It's hard to deny that we're living in pretty food-obsessed times, what with food bloggers chronicling every last detail on the menu of whatever restaurant is on their radar that week. Food trends—from bacon to kale to cronuts—seem to come and go with the passing of every week. And the harsh reality is the majority of restaurants close within five years of opening. So, when a place reaches a milestone like that of Marco Polo Ristorante, which is celebrating its 30-year anniversary this month, you have to stop and appreciate what it takes to transform a neighborhood restaurant into a neighborhood institution.
Founded in 1983 by Joseph Chirico, who still maintains a vibrant presence in the large, newly renovated dining room, Marco Polo was a destination dining spot long before Court Street was dotted with celebrated restaurants. The Venetian cuisine featured ingredients like imported bufala mozzarella and porcini mushrooms far before they became staples in Italian restaurants in Brooklyn. Of course, the main question when anything (be it a restaurant or, I guess, a person) turns 30 is, Is it still relevant? After all, it's one thing to be around for three decades, but the accomplishment fades a bit if there isn't any innovation accompanying that longevity.
Marco Polo, and the Chirico family, have defied the temptation to rest on their laurels and instead have embraced change while still retaining the formula that has proven so successful over the years. The change has come mostly in the form of a complete renovation of the dining room, so that it is now a brighter, more modern space that reflects the clean, classic flavor profiles of the cuisine. And the kitchen itself has innovated in some important ways, like offering a twist on traditional panzanella that features tomatoes grown on the Chirico's upstate farm, while also still finding room for beloved classics, like a decadent oysters Rockefeller and an impressive veal chop, crowned by a single sprig of rosemary.
The kitchen is overseen now by chef/owner Marco Chirico, Joseph's son, who also runs the more casual Enoteca on Court next door. Chirico—who at only 25 is half a decade younger than the restaurant—grew up in Marco Polo, telling me, "I've been working here since I was twelve years old, bussing tables. You fall in love with it, with the customers, the people, and you can't think about doing anything else. It becomes a part of you." He has brought the menu a contemporary twist with items like the farro e zucchini estive, two-color tagliatelle made with farro grains and zucchini and perfectly charred and tender octopus over grilled, marinated cantaloupe. Despite his commitment to innovating the menu, Chirico acknowledges what makes a place like Marco Polo so successful: the customers. He tells me, "We've had customers come in the day we opened, and they still come in. When they come back, they're not just coming back for dinner, they're coming back for the experience."
And it's hard to deny the almost throw-back pleasures of enjoying an impeccably made multi-course Italian meal with the strains of Volare in the background, drinking glass after glass of wine, and being embraced by a staff that makes you feel more like family than customers. This is the kind of restaurant that people not only go to for celebrating graduations or weddings, but also for the happy hour (which includes the previously mentioned and highly recommended oysters Rockefeller for only $1.75.) This is the kind of place that makes you immediately understand why it's been around for 30 years, and you can easily see why it will be around for another 30.
Marco Polo Ristorante; 345 Court Street, Carroll Gardens
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