The Marcelli Family Brings Treasures From the Old Country

For the Marcellis of Wayne, a trip to their ancestral home in Abruzzo, Italy, inspired a years-long effort to bring their cousins’ amazing artisanal cheeses here.

Emily and Bob Marcelli flank their kids Emily and Andy.
Emily and Bob Marcelli flank their kids Emily and Andy.
Photo by Michael S. Barr

In 2004, Bob Marcelli thought he was wrapping a family vacation around fulfilling a wish for his aging father, Anthony. Bob, a Wayne resident, had no idea he himself was about to experience an epiphany that would change his life and launch a new business.

Anthony, who was 77, had long wanted to make a pilgrimage to the mountain village in Abruzzo, Italy, that his own father, Alphonso, had left at age 17 to come to America in 1915.

Bob managed to connect with one of the current generation of Abruzzo Marcellis, a cousin named Nunzio, and the trip was arranged. In all, 13 American Marcellis (lugging 43 suitcases), arrived in Anversa degli Abruzzi to discover that their relatives had taken up farming in 1977 and were raising a heritage breed of sheep to make extraordinary sheep’s milk pecorinos and ricottas.

Bob says he will never forget the first chunk of pecorino Nunzio handed him to taste: “I looked at him and said, ‘Oh, Nunzio! You don’t make cheese, you make cheese!’ I had never had anything so earthy and fresh.”

Bob knows food. Now 68, he had grown up in Boston, where his mother taught him the Southern cooking she had learned as a girl in Virginia. He attended James Beard’s cooking school in Manhattan, studying with the master. Afterwards, he worked at Larry Forgione’s pioneering An American Place in Manhattan and in 1987, opened the short-lived Stripes in Norfolk, Virginia, its menu a tribute to his mom.

But tiring of restaurants, Bob moved his wife, Emily, and their young children to Wayne in 1991 to join the “incredibly vibrant environment” of Hackensack University Medical Center as its catering manager.

Bob was still in that job when the family visited Abruzzo in 2004. His father “was in tears the whole time we were there,” Bob recalls. “He kept saying, ‘We have to do something with them.’ I started thinking. The Pecorino Romano we know here is heavily salted and dried. You don’t eat it, you shave it over pasta. But theirs was bright and herbal and not salty at all. It was made for eating.”

Six months later, Bob and Emily returned to Abruzzo to tell Nunzio they wanted to import his cheeses to America. “He went, ‘How would we get it there? And who would like it?’” Bob recalls. “I said, ‘Let me worry about that.’”

Working out the details took years. Andrew Marcelli, Bob and Emily’s oldest son, who has a degree in marketing, tackled the logistics: Italian regulations on agricultural exports, American ones on imports. On subsequent visits, the Americans immersed themselves in the culture of Anversa. They brought back samples of Nunzio’s raw-milk, organic cheeses, which have won Slow Food awards in Italy, and local olive oils to share with chef friends of Bob’s, such as Mario Batali.

Finally, in 2008, they opened Marcelli Formaggi in Clifton. Nunzio’s several pecorinos and ricottas are sold at Batali’s Eataly markets and served at restaurants such as Del Posto, Marta and Marc Forgione in Manhattan, Viaggio in Wayne, Pig & Prince in Montclair and Marcus Samuelsson’s new B&P in Newark. Sadly, Anthony, who inspired the idea, died in 2006. But Bob remembers stories that Alphonso, his grandfather, told of his youth in a recording they made in 1980.

Alphonso spoke of the beauty of the mountains, the backbreaking work in the quarries, and of everyone’s relentless efforts to flee to America.

“I asked him why he left,” Bob recalls. “And he just said, ‘To eat!’”

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