Joseph Chirico, founder and owner of Marco
Polo Ristorante in Carroll Gardens, is a true American success
Emigrating from San Martino, Italy in the late 1960s, he looked for whatever work he could get. At 19, with little money and less English, Chirico found a job as a maintenance man. Three and a half years later, he opened Joe’s Luncheonette on Court Street.
He liked the restaurant business so much, that he stayed there for the next 14 years. Intrigued, he was eager to master every aspect of it, absorbing all he could about how to run a successful eatery.
In 1983, Chirico opened Marco Polo, at 345 Court St., next door to Joe’s, and soon it too became a neighborhood favorite.
Chirico, now founder and president of the Brooklyn Restaurant Association and also owner of Gage & Tollner restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn, credits much of his success to the talents of his chef of 16 years, Francesco Insingo.
"Franco is unbelievably talented," Chirico told GO Brooklyn. "He has a natural flair for cooking and is particularly gifted at pairing wine with food." It was partly due to this talent of Insingo’s, as well as the two men’s enthusiasm for good wine, that they started organizing regular wine dinners at the restaurant.
The Castello Banfi Wine Dinner held on June 7 was this year’s wine and food extravaganza, a celebration of Marco Polo’s 18th anniversary. (Chirico has a history of promoting fine Italian food and wine in the borough. Last June, he hosted an evening called, "A Taste of Italy" at Borough Hall, which featured a smorgasbord of Italian foods made by students from a culinary institute in Caserta who had worked with chefs from Brooklyn’s Italian restaurants.)
Upon our arrival at Marco Polo for the wine dinner, we were shown upstairs to the special events room - a grand space with high ceilings, mirrors, chandeliers and large, sumptuously draped windows. Butlers passed silver platters of hors d’oeuvres to guests sipping wine among the large white linen-draped tables set with enough wine glasses to hint at the pleasures yet to come.
The dry, fruity pineapple-and-apple-flavored Principessa Gavia, a pale, straw-colored aperitif wine, went particularly well with my favorite hors d’oeuvres - an earthy, rich duck puree served on tiny round tart crusts and topped with a toasted almond; and a warm spinach souffle on a thin, short crust, that managed to retain the fresh, delicate flavor of the spinach the way so few quiches do.
Throughout the meal, representatives from Castello Banfi (the Tuscan estate of origin for all the evening’s wines) addressed the diners, sometimes in Italian, sometimes in English, about the wines.
We were told that the Gavi we had just sampled, like all aperitif wines, was to prepare our palates for the rest of the wines to come.
Pinot Grigio San Angelo 2000 was the wine selected to go with our first course, avocado lobster salad with lime vinaigrette dressing. White gold in color, the Pinot Grigio had a wonderfully fresh, citrus bouquet that harmonized with the lime vinaigrette of the salad - a perfectly ripe half avocado filled with large chunks of avocado and lobster. Other than the lime accent, there were no additional seasonings or flavors, leaving the distinctive flavors of avocado and lobster to speak for themselves.
My favorite course came next - tortellacci stuffed with spinach, ricotta, Parmesan, butter and sage. Tortellacci is a derivative of torta or tart (tortellini and tortelloni are from the same root), meaning a very large tortelloni - in this case a large sheet of pasta wrapped around the stuffing. I was transported after the first bite by the extreme freshness of the homemade pasta as well as by the high quality of the other ingredients, not to mention the flavor combination. In my book, the flavor of sage can easily overpower everything around it. Here, there was just enough to accent the tried and true combined flavors of the spinach, ricotta and Parmesan.
The wine, Rosso di Montalcino, was a visual delight - deep ruby in color with garnet reflections - with a rich, soft opulence that melded beautifully with the elegance of this fine pasta course.
The roasted squab in a Parmesan cheese nest didn’t quite work for me. In all fairness to the chef, I have never tasted squab that was anything but tough, and this squab was no exception. The cheese nest might have been an interesting addition to another dish had it been crisp and warm rather than soft and cold, but to me, Parmesan is too strong a flavor to mix with a game bird anyway. The Brunello was full, soft and velvety, the perfect choice to accompany game of any kind.
The pace of the meal must have been just right because I was still ready and willing when the rack of lamb, marinated with herbs and served with potato cake and spring vegetables, arrived. The lamb spoke for itself - cooked to pink perfection, it was minimally seasoned and tender. The lamb was served with French haricots, a potato fritter (mashed potatoes fried pancake-style) and a single stalk of asparagus.
Again, there were no additional seasonings, just quality, flavorful ingredients. Of the Summus Super Tuscan 1997 that accompanied this dish, one fellow diner proclaimed it "perfecto," a pronouncement upon which we all agreed about this intensely fruity, elegant wine.
For my part, I could have skipped dessert - homemade coffee ice cream - as the combined efforts of Chirico and Insingo had already made their mark. I was excited to have discovered this dynamic duo right here in Brooklyn.
For those with an interest in participating in similar events, call Marco Polo for more details about future wine dinners. They are well worth the money ($100 per person for this meal, unlimited wine), especially considering the opportunity for expanding one’s wine knowledge while experiencing the talents of chef Insingo who has such an instinctive talent for pairing food and wine.
While I did not review Marco Polo’s standard dinner menu, knowing the food and wine come from the same team makes me feel confident to recommend the restaurant.
Marco Polo Ristorante [345 Court St.
at Union Street, (718) 852-5015] accepts all major credit cards.
The restaurant is open Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 11
pm; Saturday, 3 pm to midnight; and Sunday, 1 pm to 10 pm. For
more information, visit their Web site at www.marcop