IF THE three most important elements of real estate are location, location, location, it's one of the three tenets of a successful restaurant as well, right up there with cooking and customer service. And on those grounds alone, Marcello's is pushing the envelope.
Marcello's is the same back-of-the-commons nook in Great Falls Village Center that was previously Indigo and before that the Inn at Great Falls, and that has always had trouble with visibility. Nevertheless, Marcello's is hoping to join the life-beyond-the-Beltway bandwagon and establish itself as Washington's premier haute (as opposed to home-style) Sicilian getaway -- and considering that going there requires taking the two-lane Georgetown Pike, a road already frequently full of its own rush hour, a winding six miles beyond the Beltway traffic, that's setting a fairly high standard.
Clearly, Sicilian chic is a hip and intruiguing theme. (The wait staff's uniforms, solid black ties and shirt and khakis or chinos, suggest a peculiar stab at "Sopranos" prep.) But as yet, Marcello's is neither one thing nor quite the other -- less than a consistently reliable destination spot and somewhat more expensive than your usual neighborhood hangout. The lack of customer traffic is clearly handcuffing the kitchen, which has been having trouble calculating how much, or how little, to stock; how to deal with customer complaints; even how to keep up cheery appearances. And the cooking is startlingly, sometimes jarringly, erratic.
Nevertheless, there is evidence of serious talent here, particularly from chef Giuseppe (sometimes Joseph) Boncore; and a faith in that talent strong enough to have lured the kitchen and wait staff nearly en masse from his last station (Rockville's Gazebo) -- a persuasive tribute. It would be a real shame if Marcello fell victim to the location's persistent curse.
The building itself is nothing to complain of: a decided L, with the patio on the commons side filling in the angle. Its semi-bucolic look makes it nice for the neighbors, and its access to the village green makes it even handier for those with restless young children, who can be sent off to play until the food arrives. The large, more formal dining room is now a refreshing sponged green, almost grassy, which not only echoes the courtyard but brightens its wood trim and low ceiling. There is more casual seating in the lounge, and live piano jazz most nights.
The clientele is mixed but clearly primarily local: golf shirts with soccer-playing kids (and soccer balls) and a fairly liberal dose of the country club/Junior Chamber of Commerce/Lilly Pulitzer strain.
The menu is undeniably ambitious. The stuffed portobello appetizer tops grilled caps with olive-size bay scallops and sauteed chanterelles in a lightly spicy marinara sauce. The cucumber-artichoke salad is not quite as described on the menu -- it's not thin slices but diced salt-wilted cukes and quartered hearts -- but it's fine and has the additional swagger of big, succulent shrimp and a rosemary-tinged dressing.
One night's appetizer special of house-smoked swordfish, cut paper-thin and arrayed carpaccio-style across the plate, was topped with a generous mound of fresh sauteed chanterelles. The parts were actually greater than the sum -- both the saute and the swordfish had a due measure of salt, so the cumulative effect was a bit strong, and the flavors were a little competitive -- but both were individually very good, and a simpler presentation of the swordfish, perhaps with celeriac or greens, would be a nice twist on the usual salmon or tuna appetizer.
Among the best dishes are two hearty, fall-friendly plates: pappardelle with what the menu calls "wild game" ragu but which is really rabbit, perhaps with a few appropriately mixed bits of boar braised in; and a musty, muscular half-rabbit in "Sicilian sweet-and-sour sauce" (just a lightly tangy broth). The pasta dish is sturdy and satisfying, with smooth but not submissive noodles, gratifying irregular chunks of meat (going with the natural grain rather than diced) and some curls of good Parmesan supplying just enough salt. The rabbit comes unabashed, with a few perfectly roasted spears of asparagus and a slice of eggplant that is so fine an accompaniment to the meat that one can only wish there were more.
The menu notes that Boncore and his Sicilian mom raise some of the lamb, poultry and rabbit, which may be one reason the meat dishes are among the best bets. Wild boar lasagna? Pull that chair up to the fireplace for me. The home-style gnocchi must be mama's recipe, too: dense but not heavy, the Italian comfort-food equivalent of mashed potatoes, in summer they're tossed simply in a nice San Marco-ish marinara and topped with fresh mozzarella. (The new fall version is a cream sauce with portobellos and pea sprouts.) And the penne with ricotta, eggplant and basil is one of those apparently simple dishes that, done really well, is thoroughly satisfying.
Some of the dishes are in Boncore standard style: lamb with truffle sauce, rosemary-rubbed veal chops with porcini mushrooms; shrimp and scallops in amaretto-flavored cream sauce; and wild mushroom risotto. Roasted butternut squash soup with foie gras may not be classic Sicilian, but it is undeniably indulgent.
What has been surprising about Marcello's have been the misses, which were not near, but frequently dear. One night a roasted red snapper, presented whole amid a lavish but somehow offhand assortment of asparagus, artichoke hearts and a sort of citrus-kalamata salad, was so rank that the acrid smell was apparent from several yards away, yet neither the waiter nor the manager seemed overly concerned. And when the requested "replacement" arrived, after a lengthy lull during which no staffer approached to refill glasses, check on bread, etc., it was filleted off the bone rather than whole and, while slightly better, was still not pristine -- suspiciously like the meat from the front end of the same fish. It turned out that the chef had gone home ill, but the kitchen must be left in responsible hands. (And the complaint of over-ripe fish has been repeated by several other patrons, though happily not recently.)
Another night, a squid-ink risotto with seafood was mystifyingly tasteless; the shrimp and scallops were tender enough but might have been plastic imitations. A customer at a nearby table who asked for a squid-less version received a very white bowl of rice with shrimp not blended in but piled unattractively on top. She was calmly but clearly unhappy, but the staff offered nothing but a shrug. This is the downside to the staff's particular emotional investment: Corrections or special requests are not personal insults to be flounced back at the patrons; that's just self-defeating. Fortunately, in recent weeks, the attitude has improved as much as the cooking.
Six months into Marcello's existence, it could still use a little detailing. The olive oil offered for dipping has a nice dash of dried red chili, but the bread is scarcely worth it. The background music is opera, and lovely, but sometimes overloud. The mushroom stems occasionally want trimming, and the wine list could be more intriguing.
Marcello's is a ways to go, and has a ways to go, but it's getting closer all the time.