The best holiday food is usually the simplest. Homey comfort fare is what strengthens and satisfies the solstice-beleaguered corpus and gathers family and friends around the festive groaning board. One of the simplest and most satisfying cuisines on Earth is enjoyed in Southern Italy, where coexistent legacies of hard work and culinary exuberance have resulted in a rustic cooking style that strokes the soul as it pleases the belly. Most of the hearty, lusty fare we associate with bella Italia — pizza, spaghetti, chicken cacciatore, eggplant parmigiana — originated in Naples and the south, a land rich with peppers, tomatoes, sardines, anchovies, fresh mozzarella, rough wine, capers, and hot sausage, and plenty of garlic.
Lusty Neapolitan cooking is Marzano's stock in trade. The Glenview neighborhood favorite expanded its operations into the tony Rockridge district this past summer, taking over half of Garibaldi's dining room while offering the locals a more casual, recession-friendly Old Country supping option. In his pressed-tin, exposed-brick, earth-toned establishment, chef Robert Holt serves down-home trattoria cuisine with a twist, offering seasonal flavors like almonds, mushrooms, beets, kale, pear, pumpkin, and chestnut in new, interesting, and usually satisfying combinations.
Take the antipasti menu, a selection of hearty, rustic appetizers touched with preserved lemon, crushed grissini, kale pesto, and other ingredients not usually encountered in proletariat kitchens. The wood-fired roasted meatballs were the perfect antidote to the evening's cool, misty weather: juicy, robust, and smoky, and served on a bed of silky Swiss chard ribboned with tomato and prosciutto. Sicilian arancini (fried rice balls) were a bit more perfunctory in flavor despite their filling of mozzarella, pine nuts, and golden raisins, but the crust was nice and crisp, and the accompanying dollop of tomato jam was a sweet-smoky treat. And the chicory salad was especially successful in capturing the flavors of the season, offering the unbeatable trifecta of lush shinko pear, snarky blue cheese, and crunchy roasted almond as well as random hints of pomegranate seed, fresh rosemary, and pear vinaigrette.
Marzano specializes in imaginative Neapolitan-style pizzas baked until hot and crisp in a wood-burning oven, and among the ten varieties offered on any given night one might encounter pies topped with wild arugula, hand-pulled mozzarella, oyster mushrooms, broccoli rabe, Calabrian chile pepper, hearts of celery, calamari, gremolata, or roasted cauliflower. The most inspired variation combines the pungent sweetness of Baia Nicchia Farms pumpkin with fried sage, smoky pancetta, the tangy pizzazz of lacinato kale, and a hint of fragrant hazelnut pesto. There's also a fairly gigantic calzone stuffed with braised Swiss chard, sweet, rich dairy-fresh ricotta, and lots of spicy house-made sausage flavored with fennel — a luscious, two-handed meal in itself. An entrée especially delectable during the cold winter months is acqua pazza ("crazy water"), an age-old fisherman's stew out of Naples brimming with garlic, onion, tomatoes, and the catch of the day. Marzano's rendition was one of the best seafood stews we've sampled lately, a rich, savory quasi-cioppino of smoky rockfish, juicy little clams, Monterey Bay calamari, sweet braised fennel, candy-red cherry tomatoes, and a bed of buttery Sardinian couscous flavored with saffron.
Vegetarians will find plenty to enjoy at Marzano. An exemplary meatless meal might begin with warm Castelvetrano olives; fried friariello peppers; a fritto misto of pumpkin, cauliflower, and fennel; a soup of San Marzano tomatoes and piquillo peppers; and the saffron-mozzarella-golden raisin arancini balls. Besides the pear-chicory salad there's a tricolore with frisée, escarole, and radicchio, and an arugula salad jazzed with fennel, pine nuts, and mandarin oranges. Pizzas include a margherita with tomato, basil, and mozzarella; a quattro formaggi with oyster mushrooms and sage; and the Calabrian, roasted cauliflower with tomato and mozzarella. Among the entrées is a house-made porcini pappardelle with sage, sofritto, and roasted mushrooms, and you can supplement your meal with a side of delicata squash with toasted pumpkin seeds or stone-ground polenta with grana padano.
The thoughtfully selected all-Italian wine list features two dozen vintages by the glass and bottle, all of them in the $25 to $50 range. Opt for a Vermentino from Sardinia, a Nero d'Avola from Sicily, or Lanari's 2006 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a rich, earthy complement to the pancetta-pumpkin pizza. Beers include stellar local attractions like Fort Bragg's Old Rasputin Imperial Stout and Mendocino's Blue Star Wheat Beer. Especially noteworthy, though, is the array of house cocktails that emerge from the handsome, convivial bar. The Distinguished Gentleman cocktail combined saffron-infused gin with fresh celery and ginger to surprisingly tasty effect; the sweet 'n' tangy Caprifoglio #2 starred vodka, crème de cassis, a dollop of honey, and a topper of prosecco; and our favorite, the Strayhound, was a bright, citrusy mix-up of brandy, grapefruit juice, and raspberry liqueur with a kicker of lemon and a salted rim.
Starring on the dessert menu is Straus' exemplary organic ice cream, presented soft-serve style in a rich, dense, vertiginous swirl. What really set the dish apart, though, was its array of complementary toppings: thick, warm honey fragrant with rosemary; a sweet and sour balsamic reduction with a puckery afterbite and a sprinkle of sea salt; and earthy, irresistible hot fudge. Two other desserts made equally pleasant meal-closers. The house panna cotta had a light, delicate texture, the subtle flavor of Yuletide chestnuts, and sweet, chewy candied-kumquat accents, while the budino combined the warm, gooey pleasures of a freshly baked pudding with the soul-stroking endorphins of really good chocolate. And what could be more simple, festive, and deep-down satisfying than that?