Bustling Marcella's Embraces Togetherness in Dining

Marcella’s Ristorante’s motto, “Where plates are passed and flavors shared,” displayed prominently on the Italian restaurant’s Web site pretty much explains it all.

The pizzeria and wine bar, located on High Street in the middle of Columbus’ Short North — with another location at Polaris Fashion Place — has built a distinct dining experience, featuring a “small plate” menu and homemade Italian cuisine, ultimately bringing a piece of traditional Italy to central Ohio.

“The food and style of service is meant for people to share and to enjoy the experience together,” said Ian Rough, Marcella’s executive chef, who has been with the restaurant since its original development more than a year ago. “It’s an old-feeling restaurant that is newer and lively.”

A part of the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants juggernaut — operating 10 eateries in Columbus and Louisville, Ky., including Cameron’s, M, Martini and the Ocean Club — Marcella’s opened in May 2007, immediately packing out the small pizzeria throughout the weekend. Still a year later Marcella’s is receiving record attendance, according to its owners, and there’s been much talk about expanding to major cities such as Chicago and New York.

The long interior at the High Street location sports an intimate setup with close tables, a tan and brown, slightly darkened color scheme and gold lighting. The front features tall bar-style chairs around raised tables in an opened window, where you could literally shake hands with someone walking along the sidewalk while you eat. The small space looks a bit cavernous when empty, but come nightfall Rough said that definitely is not the case.

“It can seem a little overwhelming to somebody that doesn’t know what’s going on,” Rough said, laughing. “But for us, we’re used to it, that’s what we’re going for. We want this place to be packed all the time.”

The menu largely features Marcella’s famous flatbread pizzas, each $11 or $12. There are also a wide range of pasta selections for the more major entrees, including the fan favorite Fettuccine & Meatball.
“It’s a mixture of veal beef, ricotta cheese, bread crumbs, seasonings and the softest meatball you’ve ever had. We braze them in a tomato sauce, and it’s just to die for,” said Rough, who has been with Cameron Mitchell Restaurants for the past six years. “It’s been number one since we opened, and it’s not losing that spot anytime soon.”

Appetizers range from the $3 olive plates to an extensive cheese list and hot small plates featuring the homemade Sweet Italian Sausage, a dish that has a special meaning for Rough.

“It’s sort of a family recipe. I’ve been making sausage for years with my father so we kind of morphed one of those recipes into this recipe,” he said. “It’s served with peppernota that’s warm with a little bit of sauce and goat cheese. It’s phenomenal.”

The hot plates run between $6 and $8, but be sure to remember the “small plate” motto. If you’re looking to fill up, the best bet is to bring a few friends and order two or three menu items apiece to share.
We mustn’t forget the wine. Marcella’s has a bar that may rival any in the city. The bar is stacked with 50 different Italian wines, including a special house Pinot grigio made especially for Marcella’s in Italy and two house sangrias, white and red. Each wine comes served as a “quartino” (one-third of a bottle), “mezzolitro” (half bottle) or “litro” (full bottle).

“In Italy they drink wine like it’s water,” Rough said, laughing. “But here wine is more just for special occasions. We’re trying to make it more of the norm.”

The concept goes back to the restaurant’s overall casual, good-time atmosphere.

“It’s also the feel of the restaurant. … It’s loud, there’s a lot of conversation, clanking of the plates, people sharing their food,” Rough said. “That’s what the restaurant is all about. The food is just a piece of helping make that happen.”