Eating to The Beat of Rock and Roll

March 26, 2008

Could one restaurant exhibit more contradictions than Northport’s Maroni Cuisine? Overlooking the curtained vestibule is a tattered poster of Jerry Garcia. Inside, the fixed-price tasting menu hovers around $100 a person. The narrow dining room barely accommodates 32 people, but on a busy night there will be up to nine servers on the floor.
Behind the swinging kitchen doors, the contradictions sharpen. Most chef’s tasting menus are made up of tiny, artfully composed plates of rarefied ingredients. Maroni’s is a wedding-worthy onslaught of generous servings, the majority of which — lobster bisque, Thai spring rolls, Kobe beef sliders, eggplant Parmesan, ice-cream sandwiches — are guaranteed crowd-pleasers.

And while most of the kitchen crew (another seven people) is occupied with executing the day’s menu, there is always someone attending to takeout orders of an entirely different order: trays of penne alla vodka, linguine with clam sauce, and, most of all, pots of Maroni’s signature meatballs. These meatballs got so famous that they goaded Bobby Flay into a Food Network Throwdown in 2007. Flay lost. In the kitchen, in the dining room, even blasting out onto the sidewalk, is the persistent backbeat of rock and roll. The Dead, Pink Floyd, late Beatles, early Chicago.

One of LI’s best
All of these contradictions somehow add up to a restaurant that regularly is counted among Long Island’s best. And all are embodied by its chef, owner and presiding genius. “I’m stricken with ADD,” admitted Michael Maroni, with characteristic frankness.

Maroni has red sauce in his veins. He grew up in Locust Valley, descended from the Italian immigrants who moved to Nassau County and formed the backbone of the local food establishment. The Maronis attended St. Rocco’s church in Glen Cove and, before Mass ended, Michael would run across the parking lot to get a loaf of brick-oven bread at the late St. Rocco’s bakery. This would give him a head start to reach the next stop on the Sunday shopping circuit, the salumeria counter at Razzano’s.

The only real cooking teacher he ever had was his father, Fiorentino “Fred” Maroni, who ran a beer distributorship in Glen Cove. The youngest of nine children, Fiorentino was his mother Maria’s designated kitchen helper, and one of the many family recipes he passed on to his son was the one for Maria’s peerless meatballs. (Fred, now retired, works at Maroni’s, manning the slicing machine and pulling espressos. Everyone — servers, cooks, patrons — calls him “Pop.”)

At the age of 8, Maroni knew he wanted to cook for a living. At 16, he was cooking at the Northstage Dinner Theater in Glen Cove; the next year he took over the kitchen at a neighboring pub, the Starting Gate.

“I would get home from school at four and headed right to the kitchen,” he recalled. “I’m not proud of this, but I never took a book home from high school.”
After a stint in the Navy, Maroni cooked all over Long Island at, among other establishments, Old Gerlich’s in Glen Head, the Nassau County Bar Association in Mineola, the Ritz in Northport, the Sea Cliff Yacht Club — before opening Mirepoix in Glen Head in 1997. With its French name, fine linens and Mediterranean-inflected menu, Mirepoix soon came to be regarded as one of Long Island’s best restaurants.

Around the same time, Maroni started to kick around an idea for a meatball business based on his grandmother Maria’s recipe. So he and his wife, Maria (they married in 1995), took over a pizzeria in Northport with the goal of establishing a meatball-centric Italian takeout restaurant. Maroni Cuisine opened in May 2001.

Initially, his venture was ignored by the community. “People in Northport weren’t ready to pay $10 a pound for broccoli rabe, or $5.99 for a quart of soup — even if they were homemade with the best ingredients.”

Going upscale
Gradually — and somewhat counter-intuitively — he began to shift gears upward. He got rid of the pizza oven and stopped paying attention to prices. He put a lobster roll on the menu and charged $18. “People would say, ‘I can get it cheaper Out East,’” and he’d respond, “so, go Out East and get it then. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Meanwhile, Maroni had begun to tire of the whole white-tablecloth dog-and-pony show. “You get greeted by a snotty host,” he observed, “then you sit there for 15 minutes without anything to drink or eat. A lot of restaurants just aren’t fun.”

And the traditional restaurant menu was another irritant. “I was so tired of having this thing that people open and then choose an appetizer and an entree and a dessert.” He also was growing impatient with the myriad adjustments that diners want the chef to make, “the old ‘I want the swordfish but can I have it prepared like the grouper?’”
Mirepoix closed in 2002, and Michael and Maria devoted themselves exclusively to Maroni Cuisine. At the very bottom of the increasingly eclectic menu, Maroni began to run this line: “Chef’s crazy tasting menu: ask.” And, gradually, the menu vanished, and all that was left was the crazy tasting menu, and the Italian takeout business, which had finally begun to take off.

The bicameral business suits the chef just fine. “If I were just a high-end restaurant I’d be bored. I like to feed everyone.” His takeout clients, he estimates, are about 75 percent local, and most of the lunch-and-dinner crowd “comes from far and wide, especially from Roslyn and Syosset.”
On a given night, the chef sends out about 25 courses. Roughly a third are permanent fixtures, such as chicken Milanese, scallops scaloppine, barbecued ribs, the so-called “million-dollar potato chips” which are topped with caviar. Of course, there are the meatballs.
Recently he has been serving tuna tartare flanked by “air chips” (flash-fried rice paper) and yellowtail and tuna sashimi, sometimes completely raw, sometimes seared “Japanese steak-house” style.

After months of pleading with a distributor who prefers to deal only with Japanese clients, Maroni finally got his hands on fresh wasabi root. The cost — $50 for two carrot-size specimens — doesn’t bother him in the least. “I can’t serve anything cheap,” Maroni said.
Luckily, he’s hit upon a business plan that allows him to indulge both his taste for luxury and his need for change. It’s been seven years since Maroni Cuisine opened its doors — “This is the longest I’ve done anything,” Maroni observed — but in that time it has had three distinct incarnations: takeout joint, fine-dining establishment, culinary free-for-all.

Sometimes, he conceded, he’d be happy if he never saw another chicken Milanese or baked clam, but the bottom line is, “I’ve never walked in here and been bored. That’s all I can ask for.”