisite, like a love sonnet next to the gnocchi's ribald limerick. Topped with shiitake mushrooms and white truffle oil, it nearly sang in my mouth with an earthiness borne of its ingredients. The ravioli covered in a patina of butter and sage was also magnificent, even if it didn't demand to be noticed along the same lines of the fettuccine or the gnocchi.

As mentioned above, Marcellino's bill of fare offers far more than pasta, even if my jones for it got the best of me this time. In addition to appetizers like thinly sliced carpaccios of raw tuna and beef -- both of which I sampled and swooned over -- there are entrees such as calves' liver flambed with cognac; filet mignon; lamb chops; and salmon. If an ounce of the genius applied to the pastas is also focused on such entrees, I'm certain they're without parallel. For dessert, there are a few options, but insist on the panna cotta, as a richer and creamier version of same would be difficult to imagine.

Round out your evening with a shot or two of Marcellino's house-made limoncello, a sweet vodka-lemon digestif, meaning it not only packs a punch but will aid in the digestion of your meal. It's one of the many personal touches of the place that makes an evening here such a fulfilling experience. I feel immensely spoiled by Marcellino's, and I don't know how anyone else's pasta will ever come close.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons