Even before earning a CIA degree in 1991, Mark Marandola was working in restaurants. He made it his career, including 21 years as general manager of the upscale Scalini Fedeli in Chatham. Last year, at 55, he left Scalini and took the big leap, opening his own place, Marandola’s in Bradley Beach.
“For the first time, you are 100 percent alone, so of course it’s intimidating,” he says. Maybe not 100 percent. With the help of friends, he transformed a former Venezuelan diner into an Italian restaurant in soothing blue with white wainscoting and water-themed artwork.
Having experience cooking, he rebuilt and expanded the kitchen and created a menu featuring dishes he and his wife, Kathy—who created the dessert menu—have enjoyed in years of dining out. One of those is the stuffed mushrooms served at Porto Leggero in Jersey City, a restaurant he and Michael Cetrulo, owner of Scalini Fedeli, opened with other partners in 2004. As you might expect, getting the recipe was easy.
Brimming with sweet Italian sausage, chopped bacon, spinach and fontina, and finished with a sherry reduction sauce, Marandola’s stuffed mushroom is indeed excellent. So is the shrimp-and-beans appetizer, the beans sautéed in garlic oil and clam broth with onions, rosemary, saffron and hot pepper seeds.
“I try not to make it too red-saucy,” Marandola says of his cuisine. “It’s a mixture of traditional and a little innovative.” In a concession to the former, he put chicken parmigiana on the menu after many customers asked for it. On the contemporary side, he serves thin spaghetti generously loaded with lump crabmeat, roasted plum tomatoes, sautéed leeks, shallots and pepperoncini peppers in Champagne sauce. His shrimp scampi ramps up the usual with red pepper seeds and a white wine, clam broth and red wine-vinegar reduction. His snapper Rosemarina comes with a sauce of white wine, chicken broth, mushrooms and garlic that somewhat overwhelms the delicate fish.
Braised pork shank—tender, with crisp edges—comes with a mound of caramelized onions and carrots bound with tomato sauce. A good dish, but a bit heavy for summer.
Seafood salad was perfect: very fresh shrimp, mussels, calamari and scallops, cooked individually, then chilled and dressed in lemon vinaigrette with garlic. A weightier pleasure was spiedini alla Romano, a dense block of layered white bread and fontina, egged, floured, deep fried and served in a redolent garlic oil, anchovy, caper and lemon sauce.
The earthy pesto on the burrata salad nicely complemented the soft cheese and sharp baby arugula, while the balsamic vinegar and oregano on the salad was harsh, lacking any olive oil.
I sampled Marandola’s linguini carbonara just a few weeks after returning from Rome, and the dish brought me right back to Italy’s capital. Studded with smoked bacon, prosciutto, shallots and peas, the perfectly al dente pasta was coated in a peppery smoked bacon sauce that was rich, yet restrained.
Marandola says that one way he measures an Italian restaurant is by its veal saltimbocca. His would pass muster anywhere. The slices of prosciutto pounded into the thin veal cutlets provide a crisp edge offsetting the tender veal in melted fontina and Parmesan, served in a sherry, madeira and brown-stock reduction.
Some of the desserts are made by Marandola’s wife, including a pleasingly creamy take on vanilla panna cotta. She adds beaten egg whites to create a lighter, less gelatinous texture. That dish is served with a fresh blueberry sauce and crumbly lemon-basil cookies.
Kathy’s chocolate caramel-walnut tart is a thick wedge of caramely fudge in a walnut shortbread crust, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla gelato. The filling in the lemon tart was appropriately tangy, but the cookie crust was a bit gummy. Other desserts come from Nasto’s in Newark, including excellent tiramisu and tartufo.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $8-$14; pastas, $23-$28; entrées, $24-$39; desserts, $9
Ambience:Clean and beachy
Service:Efficient, at times bordering on brusque