Chef Marc Orfaly's new rustic-Italian spot in the North End has a clever name -- Marco -- but the restaurant doesn't boast of cleverness. Up a flight of stairs near the start of Hanover Street, it's an unassuming place, a hideaway as much as a restaurant. The trouble with Pigalle, Orfaly's acclaimed other restaurant in the Theater District, is that it offers the idea of coziness without achieving the real thing. The space is small, but the tables are too close and the wait staff too attentive for the intimacy to be truly private.
Marco is smaller and it's also less uptight. Veering in another direction from Pigalle, it skips claims of conventional intimate dining and tries for mere familiarity, albeit in an exclusive-seeming way. The brick walls, hardwood floors, and tight quarters toward the bar and the kitchen ensure that an evening at Marco is like eating at somebody's apartment -- maybe Orfaly's. But on a recent Friday evening, he didn't appear to be home.
That's a big show of confidence for a new restaurant. Apparently, Orfaly already knows what Marco's patrons will discover for themselves: The homey atmosphere extends to the service. By the end of the evening, certain trendier diners with separation anxiety might feel compelled to ask the wait staff if they can "My Space" them. Lexi, the jolly but straight-up manager, is a particular find. This, Rick James, is a woman you do take home to mother.
Marco feels so casual that some formalities seem borderline anachronistic. A dropped napkin, for instance, is either retrieved, refolded, and returned or replaced entirely -- although, honestly, the floor looks immaculate enough to serve the steak tips on. As it is, they're delivered on a wood block. The meat comes tender and succulent at one end while aromatic peppers and onions are perched at the other. For diners who loathe for their food to touch, Marco is too good to be true.
Actually, deconstruction is the modus operandi here. The idea is rendered too subtly to be pretentious, and each entree is too good and too simple to be intellectually overwrought. Orfaly and his boyish chef de cuisine, Matt Abdoo, strip away the artifice so you see what you're eating. Grandma's chicken cacciatore is no longer just a stew. The chicken is wrapped in pancetta and the tomato-peppers sauce, laced with pulled chicken, is at a remove. It's a brilliant reconsideration of a dish that's become shopworn -- although the rice that accompanies is a nod to tradition the dish doesn't need.
Why would Orfaly and Abdoo bother with rice when the pasta at their disposal is so fresh? Indeed, that chicken has been reprogrammed. It now comes with ricotta-stuffed ziti and a floret of broccoli. Generally, the pasta is not made on the premises, but you'd never know. The ravioli, however, is homemade, and it's wonderful. Trading off most nights with other pasta specials, these firm pasta pillows are stuffed with a goose-feathery cheese, served in a cream sauce that will drive perceptive palates nuts: "Is that tomato? Because nowhere on this plate do I see one!" In a moment not dissimilar to that scene in "Annie Hall," in which a debunking Marshall McLuhan appears, Abdoo could arrive at your table to say, yes, what you're tasting is, indeed, tomato.
The risotto, meanwhile, is some of the best in the business. Even in some expertly made dishes, the individual grains are hard to detect. It could be porridge. Not here. The freshness and individuality of each grain is astounding.
The baked black mission figs, served as an appetizer with Gorgonzola and pancetta, might as well have fallen straight off the tree into an oven. And another appetizer, fried cod cheeks served with crispy prosciutto, has a taste with appeal inversely proportional to what it is: cod cheeks?
The single problem with Marco as a dining experience that offers a semblance of home is that you risk sharing the space with people you can't stand. It's too easy for a gang of party animals to hijack an otherwise divine night. Recently, a gang of noisemakers allegedly included friends of the owner, and while some restaurants in Boston could do with more conviviality, there was something hostile about the grown men squealing with delight and the young newlywed squawking about her iPod nano.
It was an annoying social breach (people, Faneuil Hall is a 5-minute-walk away) that underscores a snag in the Marco-the-apartment conceit. It's all fun and games until somebody wants to call a landlord.