No Designer Pizzas Here: Marco Prefers Tyrrhenian Classics

“Don’t get me wrong—I love Jesus! I love the beauty of life!”

This pronouncement was delivered in ringing tones by a young woman having dinner at Marco, a new Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. She was sitting with friends at a booth near the front of the restaurant, but her voice carried all the way back to our table.

“God is not out there.” She gestured toward the bar, where the bartender was innocently pouring glasses of wine, and the dining room, where we were sharing a plate of gnocchi topped with tomato sauce and melting cubes of mozzarella. She went on: “He’s within us.”

I sat transfixed, straining my ears in vain to catch her friends’ response.

Marco New York opened this summer on West 10th Street near Greenwich Avenue in premises that were formerly Merge, an American restaurant that served an Italian “ Sopranos-style” dinner on Sunday nights.

You would think the Village already had more than enough Italian restaurants; in the Zagat guide, I counted well over 60 in this neighborhood, which probably means close to as much pasta per square mile as the city of Naples. But Marco Martelli, the chef and owner, has wisely narrowed his range. Instead of trendy pizzas or newfangled pastas, he’s focused on traditional cooking from the Tyrrhenian coastline, along with some classics from Tuscany (the Tyrrhenian Sea is an extension of the Mediterranean, an arm that flows between the southern mainland and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily).

The exterior of the restaurant looks the same as it has for years: a red brick façade (and window) that resembles a giant pizza oven. Inside, the formerly exposed red brick walls have been painted a shiny white. The décor is minimal and shoestring: The front of the restaurant is dominated by a long bar and a row of booths with overhanging lampshades made from blue glass. A painting extends the length of the booths—a swirl of blues, greens and whites reminiscent of the Colorfield works by Jules Olitski in the 1960’s. But it’s not an Olitski; it’s by Tommy Tune, and it’s part of a revolving collection lent by artist friends of the owner. One wall has been covered with fabric decorated with light blue squiggles on a brown background; the motif is echoed in the material covering the banquettes in the booths. Green and blue are not the most appetizing color scheme for a restaurant, and the two bare-bones dining rooms could do with some perking up.

In the firmament of my favorite foods, baby eels are at the top, along with white truffles, sea urchins and caviar. At Marco, the eels are a special, and they’re served the traditional way—oiled and garlicky in a small earthenware dish, looking like tiny, thin strands of pasta. They’re great. So is the fritto misto, a mound of baby calamari, shrimp and zucchini in a feather-light batter, served hot and crisp. When you sit down, the waiter brings over a bowl of white beans and tomatoes, tossed in oil and garlic, to go on slices of peasant bread; it’s wonderful with a glass of chilled Ceretto Aneis Blange, a lovely white wine from Piedmont.

Mr. Martelli is the former owner of Cellini’s in Florence and was the head chef of Il Vagabondo and, most recently, the chef and owner of Marco Fire Island. Our cheerful waiter one evening was a classic unto himself—a charmer with one of those strangulated Italian voices and a sunny outlook on life. He told us he was making his way around the world: “I’ve been to Australia and all over South America—but I wouldn’t go to Brazil.”

What was wrong with Brazil? He grinned. “Women. If I went to Brazil, I’d never go home to Italy.”

The food at Marco veers between hits and misses. Arugula salad arrived nestled inside a basket made of melted parmigiano reggiano and topped with paper-thin sliced of prosciutto and melted goat cheese. The presentation was whimsical and fun, and the ingredients were all first-rate. Another night, the arugula salad, served with strips of cold bacon and pieces of apple, didn’t work at all: It was topped with a very good, creamy gorgonzola cheese, but even that failed to redeem the dish. Baccala was a disappointment too, stringy and served with overcooked potatoes. It was hard to believe this came out of the same kitchen as the butterflied Cornish hen, which was juicy and crisp, served in a robust Sicilian sauce made with rosemary, raisins and pine nuts over a bed of arugula and raddichio. The wild boar spezzatino consisted of tender chunks of pleasantly gamy meat cooked in a red wine and juniper sauce and was served on a bed of creamy polenta.

As I tasted the baccala, the woman in the booth—who hadn’t stopped talking all evening—was saying, as if on cue, “Even if someone has done wrong, forgiveness is the best thing.”

For dessert, avoid the gummy panna cotta and the leaden chocolate fudge–hazelnut cake. All is forgiven, though, when the tiramisu arrives: It is excellent, and so are the zeppoli, little doughnuts that the waiter brought to the table in a brown paper bag along with a bowl of chocolate sauce on the side. He should have warned us to let them cool down before we took a bite. My mouth has finally recovered.

When we left, the woman in the booth was still holding forth on God, life and the universe. The man next to her had his head on the table.

Marco New York serves some fine and interesting Italian food at very reasonable prices. And any place that serves such sublime baby eels is more than welcome to my neighborhood. No Designer Pizzas Here: Marco Prefers Tyrrhenian Classics