22 September 2010

Lost City Asks "Who Goes Marco Polo?"

I'm getting quite lazy about re-posting these "Who Goes There?" column on the site. This one appeared on Eater a week ago. Old Marco Polo. Not that old, really. 27 years. But seems old. Certainly takes its cues from every other red sauce joint that used to line the streets of South Brooklyn. 

Strange, and sad, timing on this one. The first time I ever went to Marco Polo, in 1994, was with my mother-in-law. It was her kind of place. She passed away earlier this month at the age of 85. In subconscious memory of her, I took my son to eat at Marco Polo a few days later.

Who Goes There? Marco Polo
Marco Polo Ristorante was founded in 1983, at which point most of the residents of Carroll Gardens had probably never seen a Yuppie. Today, long after the hipster horde has descended on the Brooklyn neighborhood, the eatery stands as a stolid reminder of the area's still-strong Italian-American roots. A block west from Smith Street's restaurant row—and wholly unconcerned with that high-falutin' noise—it is housed in a boxy brick building with a formal green awning. Though only two stories tall, it seems to dwarf everything in sight, and is certainly big enough to house all the ghosts of Carroll Gardens Red Sauce Joints Past.

The owners of fiercely local Italian places like this usually keep a low profile. But Marco Polo owner Joe Chirico, who was born in Italy, has a knack for landing in the papers. For several years he owned the legendary downtown Brooklyn restaurant Gage & Tollner (now sadly the newly shuttered home of an Arby's franchise). In 2003, to drum up publicity for his business' 20th anniversary, he flew over from Venice one Siro Polo Padolecchia, who purported to be the the last living relative of Marco Polo. And then there was that massive 2008 Federal indictment of Gambino associates, in which Chirico was a peripheral figure. (There are worse nicknames than Joe Marco Polo.)
Chirico was there on a recent night, sitting down with a couple of sixty-something habitu├ęs who hugged and expressed their love as they left. Whatever welcome Chirico didn't provide for the other guests was more than made up for by the attentive waitstaff, some of whom have been there for more than two decades. Water glasses never get below the half-empty mark here. Bread baskets are replenished. The menu has many choices, but nothing is set in stone. Want to switch up the pasta (all homemade) on some entree? No problem. Crave something that's not on the menu? They'll see what they can do. And the food is surprisingly good. No rote work here. The pasta dish I had was savory, subtle and perfectly al dente, and I've heard the seafood and veal praised from many corners. The servings are hefty, and the prices, while not exactly cheap, aren't bad.
While you wait for the food, the surroundings offer substantial distraction. In chasing authenticity through brick, stone, brass, and murals (of the travels of the restaurant's namesake), Marco Polo has created an aesthetic almost superhumanly fake. And yet,the kitschy result is somehow strangely soothing; it's the opposite of haughty.
The clientele includes many longtime regulars and few newbies. Hence, the relaxed air in the dining room, with different tables chatting with one another and, sometimes, shouting pleasantries across the hall in thick Brooklyn accents. My waiter said the joint remains a steadfastly local haunt, drawing mainly from the immediate area. I'm sure that's the truth, but perhaps not the whole truth. For Marco Polo is one of the few area restaurants with valet parking, and those cars are coming from somewhere. Moreover, the place is popular for events. Weddings, birthdays, christenings. Once a week at least, a wedding party flows out of the second-floor banquet hall, tuxes and glossy bridesmaid dresses spilling onto Court Street. 
—Brooks of Sheffield


Anonymous said...

In your capsule history of Joe Chirico, you left out his part-ownership of that monstrous building on Degraw St. just west of Smith St., built on the old Longshoreman's Union parking lot a few years ago over the strenuous objections of its neighbors. Joe and his buddies couldn't care less about the neighborhood; they just want to extract a few dollars at the expense of those who still live here.

Marie said...

Thanks. I've always wondered.

Gary Weiss said...

I lived half a block away in 1984, and by then the area was already heavily gentrified. There were better restaurants in the neighborhood at the time, but none more expensive.