■ What: Marco’s Italian Bistro, 417 Frazier Ave.
■ Phone: 423-710-2568.
■ Website: www.marcoschattanooga.com.
■ Hours: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m.
Friday-Saturday (martini lounge open 4 p.m.-
midnight Monday-Wednesday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m.
■ Price range: Entrees $9.95-$20.95.
Last Christmas, my family went to Universal Studios. Just down from the (over)populated area of Harry Potter-dom was the “undersea” adventure Poseidon’s Fury. We trekked back and forth past it all day as we hit up the better-known attractions. Finally, after exhausting all the other options, we stopped by.
It turned out to be one of our favorite experiences of the day.
Some of my other favorite things include good food and drink and good deals. My recent visit to Marco’s Italian Bistro on Frazier Avenue provided all three. And, like my stop at Poseidon’s Fury, was long overdue. There’s no telling how many times I’ve driven past the unassuming corner restaurant marked really only by its small roadside patio.
The menu is a shining example of Italian meets American. Not in a generic, canned red sauce, pregrated Parmesan kind of way. In a way that combines authentic flavors with options. We Americans love options — essentially building our own meals to suit our dietary restrictions or desires.
At Marco’s, you can combine homemade pasta with a multitude of ingredients and sauces ($11.95 plus toppings, which range from $6.95 for lobster to $1 for vegetables). The pastas are even as varied as gluten-free fusilli — for those with dietary restrictions — black-pepper linguine and spinach fettuccine. Toppings include a garden’s worth of vegetables plus meats for both pescatarians and traditional carnivores. Likewise, you can create your own pizza ($9.95 plus toppings) or choose from one of several gourmet-sounding creations ($11.95-$14.95).
Many well-known Italian favorites make up the “signature dishes” portion of the menu. But alongside chicken tetrazzini ($14.95) are slightly varied combinations of dishes you’d expect at most higher-end American restaurants. Filet medallions served with seasonal vegetables and stuffed mac and cheese of the week ($20.95), for example.
I started with a half spinach salad … for $2.95. Unheard of, in my opinion. And remember, I’m a girl who likes good deals. It provided a satisfying combination of creamy goat cheese, crispy bacon (the menu said pancetta, but it tasted and looked like bacon to me) and crunch of walnuts. The menu said it also contained dried cherries, but my taste test revealed something closer akin to raisins. Whatever they were, they were bland. I could barely taste them among the other flavors, which is a shame.
Not knowing that you get complimentary bread with olive oil, I ordered the bruschetta. It wasn’t bad, and it even had the extra element of goat cheese spread on the bread. But I’d stick with the complimentary bread and save myself the $5.95. The calamari, on the other hand, was worth the $8.95 price. Though the serving size wasn’t very large, it wasn’t just those neat little “O’s” the frozen-package variety yields and it wasn’t overly chewy. The light yet perfectly crunchy buttermilk breading sealed the deal.
Finally, I went with the special: chicken scallopini ($15.95). Just like the Washington Apple “martini” that started my meal, the various flavors were distinguishable yet perfectly balanced. Delicate citrus gave way to the slight tanginess of the capers, and the chicken’s texture was akin to the butter that held it all together, again augmented by that perfectly crispy bacon (or pancetta).
Though some of the decor reminded me of Poseidon’s Fury — a bit chintzy in its quest for grandeur — I found the space warm and inviting. The restaurant was clean and the ambiance suited to a date with friends or a significant other. Jazz played over the speakers, just loud enough to be heard over the other diners’ conversations. Interesting art covers the deep-red walls, combining textured clumps and broad brushstrokes of color with utilitarian objects like finely threaded bolts. It could probably serve as a jumping-off point for conversation on a first date, especially when paired with the various happy-hour deals ($2.50 drafts, 2-for-1 wells, $3 house wine, $2 off martinis and $12 carafes of house sangria).
Though our server was friendly enough and seemed knowledgeable, she didn’t do too much to guide our experience. I only found out about the complimentary bread after I’d ordered the bruschetta and that select wines were half off (on Wednesdays) when I asked for her opinion between two chiantis. I did, however, appreciate her unobtrusive manner of making sure our needs were met and that she paced our meal. We never felt rushed — good meals should never be rushed.
If you’re looking for me on a Tuesday, which is when the restaurant’s happy hour lasts all day long, call “Marco.”
“Polo,” I’ll answer, probably between bites of Marco’s pollo Parmigiano.
Contact Jennifer Bardoner at email@example.com or 423-757-6579.