Chef Marc Marrone had a plan, to open his Italian restaurant — Italian Graffiti Modern Osteria — in Las Vegas in 2019.
Instead, he opened it last month in Salt Lake City, at 156 S. 400 West in The Gateway.
Marrone said he’s not sorry.
“It really turned out to be a blessing that it ended up here in Utah,” he said. “The more time I spent here, and the more I sourced our products, I realized how great a state it is for agriculture. It has some of the best produce I’ve ever had, anywhere.”
Italian Graffiti is the newest project by Marrone and Reed Slobusky, co-owners of Nice Hospitality. (They also own HallPass food hall — also located at The Gateway — and Snowmobile Pizza, 877 S. 200 West in Salt Lake City.)
The space for Italian Graffiti — in what used to be a California Pizza Kitchen — is 5,000 square feet and seats 125 people. That sounds big, Marrone said, but “if you look at the floor plan, the restaurant is laid out with the majority of the seating as U-shaped banquettes, which allow for a tableside experience.”
Each meal, he said, starts with tableside bread displays and carts. “We also have a dessert cart that comes around,” he said, adding that the restaurant will expand tableside offerings to include mozzarella, crudites and salads.
“We opted for a real theatrical guest experience from start to finish,” Marrone said.
Adding to the sense of drama is an open kitchen, living green walls and live trees hung with flowers and gold baubles. The leather booths and wood walls and furniture give it a woodsy, old world European feel. That combination of old and new is reflected in the menu, which is based on generations-old dishes handed down through Marrone’s family.
“I grew up in an Italian-American household in New York, and my grandparents were from Italy,” Marrone said. “As a kid, I didn’t appreciate the uniqueness, or how incredible it was to have such close contact with authentic Italian food, or to be immersed in the culture. … As I got older, I realized how cool it was to have that experience, and then the experience I picked up during my career — working in a French restaurant, working in an Asian restaurant, developing Italian restaurants — I’ve taken all those experiences with the heart and soul of what I learned from my family, and put it into a restaurant concept.”
He said it wasn’t necessarily “my nana’s technique versus another grandmother’s technique. … Really, it’s understanding the purpose and the soul, and the why behind making something, and the feeling you get when you make it. I’d ask my nana, ‘What’d you put in this? How much salt?’ And she’d say, ‘I don’t know, just ‘til it tastes good.’ And I’m like, got it!” he said with a laugh.
“It’s not like she had a recipe book I could’ve taken from her anyway, and say, ‘let’s roll all these out.’ … When I was a kid, it was the care she took when she was making something, whether she seared off the pork before making the tomato sauce. And the way that she cut the onions for this particular sauce versus another one. Or the way she sliced the garlic, so it didn’t brown as fast. You dice the garlic because you’re going to cook it slow. … Those little techniques are what I picked up.”
For example, look at meatballs. People think they’re a dime a dozen, he said, and all the same. The real purpose behind them, he said, was for a working-class Italian family to stretch one pound of meat to feed lots of kids by mixing it with bread and spices.
“And all of a sudden, you have three-and-a-half pounds of meatballs to serve out to your family,” he said. “A lot of these dishes are rooted in necessity, but also then what developed from that was, ‘How do I make this taste good?’”
Part of the answer to that question for Marrone, at least for this menu: spending time at the Downtown Farmers Market. All summer, he hung out with small, local farmers as he developed the menu. One tomato farmer, he said, had a bunch of irregular tomatoes at the end of the day one Saturday.
“They were beautiful, and incredible, so I said, ‘I’ll take them off your hands,’” Marrone said. “And he said, ‘Anything you can take, I’ll give them to you.’ The second Saturday I went back and he had another 50 pounds. I ended up cooking them down slowly, just like my family used to do. … Everyone would grow tomatoes during the summertime, and then in early fall we’d harvest them and everyone got together to peel them and stew them and jar or can them.”
Those peak late-summer tomatoes were jarred, and now serve as the base for the restaurant’s marinara sauce, Marrone said. That sauce is complemented by their sourdough and baguettes, which are baked in-house, along with fresh pasta, which is prepared from scratch and extruded daily.
“I realized there are a ton of mills up here, and flour is huge here,” Marrone said. “So we started sourcing local wheat berries, and milling our own flour, which goes into the bread and pasta. … Anyone can use Lehi Mills’ semolina flour, or Central Miling’s semolina. What they’re not doing is taking the wheat berries and milling them based on what size of wheat berries works the best for this pasta, and really get scientific with it.”
For their burrata, Marrone said, they bring in cheese curds and make it in-house every day. The polenta is made from freshly milled corn, grown by Utah farmers.
The joy of using local products, Marrone added, was playing with seasonal produce and using that to create an ever-evolving menu.
“Going into spring, we’re really excited,” he said. “That’s when you’ll see the biggest shift in the menu. … We’ll be using all that beautiful produce that comes around.”
Italian Graffiti is open Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. See the latest dishes and news on the restaurant’s Instagram page, @eatitaliangraffiti.