In a city that has more red-sauce Italian restaurants than any other type, you have to do better than decent spaghetti and meatballs to stand out.
Marco's was crowded already when we arrived early on a recent Saturday evening, but it wasn't noisy. The prices are part of the attraction, with entrees priced below $20, except for steak and specials.
We were led to a large table in the dining room, with paper napkins and no tablecloth. The server quickly brought us small loaves of warm, crusty Italian bread, whipped butter and a dish of olive oil seasoned with pepper flakes and other spices.
After intense negotiations, we ordered a bowl of chicken vegetable tortellini soup ($3.50). The server helpfully offered to have it split into two bowls after hearing two children lay claim to it.
We also asked for breaded artichokes ($8.50) and fried calamari ($8.50) from an appetizer list that included fava beans with sauteed greens ($9) and fried ravioli ($6.50). The antipasto salad can be ordered by the person, and we ordered it for three ($12).
For entrees, we got a pepperoni pizza ($12), fettucine alfredo ($18) and cheese ravioli ($15).
Cat ordered the Chicken Florentine ($18) and asked for crumbly blue cheese on her salad, no extra charge. I had my eye on the Pork Saltimbocca ($22).
The soup was homey and satisfying, with chicken chunks, carrots, celery and the scent of basil. The calamari arrived with a bowl of marinara for dipping, and I sighed at simple food done right. The squid was tender, and the coating, which clung well to the seafood, was crispy and not oily. The marinara tasted bright, even fruity, with a touch of sweetness. It was the first hint, repeated later in the night, that chef-owner Marco Sciortino buys good tomatoes.
The artichokes were fried well, too, ungreasy and served piping hot. The firm, quartered hearts were plentiful, too. We fumbled them into our gullets with swipes of honey mustard dipping sauce.
When the antipasto arrived I asked the server if there was an error, because the salad bowl was mostly full. No, she said, so we dished up helpings of shredded lettuce, pepperoni, turkey, ham, pitted Greek olives, roasted red peppers, celery, salami, red onion and chickpeas, and shredded mozzarella, after applying the house tomato basil vinaigrette.
We took a breather before the pizza arrived. It was a puffy-crusted disc slathered with more of that tomato sauce, cheese and crisped pepperoni. I like my pizza crust more browned and crispy, but everybody else thought it was terrific. The crust tasted like fresh-baked bread smells, drawing much praise from junior eaters. (A week later, the ungrateful wretches would complain that another pizza they were being served was not up to the standards of Marco's.)
The cheese ravioli was tender pasta and cheese pillows with more tomato sauce. Meek, plain, just what the customer wanted. They were shared and gone.
The fettucine alfredo was another widely shared dish because of its rich sauce of cream and cheese. In this case its flavor was bolstered with a dose of garlic, which didn't hurt its popularity.
You'll often get chicken florentine that's watery with juice from sauteed spinach, Cat observed. At Marco's, the topping of garlicky sauteed spinach and mushrooms avoided that snag, arriving moist but not drippy. The chicken cutlet underneath it was cooked well too, tender under its browned exterior and keeping pleasant company with its vegetable partners.
My pork saltimbocca was a decadent treat. Thin slices of pork were browned and topped with prosciutto and little sage leaves and cheese, served in a pool of butter-lemon sauce. The cured pork flavor of the proscuitto added a deeper layer of flavor to the rich, tangy dish. It's not a diet dish, but a splurge worth taking. If only there was a way to tone down the salt level.
Our group of appetites left more than satisfied. In a city awash in marinara, caring details, thoughtful service and well-executed food helps Marco's achieve distinction in a crowded field.
> RESTAURANT REVIEW
Review: Eight plates (Out of 10)
?Good ingredients, ?reasonable prices ?help this West Side ?Italian restaurant ?stand out.
WHERE: 1085 Niagara St. ?(882-5539, www.marcosbuffalo.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; ?5 to 10 p.m. Saturday; 4 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Antipasti, $5-$10; wings and pizza, $8.50-$15; entrees, $12-$22.
PARKING: On the street.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Two small steps.