Americans have a way of worrying when things get smaller. The merest hint of something shrinking—be it the size of a burger or a ballplayer’s pecs—makes massivity-minded folks suspect something sinister is afoot.
So there were a few raised eyebrows when Marco’s Pizzeria recently reopened, after a 17-day hiatus, with 45 fewer seats. To accommodate The Fresh Market’s planned expansion, the North Asheville mainstay had agreed to relocate further down the strip mall, a move that allowed the restaurant to “get back to the old ways,” co-owner Marco Lacagnina says.
“When we went into the big place, we felt like we’d made out,” Lacagnina says. “But making it is about more than just making money. We’d lost those personal relationships.”
Contrary to customers’ fears that the restaurant’s contraction is indicative of backstage struggles, the downsized dining room instead represents a great achievement for Lacagnina and his wife and partner, Christine Lane. Marco’s is the rare example of a restaurant successful enough to resist irrational growth and cultivate the back-to-basics vibe industry insiders suggest may be critical to surviving the current recession.
“We don’t want to be a big box restaurant,” Lacagnina says.
“This was really the first time we had a clean slate to work with, so we just went full circle,” Lane adds.
That circle spans the Atlantic Ocean, starting with a point near the shin of the Italian boot, a small Neapolitan town on the coast where Lacagnina’s great-uncle, Patsy Lancieri, learned the pizza-making trade. He resettled in Harlem in 1933, opening the neighborhood’s first pizzeria. Patsy’s, which now boasts offshoots across Manhattan, is still considered by some pizza aficionados as one of the best places in the borough to get a slice: “When Patsy’s is on, it is everything that New York pizza is supposed to be,” gushed a reviewer for the pizza blog sliceny.com. “It is the prototype, the zenith, the very pinnacle of pie.”
Lacagnina followed his relatives into the pizza biz, opening a Patsy’s in Asheville in 1994. Two years later, he partnered with his brother—a fellow member of the American pizza royal family—to start Salvatore’s Coal Oven Pizzeria on Long Island. He returned to Asheville in 1998 to open Marco’s at 640 N. Merrimon Ave., firing up the brick ovens to bake bubbly thin-crust pies made according to the same recipe Lancieri perfected at Patsy’s.
“When you first open a business, no one shows up,” Lane recalls. “We’d sit there for hours. And I said ‘One day, there are going to be lines out the door.’”
Marco’s ultimately outgrew its storefront spot, relocating in 2004 to the space vacated by Fine Friends Restaurant.
“We went from a place that sat 50 and tripled it,” Lane says. “That threw me into a tailspin. It was a problem for me at the beginning. My job had changed.”
Lane, who had previously joined her husband and children in making salads and gossiping with guests, was suddenly confined to an office, where administrative tasks kept her occupied nearly full time.
“He said, ‘You have to grow with what we’re doing,’” sighs Lane, nodding at her husband.
Working on a bigger scale made some of the old Neapolitan traditions, lovingly imported by Uncle Patsy, untenable. With hundreds of people to feed, hand-roasting peppers became unaffordable, so the restaurant bought their peppers canned. And in a sprawling dining room with tables tucked into every nook, greeting every guest became impossible.
When I tell Lacagnina that I don’t remember ever meeting him in the dozen-plus times I ate at the super-sized Marco’s, he looks visibly pained: “My family has always had these restaurants that have been true community places, and we lost a little bit of that in the bigger place.”
Maybe it’s the Long Island accents, or the Yankee memorabilia on the wall, but Marco’s transition back from an unfocused red sauce behemoth to a neighborhood gathering place seems ripped from the teasers for Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares, in which celeb chef Gordon Ramsay surmounts set-in-their-way owners and shortcutting chefs to recreate wayward mom-and-pop joints as warm, welcoming eateries. While Marco’s never reached nightmare status, its gradual migration away from its roots was the sort of thing Ramsay regularly bemoans.
Even without a reality show’s intervention, Lacagnina and Lane realized they had to make some significant changes to regain the pizzeria’s Patsy’s-infused spirit. They embarked on an all-out simplification campaign, designing the new space to again showcase the signature pizza ovens and positioning the tables in neat rows, with a round booth in the back for Lacagnina to call his own. The restaurant is fronted by tall doors which open onto the sidewalk.
“It opens up to the neighborhood,” says Lacagnina. “It connects you to where you are. And the smell of pizza goes out, almost like there’s someone out there grabbing you by the arm and pulling you in. That’s really big.”
The restaurant also eliminated its televisions—just in time for North Carolina’s championship run. While Lacagnina jokes he’s glad the title game was scheduled for a Monday, when Marco’s is closed, he doesn’t regret leaving the TVs behind.
“When we were kids, there was never a TV in a restaurant,” Lacagnina says. “It was a social event. It wasn’t just filling your belly. Now people are kind of in a zombielike state. We want to get back to the old ways. A couple asked me why we didn’t have TVs; they ended up engaging in a conversation with a couple they didn’t even know. And later, they thanked me.”
Traditional kitchen practices were also restored with the relocation: Peppers are again being roasted in house.
“With everything our country’s going through, something simpler is what everyone should be thinking about,” Lacagnina says.
But Lacagnina is proudest of reinvigorating Marco’s longtime relationship with its loyal customers, many of whom have grown up, married and had children on Lacagnina and Lane’s watch.
“You go to Olive Garden, you think anyone cares?” Lacagnina says. “They care because you’re bringing your wallet. It’s a big mess of corporate ways of thinking. People know they can come in here with their families, and we’ll take care of them.”