Bar Marco celebrated his 10th anniversary on New Year’s Eve. The milestone is a relative rarity in the restaurant world, where the average lifespan of a restaurant nationally, according to a report by Perry Group International, is about five years, with many restaurants closing well before that.
What has kept Bar Marco going for so long when so many restaurants in Pittsburgh before and during the entire coronavirus pandemic are closed?
“It really depends on how you feel when you experience a place. It’s about hospitality. It’s about focusing on the guest experience. One hundred percent, ”says head chef / owner Justin Steel.
Caring staff, a distinct culinary perspective, dynamic wine and cocktail programs and an inviting space have all made Bar Marco one of Pittsburgh’s most essential restaurants, and one that has been placed on Pittsburgh Magazine’s list of best restaurants every year, with the exception of our 2016 list, since 2013.
It starts with what’s on the plate.
“It’s Italian, but not specifically for traditional Italian recipes. We use a lot of Pennsylvania ingredients. So we’re always figuring out what it means to be an Italian restaurant in western Pennsylvania,” says Steel.
This translates into a restrained, dynamic menu that changes a little bit each week depending on what regional farmers and producers have to offer. These shifts are especially noticeable in Bar Marco’s homemade pasta program, one of the best in town. Last month, steel-clad orecchiette with earthy, grassy broccoli pesto – the previous spring he collected the pesto with garlic-like, sulfur-containing ramps, and over the summer it was characterized by light, herbaceous basil. In October, gemelli with gorgonzola cream, butternut squash and pear was a celebration of autumn. Steels solid design of classic pasta dishes rounds out the typical four-to-five offerings, with plates like tagliatelle with bolognese and Parmigiano and rigatoni amatriciana, a sauce that highlights guanciale, tomato, Pecorino Romano and chili.
Bar Marco’s larger plates are also seasonal and often feature locally raised meat such as braised pork jaw with polenta and an apricot sauce. The same goes for vegetables – asparagus, sweet and simply dressed, jumps in front at the beginning of the season, and bitter chicory is here for us as early frost brings an end to the season. And although the scallops, mussels and saithe in the Tuscan fish stew currently on the menu must naturally come from somewhere else, the dish itself is still in mind about the crisp January weather.
Steel is the last of four childhood friends from Greensburg to remain involved in the restaurant. After a decade, he sees himself as the facilitator of the operation rather than its conductor. “I would never be a glimpse of the pot, a place that burned super hot but that could not hold itself,” Steel says.
Bar Marco has evolved over the years, with distinct periods ranging from farm-to-table influences from a cadre of former legume chefs to nomadic chef Brandon Baltzley’s wild, in-your-face, avant-garde culinary experiments.
Along the way, along with the large Burrito Restaurant Group and Good Faith Restaurant Group, it became the most significant incubator for Pittsburgh’s hospitality industry talents of the past decade – the list of people who have influenced kitchens, bar programs, front of house and management that is a part of The Bar Marco story is legendary.
“It’s OK to have evolutionary periods because it’s necessary for restaurants that want to keep going,” Steel says.
When the four original owners – Steel, Kevin Cox, Bobby Fry and Michael Kreha – opened Marco on December 31, 2011, they came full of ideas and energy, but apart from the fact that Kreha worked in a wine shop in New York City, no practical experience with how to run a restaurant. The menu was limited and generally tasty, albeit at times unevenly executed and a little over all in terms of what came out of the kitchen.
“We did what we wanted. We came in with a lot of passion and great ideas about what we wanted. We made fun food and served fun wine, but it was pretty rudimentary in terms of service and quality,” says Steel.
In fact, it was Bar Marco’s ambitious bar program that was a draw in the early years, and it’s still one of the best restaurant drink programs today. Bar Marco was better known for its ambitious cocktail program in its early years than its wine, and became one of Pittsburgh’s most influential cocktail destinations; fittingly, as the Strip District building was formerly home to Embury, the bar that launched Pittsburgh into the craft cocktail era. Its dynamic cocktail program continues to excel under longtime bar manager Jason Renner.
But one of the biggest things Bar Marco has done for Pittsburgh is help diners push boundaries when it comes to wines, whether they serve varieties from less common provinces in Italy or natural wines before we really understood what they were. Kreha, the restaurant’s first wine director, served natural wine as a focus on Bar Marco’s wine list. He was a little ahead of the curve, but planted the seed for natural wine to take the lead when Sarah Thomas launched The Wine Room with Jamilka Borges (Bar Marcos head chef from 2013-15) in 2013.
Thomas boosted the establishment’s portfolio and educated the guests in why they should get excited to explore the ever-expanding world of natural and biodynamic wines. When Thomas left and took a position as a sommelier at the three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in New York City, Dominic Fiore took over as Bar Marcos wine director and enthusiastically anchored natural and biodynamic wines even deeper into the restaurant’s ethos. He traveled a few years ago, but the intention for Bar Marco to become a Pittsburgh hub for natural wine continues today with the in-house wine shop, Nine O’Clock Wines, run by two former employees, Celine Roberts and Christie Kliewer ( Roberts is an occasional contributor to Pittsburgh Magazine).
That two former employees now run business in the building is a testament to the loyalty shared between Steel and the restaurant staff. Almost all of its current employees have been in the restaurant for more than four years, and some, such as manager Andrew Heffner, have been there significantly longer. Lean forward Hospitality is the basic doctrine that has driven Bar Marco throughout its history, and it provides a guest experience that includes anyone from out-of-towners who wants to spend a few hours solo at the bar, who quickly feel like regulars for couples on their first date downstairs in the cozy dining room, which later has their wedding receptions held upstairs in Bar Marco’s event room, Union Hall.
Fundamental to Bar Marco’s service was its 2015 shift to a tip-free model. They were one of the first restaurants in the United States to do so (at least in the modern era), offering all of their full-time employees a salary plus a portion of the profits and its part-time employees a higher hourly wage. Initially, this caused significant upheavals as a large percentage of its top talents left, but those who stayed and those who came after have largely stayed with the restaurant.
“The no-tip model has a lot to do with [keeping the identity of the restaurant]. It allows us to hire and maintain employees who are as passionate about what we do as I am, ”says Steel.
In the immediate aftermath of the early coronavirus pandemic, it had another unexpected benefit – because staff received W2 forms, they had a significantly smoother time to apply for unemployment benefits than many in the restaurant industry.
Despite the violent tumult of the coronavirus pandemic, the Strip District restaurant is as much in its shoes as it can be right now. On a cold evening in late December, the Bar Marco crew kept guests cozy in the heated courtyard tent where they have been serving meals since they closed the dining room in March 2020 (which is likely to reopen this winter if conditions improve). As is a long-standing tradition for Tuesday night, Steel and his kitchen staff serve a first-class chicken parmesan with rigatoni and its amazing Marco Burger specialty in addition to staples like arancini and pork tonnato. It is a continuation of a continuous line that has now stretched over a decade and could easily hold another one or longer.
“When we opened, it was just a wild free for everyone. It was just the four of us. I’m definitely proud of it. Many restaurants do not do this for five years. Seven years. So 10 years is huge, ”says Steel.
2216 Penn Ave., Strip District; 412 / 471-1900, barmarcopgh.com