Remember when individuals, and not corporations, owned restaurants? When a chef saved enough money to put his name on the door and created a menu and an aesthetic that represented his approach to restaurateuring?
Such an enterprise is alive and well at Marcello's La Sirena in West Palm Beach, which last year celebrated its 25th anniversary.
What was once a pizza joint was lovingly transformed by Marcello Fiorentino Sr., when he opened the doors in 1986. He died eight years later, and Marcello Jr. and wife Dianehave since taken ownership, transforming the place again in 2008 with a top-to-bottom renovation. Pictures of the elder Marcello and wife Ann, who is now retired, are among the few decorations in the elegant 50-seat dining room. It's as if they're always there to make sure things run smoothly.
The building is a mere 1,500 square feet. Marcello Jr., his sous chef and two others work the kitchen. A sea of 10 jacketed servers effortlessly flows through the dining room, seeming to know what you need before you do. I get the impression that this affluent crowd is used to being waited on.
White linens cover the tables, the walls are stuccoed, the ceiling is beamed and the tables are set closer than we've come to expect from a South Florida restaurant. It almost feels as though you've stumbled upon a simple but elegant gem while traveling through the Italian countryside. Dixie Highway is right outside.
"We want to be who we are," Marcello Fiorentino Jr. said. "I think that's why a lot of restaurants choke, because they try to be something they're not."
Called La Sirena, or the Mermaid, because the elder Fiorentino was born on the island of Capri, the restaurant is Italian with some Continental leanings, in the way of an excellent Caesar salad ($9) and French onion soup ($7). You can also start with imported mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil drizzled with olive oil ($15). Escargot ($10) are sauteed in buttery white wine and garlic and then served over creamy polenta. With so many good meat dishes on the menu, you may want to start with pasta. Tender gnocchi ($11 for a half serving, $19 for a full one) are served in a simple tomato and basil sauce with melted fresh mozzarella. Or start with the ravioli of the day. It's often filled with lobster ($14 half, $28 full) and served in a tomato-and-basil sauce, this time with a touch of cream.
I first saw the 16-ounce double-bone pork chop ($28) as it was being delivered to the table next to ours. This thing of beauty is tender and moist, and topped with a deeply flavorful shiitake-mushroom sauce. Chicken doesn't get much better than the version here called involtini di pollo saltrani ($26). A chicken breast is pounded thin and stuffed with veal, spinach and cheese. The cooked, rolled breast is then sauteed with truffles and shallots.
As you'd expect, veal is a specialty. Costoletta di vitello alla Sirena ($39) is a lightly breaded veal chop that's been thinly pounded. It's served with Milanese-style arugula, but then comes the surprise of fennel. One night, we had an incredible special of veal escalopes in truffle oil ($35) that are the definition of what Italian chefs can do with veal. How does veal get this tender?
When it comes time for dessert, there's zabaglione ($10) and tartufo ($8), made with pistachio ice cream. Ann Fiorentino still supplies the superb lemon Bundt cake with vanilla ice cream ($8).
I' have to think that cake was on the menu back in 1971, when none other than Craig Claiborne of "The New York Times" reviewed the Fiorentino's Long Island restaurant called Capricio. Claiborne practically invented American newspaper restaurant criticism.
Back then, it must have taken an Act of Congress to get the stuffy "Times" critic to visit the hinterland of Jericho. But according to the review, the Fiorentino's Capricio was "probably the finest restaurant on Long Island."
While I can't speak for Capricio, I believe Marcello's La Sirena is probably one of the finest Italian restaurants in South Florida.
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MARCELLO'S LA SIRENA
6316 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach
Hours: dinner Monday through Saturday
Reservations: strongly suggested
Credit cards: all major
Bar: beer and wine
Sound level: pleasantly conversational
Outside smoking: no
For kids: boosters, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Parking: guarded lot