Legend and lore: Marino Ristorante celebrates 40 years on Melrose

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Ciro Marino makes his famous cheesecake at his namesake restaurant. Today, his son Sal mans the stoves. Photo courtesy of Marino Ristorante.

The son of a merchant marine in Naples leaves war-torn Italy for Los Angeles. He starts his career as a waiter, and climbs to the highest heights of Hollywood, befriending James Dean, Frank Sinatra, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. He opens hit after hit restaurant and has three kids, who follow him into the business. Ciro "Mario" Marino passed away in 2009, but at Marino Ristorante on Melrose, his sons, Sal and Mario, carry the torch. After 40 years in business, the restaurant is still owned and operated by the Marino family — an incredible feat in this mercurial town. Sal and Mario are our guests on In the Weeds.

Mario Marino: Hi, I'm Mario Marino. I'm the eldest of three children. I'm in the front of the house. When you come into the restaurant, you'll either see me or our younger sister, Rosanna. 

Sal Marino: I'm chef Sal. I'm in the back, having fun. 

Mario Marino: We're in the heart of Hollywood. We're east of Highland and west of Vine in a very non-descript, single-standing building. In the blink of an eye, you can pass it. We've been there for 40 years. Our parents loved this location, and we've been there ever since.

Sal Marino: We grew up in Hancock Park. We opened Marino in 1983. All three of us still live five blocks away from each other.

The opening staff at Marino Ristorante included Mario Marino (second from right, back row), who today can be found in the front of the house. His brother Sal (far right, back row) has overseen the kitchen following his father's passing in 2019. Photo courtesy of Marino Ristorante.

Mario Marino: In the '70s, coming back from school, our mom used to take Sal and I (our sister Rosanna was way too young at the time) to see our father because dad was always working in the restaurants. Back in the '70s, kids weren't allowed in restaurants. We would go to the restaurant and visit dad right after school. It was fun because at very young ages, eight or nine, I remember being in the kitchen and observing dad having staff meetings, tasting wines, talking to the chef, accepting linens and dealing with the different aspects of the restaurant. 

Sal Marino: I would go to the Marquee. Back then it was the Imperial Palace, in the Chateau Marmont area. It was a huge restaurant and I'd just go there and run crazy, run wild everywhere. Restaurants closed during those [afternoon] hours and we'd go into the big walk-in boxes, the freezers, the storage and the crate elevator. It was really, really cool. I have a great experience of those few times that we would go to the restaurant. It was always star-studded. I remember seeing John Wayne when I was a little kid. This guy was so big. I was like whoa, that's so cool.

Mario Marino: Dad was a person who did crazy things. At our father's funeral, this man by the name of Frank Perilli — he was a comedian and he was always with Lenny Bruce and Shecky Greene and all those people — pulled our sister Rosanna and the three of us and our mom and says, "You know, I'll never forget what your dad did to me one day. This was back in the '60s. I just came from a lawyer, had just signed a divorce. I was in a bad mood. I said I'm just gonna go to Martoni, I'm gonna see Mario," which is our dad, "and he's gonna give me a good plate of pasta and I'll feel better." So he pulls up to Martoni . Our Uncle Sal is at the bar and he's looking at him going, it's not going to happen. He calls our dad and our dad comes over and goes, "Uncle Cheech, give me a minute. Let me see what I could do." So dad turns around and comes back after five minutes and says, "Uncle Cheech, come here." Sure enough, he takes them into the dining room of Martoni and goes, "Uncle Frank, these are my good friends. This is John and his wife, Yoko. Don't worry, sit with them and have a plate of pasta." That's the things that dad would do. And it would make people go, are you serious? 

Sal Marino: Yeah, Martoni's was big in the record business. The closeness, of course, to Capitol Records and Sire and Frank Sinatra. It was three-deep at the bar throughout the '60s. That's why dad made a killing during those years. Sonny and Cher got kicked out. He was always very belligerent and getting super drunk and one night, they had to throw him out of the restaurant yet another time because he was picking a fight. He went home, and it's in their book, that's the night that he wrote "I Got You Babe." 

Dad's first, first, first place to work is at the Chianti. It was owned by Magnin. He's there, he's not doing as well. The Villa Capri opens and, check this out, the original waitstaff of Villa Capri was my father, Mario; his soon-to-be partner in Martoni's, hence the name Martoni; Dan Tana; Jimmy Ullo from La Dolce Vita; Jean Leon from La Scala; Manny Jordan from Matteo's and the bartender was Carmine's. If you close your eyes and think of those places in the '70s, they all look the same because they were all waiters that became restaurateurs. They all had the checkered tablecloths, they all had the chianti straw fiascos hanging from the ceiling, they all had the La Scala chopped salad. It's all the same thing. Dad made a difference because he was a little more into the cuisine and the cooking. 

Then dad opened Martoni's. He then opened the Marquee, renamed it the Martoni Marquis on Sunset. Then in the early '70s, dad being the traditional old school guy, was like, "Sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll in America. We're moving to Italy." He had made a lot of money and we moved to Italy. After 25 years in America, though, he didn't like living in Naples, so we came back. That's why we have this thing where Mark and I were reared in Italy. We grew up from zero to [ages] 7, 8, 9 here, then eight years in Italy, then back here for high school and college. That's our history. 

Our father was super, super, super tough. He's like, "We're opening the restaurant and you're working." We had to work everyday. We were 16 and 17. We were the bumbling busboys. Clientele would come in like Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Doolittle and Ringo Starr. They would all come to the restaurant and you're so in awe. You're 16, 17 years old and all these guys are coming in. 

Frank Sinatra, he never touched the money but he had the other guy, and we'd all have to stand in line, and he'd shell out 100 bucks and everybody would stand in line. It was just another world. The credit cards had three lines [on the receipt for] server, captain and maître d. They actually tipped the captain and the maître d. Everything was a dynasty. You'd come in and the furs and the cigarettes and the cocktails and the fancy jewelry and all that. Now, they come in dressed normal — flip-flops, shorts, t-shirts, nobody smokes anymore. They bring their own bottles of wine. It's a different world. I'm not saying one is better than the other because it's an evolution. That's what life is all about.

A mussel dish at the restaurant uses fresh seafood. In the early days, the kitchen was one of the first to serve clams in their shells instead of canned clams in clam juice. Photo courtesy of Marino Ristorante.

Mario Marino: Yes, we have a history but just the way dad broke ground and rules in the '60s. We were told that he was the first guy to ever serve linguini clams with the shells. Back then, they just opened jars and the clams were in clam juice. Dad's like, "No, no, no. In Naples, we don't do it like that." Today, we're doing the same thing. I grow my own stuff. I have gardens everywhere — behind the restaurant, at my house, everywhere we can grow things, just to keep it real Italian, super seasonal, just the way it always was. In that sense, we continue the tradition. But our wine list is now different. Our cocktail program is not like what it used to be. We have a great new mixologist. So Marino's is there but it evolves and keeps on growing.