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December 22, 2011

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Italian taste and big Chinese tables

MARCO Barbieri, the Chef Patron at Da Marco restaurants, is one of the rare foreign chefs who has worked in Shanghai for more than 16 years. More important, he has operated Da Marco Italian restaurant for 12 years without depending on traditional pastas and pizzas.

Now, he owns and runs three Da Marco restaurants in Shanghai and will open two more in the near future.

He says the key to his success is high quality food, caring service and respect for local residents. Regulars would add Chef Marco's personal charm. Some of his regulars go to Da Marco not only for food but also conversation with their old friend who chats in Italian, English, some Chinese and a little Shanghainese.

"If I eat at the restaurant and see Marco there, I'll feel happy because I know he will take care of me," says regular customer Coco Zhang.

The gregarious and energetic chef frequently walks about his restaurant, chatting with customers and asking if they are satisfied with their meal. He is known for being generous, often giving a big discount in the case of the occasional complaint about food or service.

"In the restaurant with around 500 customers in one day, it's nearly impossible to make everyone happy and that makes me feel guilty," the chef says.

Food is the core of the restaurant's reputation.

Chef Marco grew up in northern Italy in Lombardy; his hometown is Orino in Varese. Naturally, many of his signature dishes, including pork pizza, grilled beef and sausage, are characteristic of northern Italy and feature rich meat, cream and butter.

Having also worked with great chefs in southern Italy, his cooking has absorbed Mediterranean elements of cuisine, including fresh herbs, olive oil, vegetables and seafood, which are evident on the Da Marco menu.

He enjoys cooking "wild" ingredients, producing dishes such as stewed wild pig with polenta. The pork has a special flavor but tough texture and must be marinated in a herb and wine sauce for 12 hours, then stewed for six hours.

Chef Marco also uses premium ingredients, cooking them simply.

"It's difficult to summarize my diverse cooking style," he says. "Preserving the original Italian taste is my main focus, which starts from the ingredient sourcing."

To that end the chef has built a 4,500-square-meter central kitchen in Minhang District for checking ingredients and preparation. It produces frozen pizza and pasta that are supplied to various supermarkets such as Carrefour and City Shop.

Italian specialties such as olive oils, cheeses and hams are imported, while most other ingredients are locally sourced. "Nearly every day I taste the freshly delivered herbs, a decisive ingredient giving a dish authentic Italian flavor," he says. Because flavor and aroma vary depending on sunshine and rainfall, he adjusts the seasoning accordingly after tasting to maintain consistency.


Da Marco, targets the middle class and attracts both expats and locals, about half and half.

"The taste is preserved, but I do some adaptations for locals in terms of presentation, which makes them feel more relaxed in my restaurants," the chef says.

Italians and other Westerners serve courses individually and in order, from appetizer to main course to dessert, while Chinese prefer placing all the dishes together on the table and sharing. Chef Marco has enlarged the tables to accommodate all the offerings for locals.

His familiarity with locals' dining preferences is partly due to his Shanghainese mother-in-law. Almost every Sunday he and his wife visit their mother-in-law's house where she cooks Shanghainese family style for them. "Sometimes, I just stand behind her and see how she cooks. Now, I am good at cooking dongporou (braised pork), wonton and steamed soup," the chef said.

Chef Marco still has two dreams: owning a restaurant and a nearby organic farm producing all the fresh ingredients and owning an Italian vineyard producing high-quality wine.


Dry linguine 1 lb; extra-virgin olive oil 1/4 cup (plus more for serving); slivered garlic cloves 4; red pepper flakes 1/4 tsp; little neck or Manila clams 2 lb (scrubbed, rinsed); dry white wine such as Pinot Grigio 3/4 cup; juiced lemon 1; unsalted butter 3 tbsp; sea salt and freshly ground black pepper; finely chopped flat-leaf parsley 2 handfuls; lightly toasted and fried bread crumbs 2 tbsp (optional).


1. Prepare sauce while pasta is cooking to ensure linguine will be hot and ready when sauce is finished.

2. Boil large pot of salted water to boil, add pasta, cook 8 to 10 min or until tender yet firm ("al dente"). Drain pasta well.

3. Meanwhile, heat olive oil over medium flame in a deep saute pan with lid. Add garlic and red pepper flakes; saute 2 min. Add clams, wine and lemon juice. Cover and cook, shaking periodically, until all clams opened, about 7 min. Discard unopened clams.

4. Increase flame to medium-high. Add hot, drained linguine; add butter, season with salt and pepper. Toss pasta until well coated. Sprinkle with parsley and bread crumbs. Drizzle well with olive oil before serving.

Marco Barbieri

Chef Patron of Da Marco restaurants, Italy

Q: What inspired you to be a chef?

A: My grandmother. She told me that if you can cook, you can travel around the world and eat everything.

Q: Your food philosophy?

A: Cook simple, cook with love.

Q: Who's your idol?

A: Jamie Oliver. He's a creative chef advocating healthy food.

Q: Describe a dish you'll always remember.

A: My mother's signature dish lasagna, a flat pasta with a thousand layers. I can never copy her taste.

Q: Favorite place to hangout?

A: Autodrome. I enjoy the sense of pleasure brought by speed.

Q: Your dining recommendations?

A: El Willy, a nice restaurant featuring authentic Spanish food, and Tanggong, a Cantonese restaurant known for its fantastic dim sum.


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