Expense account dinners appear to be very much alive and well at Marea. On a recent evening at the lacquered Midtown fixture, tall, silver-haired men in blue blazers — the type of guys who look capable of firing a thousand people before suppertime — strolled through the room. A chatty private-equity dude predictably referenced Shakespeare and told me about occasionally extracting a “pound of flesh” from the companies he buys. Young revelers in button-down shirts, in turn, drank $25 cocktails and exuded the type of confidence you’d expect from folks who just left a company-funded meet-and-greet with, say, golfing great Phil Mickelson.
But while these dining room regulars keep at it, a changing of the guard has taken place. Last year Michael White left the group behind Marea — long one of the city’s most celebrated Italian seafood restaurants, and home to the famed fusilli with bone marrow and octopus — before moving on to a chef job at the nearby Lambs Club. All the fatty marrow remains, however, under the aegis of corporate executive chef Lauren DeSteno, the longtime commander at the Central Park South institution. The fusilli — like so many other dishes here — is as fantastic (and expensive) as ever. Aside from the disappearance of, say, the famed brodetto di pesce and a few other old staples, Marea in 2022 isn’t a whole lot different from Marea in 2009, when it opened.
This past Tuesday, I found a seat at the long bar and cobbled together an ad hoc tasting menu: a few bites of crudo ($39) and three half-orders of pasta. Among the raw fish selections, DeSteno dots striped bass with mussel cream and caviar, imparting the neutral fish with a wallop of oceanic oomph. She lets jiggly raw langoustines speak for themselves with just a bit of chive and crustacean oil; eating one is like popping a spoonful of shellfish gelee in your mouth. And she livens up oily hamachi with kumquat and pine nuts for a touch of fruit and crunch. In a city currently bereft of chef David Pasternack’s famed crudo — his coastal Mediterranean spot Esca closed during the pandemic — this is where you want to go for Italian raw fish.
Meanwhile, for those seeking out top-tier pastas, Marea’s options continue to rank among the city’s best. Cooks still whisk gobs of bone marrow into a red wine sugo and toss the sauce with twirls of fusilli and curly strands of octopus. The marrow never dominates; it enriches and softens the sauce, acting as a link between the sturdy tentacles, the al dente noodles, and the tart tomatoes. Truth be told, though, I’ve always preferred Marea’s shrimp with gnocchetti, tiny little dumplings with a Q-like bounce that are only faintly less toothsome than Korean rice cakes. DeSteno bathes them in a light tomato sauce that acts as a delivery mechanism for rosemary. The dish conjures up an underwater coniferous forest, a magical place where the seaweed smells of pine.
And then there are the squid ink lobster ravioli, a generically luxurious name for a powerfully flavored dish. A bisque-like butter sauce provides a concentrated lobster flavor, while the meaty filling in the ravioli dials that maritime flavor up another notch. A shaving of the crustacean’s dried roe, however, cranks up the coastal tang to a positively aggressive level of pungency. It’s the lobster version of a dry-aged steak.
You try not to think about how much that ravioli costs. A decade ago a full portion of the pasta was $32, a figure that slowly rose over the years. More recently, in this era of rampant food-price inflation, the pastas have jumped up by $3 to $42 apiece as the restaurant weathers cost increases amid labor and supply chain shortages, according to a representative. So if you’re eating a full portion of pasta day or night, you’re now paying over $50 after tax and tip. Those prices aren’t out of line for a restaurant located on Central Park South’s so-called billionaire’s row, but the fact remains that Marea appears to be — notwithstanding clubby spots like Nello — the city’s most expensive restaurant for pasta.
Most other celebrated Italian spots don’t even come close. Carbone in the Village asks $32 or less for more than half of its pastas; Don Angie commands $26 to $29; and Rezdôra charges $26 to $33. All three venues, like Marea, hold a coveted Michelin star. Other acclaimed spots like I Sodi and Via Carota by Jody Williams and Rita Sodi generally ask for $27 or less for their own noodle dishes. Then again, most other Italian spots don’t occupy a perch in the shadow of some of the city’s most expensive restaurants — a part of town where dinner for two can easily creep toward $1,000 and beyond.
Marea has also transitioned to an a la carte-only menu, nixing the prix fixe lunch, which was $67 just before the pandemic. The venue has cut its $128 set menu option at dinner, too. The good news, however, is that you can still order half portions of noodles at Marea, a courtesy not always available at competing venues — many of which are a heck of a lot harder to get into. Those sizable half-portions, listed not on the menu, are $25 apiece, and they help Marea feel like just a bit of a steal — maybe — in this exorbitant neighborhood.