Marco Polo's Marco Chirico on the Business After Thirty Years
In an era when insane opening hype damns many restaurants to short lifespans, it's nothing short of miraculous to see spots that have survived decades. One of those old-timers, Marco Polo Ristorante, opened as a Carroll Gardens destination restaurant for classic Italian back in 1983. The restaurant will celebrate its 30th birthday next week, so we chatted with Marco Chirico, who co-owns the place with his father, Joseph (also the founder), about the past, present, and future of his eatery.
Tell us about your history with the restaurant. The restaurant's been here since before me. It opened in 1983 in June in the heart of Carroll Gardens. I started to get into the business when I was 12 years old. After school, I would come down here, hang out, and work as a busboy. I started to grow into it. I became a waiter, and then I found myself in the kitchen. I went to Johnson and Wales [University] for the culinary business, where I developed and learned the front and the back of the house. I came home from college, started in the kitchen, changed the menu up, kept some classic dishes, and added some modern Italian food.
What was the restaurant like in those early days? It was an old. classic restaurant back in the day, and people would come from all over the states for particular dishes like oysters Rockefeller and baked clams, the Caesar salad, and the rack of lamb. You used to be able to smoke cigarettes in the restaurant, and I used to come home on Saturday night smelling of smoke. Joe DiMaggio had his own table, and Joe Torre came to see us once. It wasn't crazy media back then, so people could be more relaxed and enjoy themselves.
Today, people come in and say, "I had my christening here" or "I had my baptism here." A lot of people have taken part in the restaurant over the years, and the restaurant has always participated in what's going on in the neighborhood. It's developed into a staple for donations and fundraisers.
How has the restaurant changed? Since we reopened a year and a half ago, after the remodel that modernized the space, I've modernized the menu to make it blend in more with the neighborhood. Brooklyn wasn't known when the restaurant opened; now, it's an overwhelming hot spot. It's also more focused on health and nutrition. For our new menu, we use products that are lighter and healthier. We have a new pasta with farro and zucchini, for example. We have a garden with vegetables and cherry tomatoes and stuff like that, so the menu is more seasonal.
Now that the menu is updated, we're getting a lot of new neighborhood people coming in, and they'll sit next to someone from California or South Carolina who came all the way here for the oysters Rockefeller. Those visitors will tell the neighbors that they came here 20 years ago to eat this dish in New York. It's funny. A lot of people in the neighborhood want that sense of history, and they get it from someone who's sitting next to them from out of town.
How has it stayed the same? We have the same quality of food, and most of the staff has been here for more than 15 years. A lot of the people have worked here for so long, it's like family. My father is still around, helping out with the restaurant, management, and front of the house. A lot of people come in just to see him, so it's very important to have him there. He hangs out on the weekends just for people to come in and see him.
We've grown a new clientele because of the new menu, but the regulars still come. There's a regular that's been coming here for 30 years now.
Where do you want to go from here? I'd like to see it build up into a prestigious restaurant. Everything is homemade--the pastas, desserts, ice creams. I want to show our customers and guests that our quality is great, and our drinks are all up to date with freshly squeezed juices. And our prices aren't that expensive; we're holding Brooklyn prices. People know the restaurant, but I want it to be more well-known for the food and service.
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