Dish Review: Bar Marco's Turnaround
The Strip District eatery overcomes tumult and once again is one of Pittsburgh’s finest restaurants.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
Bar Marco opened in the Strip District in January 2012 as a tapas and wine bar run by four childhood friends — Justin Steel, Kevin Cox, Bobby Fry and Michael Kreha — with limited restaurant experience. It catered to a young, cool, late-night dining crowd.
Steel at the time helmed the kitchen, and although the food was honest, his lack of experience in running a restaurant meant the menu was limited to straightforward dishes such as patatas bravas, burgers and a handful of nightly specials.
[Disclosure: Long before I was Pittsburgh Magazine’s dining critic, I became friends with the four original owners of Bar Marco (Fry and Kreha since have sold their ownership stakes). It was at one time a regular hangout, and I cooked four popup dinners as part of its once-popular No Menu Monday series.]
In Bar Marco’s early years, ownership implemented a series of generally well-received changes that constantly shook its identity, most notably in January 2013 when the nomadic chef Brandon Baltzley took over the kitchen, turning the establishment into a destination-dining location with an avant-garde menu and a whiskey-soaked wild side. Jamilka Borges left Legume in March 2013 to join the team as chef de cuisine and took over as the restaurant’s executive chef after Baltzley left three months later. She established The Wine Room, Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2015 Best New Dining Experience, in the restaurant’s basement.
And then everything went wrong.
In April 2015, Bar Marco moved to a no-tip model that allowed all of its full-time employees to earn a fixed salary instead of working for tips. Although the change was widely lauded by both local and national media, it proved to be, temporarily, a bad decision. Bar Marco’s front-of-house staff, a team of outstanding bartenders and servers, left en masse; eventually, Borges and some of the kitchen staff did too. Though that had more to do with other opportunities, it also was endemic of the topsy-turvy culture of the restaurant at the time. What followed was a period of hit-and-miss meals — with more miss than hit — as Steel sought to reestablish a role in the restaurant’s kitchen in July 2015.
In 2016, Pittsburgh Magazine’s independent restaurant review panel did not include it on our annual Best Restaurants list.
In early July, however, as I was sitting there eating a pillowy spinach gnudi made with house-made ricotta and garnished with peppery nasturtium while I was drinking a perfect Negroni, it hit me: Bar Marco was back. Bar Marco was … better, in many ways, than ever.
Steel found his footing as the head of the Bar Marco kitchen. He’s particularly deft at crafting Italian-influenced dishes that highlight the purity of high-quality ingredients. It’s a reflection of his mentor, Marco Enrico, plus the time he’s spent cooking and talking with Rick Easton (Bread & Salt Bakery), Marc Vetri (Vetri Family, Philadelphia) and Adam Leonti (Brooklyn Bread Lab).
Classics such as saffron-risotto arancini stuffed with beef and cheese, gemelli with diced potatoes and snappy green beans, and summer-prime tomatoes with hand-pulled stracciatella speak to Steel’s restraint, while dishes such as a ruby-fleshed Copper River salmon with chive mashed potatoes with gremolata and tender octopus slow-poached in olive oil, orange juice, sherry vinegar and aromatics speak to his skill.
Even dishes that fall short — such as a rubber-duck chicken breast entree — have saving graces. On that plate, there was a perfect polenta and a just-as-it-should-be broccoli rabe.
Brunch at Bar Marco is a lot of fun. Get the Salmon Benny if it’s on the menu: soft, smoky salmon and a perfectly poached egg atop a flaky, buttery biscuit. I respected the straightforwardness of the tart, spicy, refreshing and blissfully ungarnished Bloody Mary.
As in the past, drinkers still can challenge the bartenders to make a cocktail based on any number of descriptors — a deliberately tough challenge of “Scotch, amaro and refreshing” yielded a slightly unbalanced but very solid drink. But now, thankfully, they also can order from a more traditional cocktail menu, too.
Whether it’s brunch or dinner, order wine. Bar Marco sommelier Dominic Fiore is a star somm with a flair for finding tasty yet budget-conscious labels to pair with your meal. A Bombino Bianco tasted as if it would to be too acidic to enjoy, but it blossomed with fruity roundness when paired with a fried squash blossom stuffed with housemade ricotta served with raisiny balsamic. Information sponges (count me in) will love Fiore’s depth of knowledge, though sometimes he might want to read the table better and cut his stories a bit shorter.
Finish your meal with something from the talented pastry chef Dianne DeStefano. Desserts such as the sailboat-structured “Strawberry Fun Time” and the artfully composed coffee panna cotta are even more a treat to eat than they are to look at.
Bar Marco finally is what it should have been from the start: one of the very best neighborhood restaurants in Pittsburgh. It takes a lot of gumption to pull back from the brink of collapse and emerge stronger. Steel, Cox and their team have done just that.
2216 Penn Ave., Strip District; 412/471-1900, barmarcopgh.com
Executive Chef/Co-Owner | Bar Marco
As a chef, how are you different from the time you opened Bar Marco and now?
We’ve been really fortunate to have a bunch of talented people come through. Starting with John Heidelmeier, Justin Lewis and John Shaver, and then obviously Jamilka, who was a huge help and not just from a culinary standpoint. They also had much more kitchen experience than we did, which was zero. They’re all Legume descendants, too. So in a weird way a lot of that influence is there in our food. The food philosophy in our restaurant and Legume align; keep it local, use fresh ingredients. To me, it’s very much Italian cuisine in philosophy. So I say we serve Italian food, but it’s not spaghetti and meatballs. Italian food is a philosophy for me. It’s using what’s available in season right now in western Pennsylvania, so that’s what we use.
What’s inspiring you now?
It’s the same thing as when we first opened: creating dishes with the people that are around you. Now I’m the one who’s really leading the kitchen, whereas before I was taking more direction from the people working with us here. So in this role I get to work with the team in the kitchen and teach them how to execute everything. We’re clicking right now. It took some time; sometimes you feel like you’re spinning your tires, but then you start to see the results.
How has traveling inspired you?
From the start, this restaurant exists because of travel. It’s from me spending a semester in Rome and Michael [Kreha] spending a semester in Barcelona, and even Bobby [Fry] and Michael living in New York. It’s all a style of dining we hadn’t experienced in Pittsburgh. That was over five years ago, and now there are great places to dine in Pittsburgh, but this was a whole new world for us. It’s always been something that’s important to all of us. We make sure we take staff trips to other cities around here to get out and see a different perspective. And then this time [May 2016] with Italy, I hadn’t been out of the country in six or seven years, so it was really important for me to do that. Going to Piedmonte, something there clicked. The people, the food. You’re a region away from Bergamo, which is where [Marc] Vetri and [Adam] Leonti spent time. It’s Italian food, but it’s also very influenced by French cuisine.