Dena Marino is a name I had heard for years before I put a bite of her food in my mouth. Respected friends and colleagues told me I had to eat at her places in Aspen, Colo. Then she came to town to chef at Danny DeVito’s now-defunct Italian eatery, but left before I got a chance to make a reservation.
At last, she is cooking in her own Miami restaurant, MC Kitchen in the old Fratelli Lyon space. Everyone who raved about her food seemed equally impressed with her as a person: warm, generous, nurturing, charming. And her modern, sometimes whimsical, take on Italian cooking is similarly disarming and inviting. From her arena kitchen, Marino turns out miraculously flavored dishes that inspire and satisfy.
The space is welcoming, transformed with light, airy touches such as white orchids on crisp white tablecloths and a wall sculpture of flittering yellow butterflies against wooden wall slats. Seats are deep and cozy, sunlight fills the room in daytime, and soulful music (Ray Charles, Otis Redding) is at just the right volume. Business partner Brandy Coletta (the C in MC) can take credit for the concept and design, and Marino’s husband, Marcus Wade, does the front of the house.
The bar scene gets feisty with herb- and spice-accented cocktails that drink like a meal. The fantastic wine list with more than 450 bottles includes fun picks such as a Brooklyn label along with trophy Italians. There’s a super selection of craft beers, too.
It all works so well with an inaugural winter menu full of comforting dishes from ribollita (Tuscan bread soup) and hand-rolled pastas to grilled meats and braised fish that soothe like a back rub after a long journey.
Lunchtime brings piadina, petite, round breads cooked in the stone oven and piled high with salady ingredients like grilled chicken with crispy slips of pancetta, ripe avocado and lemon aioli. But it is the pastas that tempted me to lick the bowls clean.
The long, open tubes of spaghetti in her bucatini alla carbonara are sauced so that each strand is coated, not drowned. A perfectly coddled egg bursts with an orange-yellow yolk to provide another layer of flavor along with lots of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano that offset puffs of smoky guanciale powder.
Tiny twizzles of trofie are sauced with subtle pesto, hints of oregano adding tang to the sweet basil. The best pasta of all is the rich, white-sauced spinach lasagna baked into a bubbly casserole with way more house-made fennel sausage and cheese than spinach. I only wish that Marino would offer these spectacular pastas in smaller portions so I could order more courses before passing out.
The octopus, roasted until bronzed, is among the best I have had, especially over a mound of perfectly bitey black risotto. But the dish I will dream about consisted of two plump langoustines, heads and tails intact, baked over a bed of polenta, then spiked with bits of spicy green chile and cooled with threads of bittersweet orange zest.
Lighter starts include a stunning halibut crudo in citrus dressing showered with shaved hearts of palm, celery and microgreens. Salads are just as sprightly but can be over salted.
Like the pastas, main courses are generously portioned. A New York strip steak is fanned on a wide platter alongside spinach gently sautéed with a hit of garlic and an intense, winey bone-marrow sauce with irresistible rosemary fries.
A fantastically fresh, gently braised grouper fillet is intensely moist and tender, served with little triangles of spicy Calabrese sausage and velvety broccoli rabe greens, all bathed in a briny clam sauce mellowed by a touch of cream.
Desserts are equally delicious in their simple elegance. The rustic strawberry cobbler in a crumbly crostata-like crust is heavenly, as is the coconut panna cotta, light as just-fluffed laundry, that’s drizzled with marsala-drenched brown figs.
Marino is going for greatness here, but not in a flamboyant, look-at-me way. What comes from her kitchen is subtle, refreshing and deliciously welcome.