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updated: 9/19/2012 6:16 AM

Fired up: Marzano's cooks up family-pleasing pizzas, Italian fare in McHenry

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  • You can't go wrong with the wood-fired pizza made with homemade mozzarella, San Marzano tomato sauce and basil leaves at Marzano's in McHenry.

       You can't go wrong with the wood-fired pizza made with homemade mozzarella, San Marzano tomato sauce and basil leaves at Marzano's in McHenry.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Butternut squash puree fills these homemade raviolis that are served with a sage-infused brown butter sauce.

       Butternut squash puree fills these homemade raviolis that are served with a sage-infused brown butter sauce.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Mussels in white wine tomato sauce with pancetta and shallots are a popular way to start a meal at Marzano's Wood Fired Italian restaurant in McHenry.

       Mussels in white wine tomato sauce with pancetta and shallots are a popular way to start a meal at Marzano's Wood Fired Italian restaurant in McHenry.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Braised short ribs with parmesan and chive mashed potatoes is a winner at Marzano's Wood Fire Italian restaurant in McHenry.

       Braised short ribs with parmesan and chive mashed potatoes is a winner at Marzano's Wood Fire Italian restaurant in McHenry.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • A pizza heads into the wood-fired oven at Marzano's Wood Fired Italian restaurant.

       A pizza heads into the wood-fired oven at Marzano's Wood Fired Italian restaurant.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Customers eat in the spacious bar area at Marzano's Wood Fired Italian restaurant in McHenry.

       Customers eat in the spacious bar area at Marzano's Wood Fired Italian restaurant in McHenry.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

 
By Carolyn Walkup
Daily Herald Correspondent

Marzano's Wood Fired Italian is especially proud of its Italian handmade pizza oven and the pizzas it turns out, but many other dishes are even more interesting to try at this full-service dinner house.

Owner Peter Kalantzis changed the concept last December from Dunhill's Steak House to make the place more affordable and family-friendly, he said. His food costs and resulting menu prices are considerably lower now, and the menu is more varied.

Marzano's is named for the imported San Marzano tomato used in its pizza sauce, a component necessary to earn the restaurant's Certified Neapolitan Pizza designation. The eatery features a full range of Italian specialties, many of which would earn the praises of Italian grandmothers known for their cooking skills. From antipasti through dolci, something here will satisfy everyone in the family.

The restaurant has two dining rooms, one of which contains a large bar with mostly high-top tables and the requisite TV turned to sports. Our server started to seat us there, but we requested the main dining room, sans bar, and were seated in a quieter booth without protest.

Shortly after we were seated, we were presented with a small basket of crusty Italian bread, a good quality olive oil and some grated parmesan. It's tempting to ask for more complimentary bread, but it's wiser not to. Save room, instead, for the feast to come, which is not intended for the calorie-conscious.

The first of many decisions is what to drink. The good-sized wine list is moderately priced, but I wish it noted the region of origin and the vintage. Nevertheless, I found the house Principato Pinot Noir to be pretty good.

Of the six antipasti choices, the Prince Edward Island mussels al Diablo looked the most interesting. The mussels are sauteed in white wine with shallots, garlic, diced tomato, parsley and red pepper flakes that add some spice to the broth. The mussels were quite good, but a few could have been fresher.

All entrees except the pizza include soup or salad, and our party opted for the soup, zuppa Toscano, a very light cream soup that contained generous amounts of crumbled Italian sausage and vegetables.

Because pizza is the signature dish, we had to try one. The mozzarella is made in-house and is the primary topping. All pizzas are 12 inches in diameter and on a thin crust that's intended to be folded and eaten with one hand. The 1,000-degree oven cooks them in 90 seconds to a temperature of about 800 degrees on the oven's surface.

We chose the mushroom and sausage, one of 14 variations available. The mozzarella was the dominant flavor, making us wish we'd picked one with more flavorful toppings, such as the roasted red pepper with tomato sauce, kalamata olives and pepperoncinis or the meatball.

Butternut squash ravioli with a brown butter sage sauce from the pasta section passed our critical taste test. The dish was properly cooked, buttery and nicely balanced between the sweet squash and the savory elements.

Braised beef short ribs over parmesan and chive-spiked mashed potatoes and ladled with a classic red wine demi-glace proved to be a wise choice. The meat was tender and moist and fell apart on the fork. This dish does not come with a vegetable side.

Chicken piccata rounded out the entrees for our party of four. Prepared the classic way, it was sauteed with capers, lots of garlic and lemon butter and served with braised spinach. The pounded chicken breast was flavorful with the accompaniments.

Finally, desserts beckoned. A good one to share was the Nutella pizza, a double-crust pizza stuffed with the chocolate hazelnut spread and topped with powdered sugar. Dessert pizza can work, but a fruit topping, such as strawberries, would be a nice touch.

We were there on a busy Saturday night, which may explain the slowness in clearing our dishes between courses and not providing clean flatware. Getting our check also took awhile.

The decor, all natural-looking woods, leathers, stone and other materials in neutral colors, is tastefully done and looks like the work of a professional designer. Considering all of the hard surfaces, the noise level in the full dining room was not bad.

All in all, Marzano's is a cut above most Italian restaurants in the distant suburbs.

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

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