Mario e Mario, the latest Italian restaurant to hit Beirut, opened during the first week of February 2014. Yet it is not what most Lebanese are used to, as it offers delights of Italian cuisine beyond penne arabiatta and spaghetti bolognese.
The restaurant is Mario Haddad Junior’s, the man behind such enduring concepts as Sushi Bar and Falamanki. It is an homage to his father, Mario Senior, head of the Italian Academy for Gastronomy in Lebanon, who has been decorated in recognition of his skill in Italian cuisine. “It has long been a dream of ours to have a restaurant that conveys both our loves for Italian home cooked food,” says Haddad.
Located towards the end of Armenia Street in Mar Mikhael in a traditional home which formerly housed another Italian restaurant, Haddad invested a total of $300,000 to buy out the previous owners and their equipment, redesign the place and cover other pre-opening expenses.
Haddad’s design vision was to have a cozy place with a homey and unpretentious feel. The exterior is a cheery yellow with bright purple shutters, reminiscent of houses in villages in southern Italy.
A few steps to the side of the villa lead to the main interior entrance. By the end of March, the stairs will lead all the way up to the rooftop terrace where guests can enjoy their meals al-fresco under jasmine and gardenia plants.
Inside, salmon pink walls with framed newspaper clippings and photographs, vintage black and white tiles and the scattered mix of square and round tables all lend to the feel of a cozy European brasserie. The venue has an interior seating capacity of 40 people.
Little details such as the potted flowers on each table, the white lace on the bathroom towels and walls, and the creative ornaments on the bar and shelves add to the venue’s airy charm.
Italian comfort food
Having sat down and finished taking in the ambiance, our party was approached by a knowledgeable and friendly waiter who walked us through the restaurant’s concept and menu.
Their menu is based on traditional Italian home cooked meals. “The menu changes daily from a database of 200 dishes out of which we select 20 dishes, so three or four dishes change on a daily basis depending on what is freshly available in the market and in our kitchen,” says Haddad, adding that this is actually more efficient and less expensive than having a set menu.
Such a menu relies heavily on a skilled and flexible chef who is able to modify recipes at whim and Haddad says their biggest investment was in recruiting the chef.
Upon first glancing at the menu, it was slightly unsettling not to see names of familiar Italian dishes, but our waiter helped us overcome this uneasiness by giving us appetizing descriptions of each dish and guiding us through our choices. He also recommended Italian wines available by the glass and offered a basket of fresh Italian breads.
Our appetizer, a seafood salad with lemon dressing, was a generous medley of shrimps, calamari and octopus with a very fresh taste that was enhanced by the gentle lemon dressing. We ordered tomato gnocchi and a tuna and white bean salad for main dishes.
The gnocchi was a piece of heaven, with thick chunks of rich homemade mozzarella cheese melting over buttery soft and steaming hot gnocchi with a tangy tomato sauce. The tuna dish, supposedly made with fresh tuna fish caught in Lebanon’s seas and treated without any chemical preservatives, was fresh tasting but still felt like eating canned tuna — a bit of a letdown.
In a nutshell, the atmosphere is fresh, the food unique and tasty, and the experience shows you a different aspect of Italian cuisine. At an average price of around $35 per person (including wine), it is definitely worth a try.
Mario e Mario’s customers seem to think so too as Haddad says reactions to his new venture have been fantastic, and he was fully booked for the coming two weeks at the time of our interview. “We were a bit apprehensive as to how much Lebanese consumers would accept Italian food that they were not used to but we have had an overwhelming response. When you have a good product, it is easy to get and keep guests,” says Haddad.
New projects for Haddad include a permanent Junkyard — a junk yard décor and market food concept Haddad launched two summers ago as a pop-up restaurant — set to open in May 2014, and expansion into Dubai with Falamanki, Mario e Mario and Sushi Bar within the next two years.