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The new old Marconi's salad at Capital Grille doesn't disappoint

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Peggy Thalheimer remembers the first time she went to Maison Marconi's. It was 1973, and she had just moved to Charm City.

"My husband told me he was going to take me to the best restaurant in Baltimore," said Thalheimer, who acknowledged that the restaurant, still in its famously dowdy incarnation, wasn't what she was expecting. But she was eventually convinced.

"Very soon it became my all-time favorite restaurant," she said.

Diners like Thalheimer with fond memories of Marconi's still hold out hope that lawyer and Orioles owner Peter Angelos may reopen the beloved restaurant that he closed in 2005, either in its original Saratoga Street home of 85 years or elsewhere.

They miss the Marconi rituals, but they miss specific dishes, too, among them the lobster cardinale, the chocolate sauce and the chopped salad. And occasionally they write in to The Baltimore Sun's Recipe Finder column looking for advice about how to re-create the dishes at home. Last month, a reader requested the recipe for the salad.

But now diners won't need a recipe. The Marconi's chopped salad has returned, at least for a while.

It's found a new life at the Capital Grille on Pratt Street, which has over the years been a second home of sorts for the old Marconi's staff. The salad is still not on the menu, but the servers will offer it to diners through the middle of December.

Thalheimer heard that the chopped salad was back and went down to try it with some friends. She said she used to order the salad every time she went to Marconi's, about twice a month, from 1973 until it closed eight years ago.

"I would say it was about 95 percent the way I remembered it," the Roland Park resident said. "But if you asked me what the missing 5 percent was, I couldn't tell you."

It is the same salad — iceberg lettuce, a bit of chicory, and bits of tomato, egg and anchovy in an emulsified, mayonnaise-based dressing. Slightly pale, a tad runny, the Marconi's salad wasn't made for the Instagram generation, and the mere mention of iceberg lettuce will raise hackles in foodie circles. But each bite of the salad is packed with intense rich and salty flavor.

The only difference is the setting and the ritual. At Marconi's, the salad was prepared in the kitchen but chopped by the waiter at tableside. At the Capital Grille, it's both prepared and chopped entirely in the kitchen. And it's being prepared with the same hands that made it for decades at Marconi's.

Thalheimer said the new setting didn't detract from her enjoyment of the salad.

"That didn't make any difference to me," she said. "I'm just happy to be able to have it again."

JoAnn Levin of Baltimore, whose request in Recipe Finder last month sparked the chopped salad's revival, said she also was impressed with its reincarnated version.

"As soon as I heard the Capital Grille was serving it, we went right down," she said. "The interesting thing was that it did live up to my expectations. I was almost expecting it not to, since memory is a funny thing."

When lawyer and Orioles owner Angelos bought Marconi's in 2000, he talked of relocating it to one of his nearby properties. And when he closed the restaurant in 2005, Angelos told The Sun, "Marconi's is not going to be going away permanently. There will be future announcements in a month or two." But there weren't.

As it happened, the closing of Marconi's coincided with the opening of the Capital Grille.

"Right before we opened, I got a call from Peter Angelos," said Jim Kinney, managing partner at the Capital Grille. "He said, 'I've got a guy for you. His name's Sam. Sam Sara.' "

Kinney hired Sara, who had been Angelos' general manager at Marconi's. Soon after came Ali Morsy, Marconi's head waiter, and Keith Watson, a cook who had worked his way up at Marconi's from dishwasher.

"It was funny," Kinney said. "We started getting people who were coming in here saying, 'We heard Keith was here. Can he make us this? Can he make us that?' "

Watson would make the salad for Angelos, and a few other Capital Grille diners, when they asked for it. But otherwise the salad was never promoted by the restaurant, according to Kinney.

And that's how it was, until Kinney happened to see the request in Recipe Finder.

"I went to Keith and said, 'Did you see that?' " Kinney said. "And he said, 'I can make that.' "

Watson said that Angelos has some of the old Marconi's recipes, but not the one for the chopped salad: "That's in my head."

Watson said he was trained in the Marconi's tradition by the restaurant's longtime chef, Tony Sartori, who retired in 1999 after 42 years at the restaurant, 36 of them as chef.

"It has never been changed," Watson said about the chopped salad. "That's the thing."

Or at least it hadn't changed since Watson learned it from Sartori. Now living in Westminster, Sartori said he made a few changes to the restaurant's existing house salad when he took over as head chef, but he declined to say what those changes were or elaborate at all on the salad's recipe.

Marconi's was founded in 1920 by an Italian-born chef named Fiorenzo Bo, who named his restaurant after the Italian inventor. But Marconi's was never a traditional Italian restaurant. Some menu items were recognizably Italian, some were French and others rooted in Maryland cuisine. Among Bo's famed dishes in the early years on Saratoga Street were the lobster cardinale, the chicken tetrazzini and veal Milanese.

There were notably long tenures at Marconi's, including that of John C. Brooks, who owned the restaurant from Bo's death in 1947 until 1972, when he sold it to jeweler Louis Booke and his wife, Frances. Brooks would continue to work the restaurant's front door for decades after the sale.

By the early 1970s, Marconi's was famous for being Marconi's. No story could be written about Marconi's without mentioning that it was a slice of old Baltimore, that it had been a favorite of H.L. Mencken's and that it was charming for refusing to change.

It was the first restaurant John Dorsey reviewed when The Sun started running regular restaurant reviews in 1971, and it was the last one he reviewed when he hung up his bib in 1987.

The Bookes' daughter, Ilene Ruth Booke, took over the operations of Marconi's in 1994 and did what had been thought unthinkable: She fixed the place up, replacing the scenic wallpaper in the front dining room with cool mint-green paint. And so, in its final years, Marconi's, which had been famed and beloved for its downright dowdiness, if not outright dinginess, took on a sober, strand-of-pearls elegance.

Under Ilene Booke, Marconi's also started taking reservations and accepting credit cards.

Adam Cohen, Ilene Booke's son, remembers coming to his grandparents' restaurant as a child. He said that part of the chopped salad's lasting appeal was the care that went into making it.

"They took the time to really mince it," said Cohen, who lives in New York City.

Cohen said that the salad is in good hands with Watson. "Keith has decades of experience making these recipes," Cohen said. "Anything Keith made, I would love to eat."

Kinney said he put in a call to Angelos, a regular Capital Grille customer, to get an OK to serve the chopped salad. Kinney remembers the phone call. When Angelos asked Kinney why he wanted to feature the chopped salad, Kinney told him, "Keith is here and Keith wants to do it."

Angelos, who did not return calls for this article, replied, "If Keith wants to do it, he can do it," Kinney said.

It's not clear whether Kinney needed Angelos' permission. Angelos had trademarks for both "Marconi's" and "Marconi's Chocolate Sauce," but both of those trademarks were canceled in 2012. (The attorney who handled those trademarks, Jeffrey J. Utermohle, declined to comment on why the trademarks were not renewed. However, in general, trademarks that fall into disuse are difficult to keep.)

Trademark law aside, Kinney said that he wanted Angelos' OK regardless of whether it was technically his to give.

"He's a guest at my restaurant," Kinney said. "It was 100 percent a courtesy. If he had said no, I wouldn't have done it."

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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