Until owner Alan Meinster closed its doors in late 2007, Marsilio’s was one of the few remaining red-sauce institutions in Trenton’s Chambersburg section. The restaurant, open since the 1950s (the last 20 years under Meinster), had a cult following. It even earned mention in two of Janet Evanovich’s best-selling Stephanie Plum detective stories, set in the Trenton area. Marsilio’s was beloved especially for its chicken cacciatore and for the hundreds of ceramic wine pitchers, each inscribed with the surname of a regular.
“For 20 years, the pitchers were a way to make a new friend, to make it fun to come to Marsilio’s,” Meinster says. “I’d give one to 50 people each Christmas as a gift. Then when you made your reservation, the pitcher with your name on it would be on your table.”
The new place, opened in 2011 with “kitchen” in its name, is BYO. So far Meinster has managed to return about 35 percent of the pitchers to their owners. Why did he shut down Marsilio’s? “My daughters were 11 and 13,” he explains, “and my wife and I feared that in the future they would complain that they only saw their father at the restaurant.” When the opportunity arose to go into catering with a friend, he jumped at it, using the old restaurant’s kitchen as commissary. “At least in catering you sometimes get to eat dinner with your family,” Meinster says. But there was another reason. “We had been growing the business for 20 years. At that point, customers were retiring and relocating. It was obvious to me that it would become increasingly difficult to grow in the inner city.”
When the catering took off, Meinster looked for a larger kitchen. That turned out to be in the former Antonio’s restaurant in Ewing. “My wife and girls saw this place as a blank palette to decorate, and I saw it as a way to introduce a menu that blended the old Marsilio’s and the new,” he says. These days, his daughters (one a freshman at Marist College and the other a sophomore in high school) work alongside their parents at the restaurant.
Fans of Marsilio’s are rewarded with that touchstone chicken cacciatore and its white-wine and red-vinegar sauce. It is simply the best version this particular Italian-American reviewer has encountered. Likewise, the meat sauce that comes with the Sunday gravy dinner evinces the required porky sweetness and tomato tang in just the right balance. And the meat itself—meatballs, sausage and pork—were so good they brought tears to my husband’s eyes as he said, “This reminds me of your mother’s.” Other benchmark dishes that remain intact are minestrone and vodka rigatoni—to my mind, two of the most difficult basics to get right—and anything with clams, especially the flawless zuppa with a sauce of garlic, butter and fresh basil.
These dishes provide more than enough reason to dine here, which is fortunate because not many others rise to their level. The house marinara is decent, but indistinguishable from many others. Veal parm, denoted “MK” on the menu to signify it’s a Marsilio’s classic, is ruined by veal pounded almost to mush.
Pan-fried, boneless rib-eye steak is mediocre. Caesar salad was a sad mess of brown-edged lettuce in a dressing that lacked even a hint of anchovy or parmesan. Applewood smoked bacon, promised by the menu, was MIA. (On the other hand, the complimentary house salad is uncommonly appealing as these things go: a big pile of crisp, colorful baby greens tossed with the merest coating of tangy vinaigrette.) Desserts are forgettable.
Also detracting are most of the modern dishes. Sometimes they work, as in crab cakes that manage to exude pronounced crab flavor despite being made with quite a bit of filler. (I part ways with the common wisdom that says crab cakes should have little to no filler; I think it carries flavor and improves texture.) On one visit, an appetizer special of scallops wrapped in bacon and drizzled with balsamic vinegar scored major points. Unfortunately, these were offset by a seafood platter that contained salmon past its prime and a pale-green risotto so lacking in flavor, we had to ask what gave it that color (sweet peas).
The modern choices also happen to be the priciest on the menu. Speaking of prices, on both my visits for certain items, we were charged a dollar or two more than the prices listed on either the website menu or the menu handed out at the restaurant. When I later called this to Meinster’s attention during a phone call, he expressed surprise and suggested that a malfunction with the computer system might be responsible. Shortly thereafter, I noticed that the website prices of about half the items I had mentioned had been raised to accurately reflect the amount charged.
One room has been decorated to conjure the Chambersburg space. Its most striking feature is a gigantic mirror with an ornate gold frame that takes up almost the entire rear wall. Also harking back are colorful paintings; wrought-iron wall sconces holding many votive candles; white linens; and a single, sentimental (i.e. nonfunctional) wall-mounted jukebox. I prefer this room to the larger one, which is nondescript and dark to the point of gloomy.
Yet another throwback is a young hostess invariably in a short, clingy black dress, black lace tights and 4-inch heels. Although a personalized pitcher won’t be awaiting regulars, there’s still a good chance Alan Meinster will be making the rounds, schmoozing as in days of yore.