On a cool Saturday evening, Dena Marino, a petite toque with a dimpled smile and starched chef's coat, overlooks the humming dining room at MC Kitchen. She stands in the open kitchen, surrounded by its massive white marble counter. At the restaurant's entrance, a party of ten lingers over glasses of craft beer and wine. For about an hour, they wait patiently for a table at the Design District eatery, which opened in November.
Every chair in the 145-seat restaurant is occupied. By 9 p.m., Marino's spinach lasagna is already sold out, and so is her burrata cheese, filled with roasted squash. Beneath orbed lamps of gleaming crystal, the space buzzes with the muffled tones of casual conversation and the waitstaff's hurried footsteps.
But Marino is in good spirits. She saunters past the blazing stone oven and busy burners. Shaking her short, wavy blond hair, which is pulled back in a loose ponytail, she waves at departing diners. Dena Marino is beaming.
It's a contagious sentiment, one that's reflected in the delectable subtleties of her cooking. In her roasted octopus dish, a large Spanish mollusk is quick-roasted in the Wood Stone-brand oven and then dressed copiously with Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil, fresh red pepper, and garlic. The tentacles are charred quickly, producing an aroma of smoke so potent its flavors resemble meat more than fish. The cooking juices are tossed with sherry vinegar and combined with sea salt, pepper, and crisped pancetta. The dish is served atop a short dome of organic black rice, which has been cooked slowly like a thick risotto. Around the dish, Marino sprinkles peppery bursts of frisée.
Most components in Marino's dishes are attributed to Italy, but what she is doing here, and the manner in which she is approaching modern Italian cooking, is far more honest and more genuine than that of other eateries with similar cuisine. The outcome is not only the best octopus dish in Miami (Mandolin Aegean Bistro, relinquish your crown) but also a whole slate of food that bespeaks joyfulness.
Chef Marino is no newcomer to the Miami dining scene. Originally from northern New Jersey, she earned a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in 1993, at the age of 19. After graduation, she hopped from Atlantic City's Caesars Palace to Michael Chiarello's acclaimed restaurant Tra Vigne in California's Napa Valley, where she worked for five years. In 1999, she accepted an executive chef position at Ajax Tavern, a Chiarello-owned eatery in Aspen, Colorado. Until 2010, she worked in kitchens in Aspen, at D19 and Ellina. That year she took a position in Miami, at Danny DeVito's eponymous South Beach restaurant.
But Marino, who had moved to the Magic City with her husband, Marcus Wade, a fellow chef, spent only two months working at the now-defunct DeVito. The couple quit, and shortly thereafter, the restaurant was caught in a scandal. It was sued for cheating employees out of wages. Although Marino prefers not to discuss the subject, she admits, "My husband and I both moved [to Miami] to work here, and we just weren't comfortable being in the situation there. There were a lot of behind-the-scenes things that were not legal."
Marino then partnered with Brandy Coletta, a University of Miami graduate who once worked as a hostess at Ajax Tavern. They launched plans for a new eatery. (MC stands for Marino and Coletta.) The pair, who surveyed properties in Coral Gables, North Miami, Brickell, and South Beach, selected the Design District for its surroundings. "There are a lot of smaller stores here. And even though they are big names, it's just a smaller area. You can walk around and you're not in this huge map. It's a smaller feel, a neighborhood feel," Marino says.
For the Design District, the arrival of MC Kitchen fills a niche once occupied by the critically acclaimed Sra. Martinez. The tapas eatery, spearheaded by James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein, closed last year. It served Spanish cuisine — a long step away from Marino's modern Italian. But Bernstein's departure from the district left a vacancy for a sophisticated fine-dining restaurant, the kind with more finesse than Michael Schwartz's unfussy, delectable locavore fare. Marino rose to the occasion.
Drink options succeed with beer-based cocktails, in addition to a varied wine selection and a well-curated craft beer menu, including a focus on the Delaware-based brewery Dogfish Head. Yet it's the fresh pastas, executed with seasonal flair, that secure Marino's position as one of Miami's leading toques.
Fiocchi — purses of fresh pasta, stuffed with fragrant roasted pear — are laced with a white truffle cream as well as an ivory pool of melted cheeses: robiola, grana padano, ricotta, and Taleggio. Strands of spaghetti, dressed in a piquant, scarlet sauce, tangle sautéed tender Florida shrimp. Marino's hand-rolled trofie, the specialty pasta from Liguria, is a classic rendition. Its squiggled noodles burst with the flavors of their surrounding emerald pesto — crushed fresh oregano, basil leaves, pine nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. But the trofie, which doesn't work as well as the other offerings, lacks sufficient salt (or perhaps more Parmigiano-Reggiano) to perfect the green sauce. Otherwise, pasta dishes at MC Kitchen show off Marino's brilliant prowess with flour and egg.
The menu also lists a variety of fish and meats, including a Colorado rack of lamb — a tender, slightly charred meat, served medium-rare over a bed of braised, mixed lentils, a frothy apple butter, and a delicate frisée salad.
But its Marino's rendition of tiramisu that epitomizes her favorite Italian saying: "A tavola non s'invecchia," which means, "You don't age while seated for a meal." The massive square seven-layer cake is composed of rich mayonnaise chocolate cake, sandwiched between slathered chocolate mousse. There are also two layers of zabaglione, prepared with potent espresso and rum. Devoid of ladyfingers and mascarpone, Marino's dessert is hardly traditional. And after the server places the mighty tower of cake atop our table, it takes seconds before anyone dares disrupt the tall composition of chocolate and sugar.
"I won't bring sharing plates for this one," the waiter says as he places additional cutlery on the white tablecloth. "The dessert is more romantic this way."
He walks off. A brave fork breaks the layered, geometric mold. The cake is swiftly devoured.
Across the bustling dining room, behind the open kitchen's counter, Marino looks up from her busy station. Her eyes scan the restaurant, but her head does not move.
Perhaps the waiter was wrong. Marino's food is not romantic. Nor is it idealized or glorified. At MC Kitchen, Marino's cooking is an intimate balance of sophistication and honesty. And it's this graceful simplicity that garners her the title of the Design District's new reigning queen.