Savoring chef's legacy

Restaurant: Marconi's chef of 36 years begins retirement today, leaving behind a rich tradition of preparing a variety of cuisines.

January 10, 1999|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Tony Sartori hung up his apron last night.

After 42 years -- 36 of them as chef -- Sartori has put in his last 16-hour day in the kitchen of Maison Marconi, the Saratoga Street restaurant that harks back to a simpler, and perhaps more civilized, time.

Early yesterday, as the soups bubbled and the fabled chocolate sauce warmed, Sartori said he knew his last day before retirement would be a good one.

"I think about my family, and I know it's going to be a great day," said Sartori, only the third chef in Marconi's nearly 80-year history. "I have five children. I was never there when they were born. I got six grandchildren. I'm going to enjoy them. I pray God to keep my health."

Sartori, who turns 62 this month, hoped to walk out the alley door of Marconi's for the last time without drawing attention. Only his successor, Keith Watson, and his boss, Ilene Booke, Marconi's owner, knew of his retirement, he said.

But some of Sartori's children were planning to be among Marconi's customers last night, said his daughter, Cathy Miller of Taneytown, so his exit may not have been as quiet as he had wished.

Other kitchen staffers and waiters who had noticed him training Watson asked when he planned to retire. "When you don't see me here, I'm gone," Sartori said he's been telling them. He notified Booke of his retirement months ago.

"I've been watching him over the years," saidWatson, 40, a Baltimore native who happened into Marconi's 18 years ago as a kitchen helper, not unlike Sartori did decades before.

Now Watson can do any job in the kitchen. Next week, Sartori's will be his.

"I'm trying not to think about it," Watson said.

But he seemed reassured by the years of watching his mentor. "I've been beside him. I was trained by the best."

Sartori's immediate plans are to go to Italy, where he owns a nonworking farm, and to dote on his grandchildren.

His career has been a long, enjoyable run at the downtown restaurant often called venerable, but sometimes chided by food critics as dated or stodgy.

He started as a kitchen helper in June 1956, a few months after emigrating from Italy, where he had studied cooking as a teen-ager. A cousin helped him get the job, he said.

Over the next six years, he worked every job in the kitchen, under then-chef Giacomo Chichero. "He got sick and died. He didn't have any time to train me," Sartori recalled. That was in 1962, when Marconi's was owned by the late John C. Brooks, a fixture at the restaurant for nearly 70 years.

Since then, Sartori has been feeding the city's cardinals and characters, visiting celebrities and local regulars, beginning each day in the kitchen by 5: 30 a.m. with a prayer and a check of supplies.

"There used to be a time when Marconi's only needed its steady customers, but they all died out," he said.

"Now, you get different kind of people every day."

But many of them are familiar enough with the stately rowhouse restaurant and its stable menu to know what they want when they come in the door -- lamb chops, chicken cacciatore, soft-shell crabs.

And if Sartori could give it to them, he's always been willing.

"You try to give the people what they want," he said. "I just love to cook."

Though change comes reluctantly to Marconi's, there have been a few concessions to contemporary tastes over the years.

Marconi's didn't accept reservations or credit cards. Now, it takes both.

"We only had fried crab cakes. Now, we [also] have broiled crab cakes. We serve one of the fried and 40 of the broiled," Sartori said.

But the kitchen still has no microwave and only enough freezer space for ice cream and the few other foods they buy frozen.

When Sartori became Marconi's chef, no written recipes existed.

Now, there are only those that Watson has written down recently.

"It's all up here," Sartori says, pointing to his head.

The lobster Cardinale.

The chicken Marconi.

The creamed spinach.

The fried eggplant.

Most of these have been around Marconi's kitchen longer than Sartori, but the retiring chef takes credit for two signature dishes -- Marconi's crab cakes and the chocolate sauce that has made the restaurant's chocolate sundaes legendary, spooned from a soup bowl with the extra left for seconds.

"When I started here, they had a chocolate sauce. I didn't like the way it looked. I made my own," he said.

His starts with blocks of unsweetened chocolate and the sauce doesn't contain butter -- that's all he'll say.

Sartori is, however, telling the secrets he's held in his head for decades to Watson, whom he hand-picked and trained to follow him.

He has no obligation to do so. His motivation is simple:

"I do want Marconi's to go on."

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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