In 1983, the last thing you would expect on the corner of Court and Union streets was a fancy restaurant. Carroll Gardens was a working-class area with a high percentage of Italian residents. The docks along the waterfront were in full use at the time, and the International Longshoreman’s Association was a cornerstone of neighborhood. Joes’ Luncheonette, nearby on Court between Union and President, was the well established “greasy spoon” of the community.
In June of that year, Joe Chirico, a pioneering restaurateur, opened his fine dining establishment. With the blessings of then-borough president Howard Golden and Congressman Ed Towns cutting the ribbon, Marco Polo opened for business, and from our vantage point today we realize how much of a visionary Joe was in 1983. He recognized the need for a power lunch spot close to downtown Brooklyn’s political-financial-government hub, as well as exquisite dinners for small and large groups.
Now as then, Golden and Towns were on hand to mark the occasion, celebrating along with the whole Chirico family and scores of other local officials, celebrities and media people. The evening, June 20, was a passing of the baton, from Joe to his son Marco, who has been gearing up to run the restaurant since graduating from Johnson & Wales University, where he studied culinary arts and restaurant management.
In preparation for this shift, both the interior and exterior have been completely renovated and updated. The airy, parchment-colored interior is offset by lovely black-and-white photos of Venice, distressed wood floors and whimsical red lighting fixtures.
Naturally, the menu has been revised too. As has the bar’s cocktail list. The chef is as gifted behind the bar as he is in the kitchen, with many of the new drinks flavored by specially made syrups, exotic fruit juices and purees, and home-grown herbs. Two options include the elegant and slightly bitter Negroni (gin, Campani and sweet vermouth with a dash of orange bitters), and Mixed Nuts (Amaretto, lemon juice, egg whites and black walnut bitters, whipped into a fun and frothy cocktail).
However, the true test of readiness and worthiness was to excel at planning and executing one of Marco Polo’s famously intense wine dinners, and this was the highlight of Marco’s training. (If you have never enjoyed a Marco Polo wine dinner, it is an experience that should not be missed).
Teaming up with Donnachiara Campania winery in Italy, each breathtaking course was painstakingly prepared. Chef Marco was assisted by William Doyle and Elena Gargani, who described how the wines and dishes were especially chosen to complement each other.
The opening course, Fluke Crudo, was served raw; the mild white flesh of the fish absorbing the flavors of the grapefruit, orange, lemon and mint that topped it. The accompanying wine was the white Donnachiara Falanghina IGT, with light citrus notes.
The bridge course was a duo of two house-made raviolis, and was served with two distinctly different wines. Donnachiara Grego do Tufo DOCG (white) was chosen for the ravioli stuffed with crawfish and caciocavallo in a sherry cream sauce; both delightfully light and fresh. The wild-boar-stuffed ravioli, with its spicy Marsala sauce, was served with the Donnachiara Aglianico IGT, a strong red with notes of pepper.
The entrée course was a stunning combination of grilled lamb chop in a blackberry and cherry balsamic sauce, coupled with broiled filet mignon crusted with porcini mushrooms. This course was ably paired with the rich and robust red Donnachiara Taurasi DOCG.
Dessert was a pyramid of dark chocolate apricot mousse, served with Donnachiara’s tangy, sweet and bubbly Franco Amorosi Moscato D’Asti.
During the emotional and expressive evening, several speakers were awarded statues of a bust of Marco Polo, the famous explorer; some were local dignitaries and others officials from Italy (whose speeches were translated with the help of Carlo Scissura, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce). Borough President Marty Markowitz’s rousing speech needed no translating, brought the room back to all that was popular in 1983.
A salute to the next 30 years of Marco Polo Ristorante should start with a sampling of the new chef’s spring and summer menu. Seafood starters are plentiful. Antipasti choices include Vitello Tonnato (thinly sliced veal with tuna sauce, capers and berries), Polipo (grilled fresh octopus over marinated cantaloupe), and Prosciutto e Melone con Bufala (fresh honeydew wrapped with aged prosciutto and served with imported Bufala D.O.C.).
For pasta, the red wine fettuccini tossed in a giant wheel of parmigiano is a fantastic and tasty experience. The veal-and-mushroom-stuffed ravioli in butter sage sauce, or squid-ink tagliolini with calimari, shrimp, and scallops in a pink sauce are two other elegant choices.
Fish lovers will enjoy the trout crusted with olives, pine nuts, anchovies and breadcrumbs served in orange sauce. Two more entrée selections are charcoal-grilled quail over black quinoa, sun-dried tomato and mushrooms, and the grilled bone-in rib eye steak, resplendent in its rosemary garlic rub.
Ricotta cheesecake, crème brulee, gelato, tiramisu, panna cotta and chocolate mousse round out the dessert menu, and a beautiful selection of grappa, port and cognac are available after dinner.
Marco Polo Ristorante is located at 345 Court Street, at the corner of Union Street in Carroll Gardens. The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. (718) 852-5015; www.marcop