The Grille at Peerce's, a longtime Phoenix favorite that overlooks Loch Raven Reservoir on Dulaney Valley Road, tapped the chef from another longtime Baltimore County institution to lead its kitchen last month.
Marco Lombardini, a Cockeysville resident whose family owned the Candle Light Inn in Catonsville for more than 30 years before selling the building at the end of 2013, began three weeks ago as executive chef at the Grille at Peerce's.
"As soon as I met him, I knew there was a connection," said Joe Bivona, owner of the Grille at Peerce's.
Bivona said Lombardini's extensive culinary training, combined with his experience running a beloved community restaurant, has so far excited both his staff and customers.
"It's nice to have somebody that can both work in the back and come out, talk to your guests, and make a dish that's not even on the menu," Bivona said. "He fits right in because it's a family oriented restaurant."
"The clientele is very similar," Lombardini said. "They're both well-established, they both have a great history. It was kind of a good fit for both of us."
Bivona, who has owned Peerce's for seven years, said he changed the restaurant from a "high-end" restaurant to a more casual family dining establishment to serve the large number of families in the area.
Lombardini, who worked at Peerce's in his youth and was trained at Baltimore Culinary College and the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia before returning home to work at the Candle Light Inn, hopes to be able to impress local diners and turn them into regulars.
"I've been in the restaurant business my whole life, so really the only thing I focus on is giving people the best possible food I can give them," Lombardini said. "If they know they can come here and have good food at a good price, you'll probably get them in here three, four, five, six times a month. That's what Joe is trying to focus on, because they would much rather come here than go to Towson, to Hunt Valley, to Baltimore City."
Being a community restaurant, however, means that many customers are regulars.
His array of cooking experiences, plus his time at the Candle Light Inn, has helped Lombardini arm himself against any potential palate fatigue.
"I think we need to change up the menus a little bit more because I think in the past, if you rely on the same clientele you have to keep it exciting," he said. "You'll have maybe five or six staples that will always be there, but as ingredients come in seasonally, you change with the season."
Once he gets established and continues to meet his customers, Lombardini said he hopes to be able to impress them in other ways as well.
"The guest wants good food that's consistent," he said. "That's what we do here, but if we have a guy come at the bar who says, 'I want you to do something spectacular,' I can do that also — which is what I'm hoping this will evolve into."
The new chef also has a plan for ways to keep his ideas fresh.
"I cook what people want, but at the same time, I like to stretch my imagination and give people what they don't expect," Lombardini said. "I know how to do chicken pot pie … but I like to do wine dinners. We're planning a St. Patrick's Day themed wine dinner. That gives me a chance to do things I don't usually do every day because I like to try things, new techniques, new favors. But you can't do that every single day because that's not what the guest wants."
Bivona said his new chef brings "a totally different feel in the whole restaurant, from the back to the front."
"I'm just impressed when I go in my kitchen, how it's very organized," he said. "It's his kitchen, that's what I was looking for. He's a take-charge guy, he's very creative, he's got a good background, culinary-wise. It's exciting to watch him please my customers."