The Marconi's salad, back in town, at the Capital Grille

  • A former cook at Maison Marconi is preparing the Marconi's Salad a a featured menu item.
A former cook at Maison Marconi is preparing the Marconi's… (Baltimore Sun photo/Richard…)
November 01, 2013|Richard Gorelick | The Baltimore Sun

Diners with fond memories of Marconi's still hold out hope that lawyer and Orioles owner Peter Angelos may reopen the beloved restaurant, either in its original Saratoga Street home of 85 years, or elsewhere. 

People miss the Marconi's experience: the elegant setting, the impeccable table service and the quiet charm.

Perhaps most missed of all, though, is the Marconi's Signature Chopped Salad, which ranks right up there with Haussner's strawberry pie when it comes to most-longed-for Baltimore dishes.

Slightly pale, a tad runny, the Marconi’s salad wasn’t made for the Instagram generation, and the mere mention of iceberg lettuce will raise hackles in foodie circles. But each bite of the salad is packed with intense rich and salty flavor. In the Marconi’s refined setting, it was always slightly indelicate.

And now it's back. At least for a while.

Starting Friday, you can get the salad at The Capital Grille on Pratt Street.

The salad is being prepared with the same hands that made it for decades at Marconi's. And it will be served by the restaurant's former head waiter. The only difference seems to be the setting and the ritual.

At Marconi's, the salad was chopped by the waiter at the table. At The Capital Grille, it will be prepared entirely in the kitchen.

Otherwise, it's the same - chopped iceberg lettuce, a bit of chicory, and bits of tomato, egg and anchovy in an emulsified, mayonnaise-based dressing.

Unlike some beloved menu items that disappear into the ether, the Marconi's salad has lived on, but until now very quietly. Only Angelos and a few other Capital Grille customers were aware that Keith Watson, who worked in Marconi's kitchen from 1979 until its closing (and who remembers exactly how it was prepared) would make it upon request.

But now, anyone can have the Marconi's salad. The Capital Grille won't be listing the salad on its menu, but servers will inform diners about its availability as a featured item starting now and continuing through the middle of December, according to Jim Kinney, managing partner at The Capital Grille.

When lawyer and Orioles owner Peter A. Angelos bought Marconi’s in 2000, he talked of relocating it. He never did, though, and he closed the restaurant five years later.

As luck would have it, the closing of Marconi's restaurant in 2005 coincided with the opening of the Capital Grille.

"Right before we opened, I got a call from Peter Angelos," Kinney said. "He said, ‘I've got a guy for you. His name's Sam. Sam Sara.’"

Kinney hired Sara, who had been Angelos' hand-picked general manager at Marconi's. Sara then told Kinney about Ali Morsy, Marconi's head waiter, and Morsy came to The Capital Grille, too. And, about a year later, Watson, the cook who had worked his way up at Marconi's from dishwasher, joined The Capital Grille kitchen staff.

It's Watson who would make Angelos, and a few other Capital Grille diners, the chopped salad when they asked for it. But the salad was never promoted or mentioned.

"It was funny," Kinney said. "We started getting people who were coming in here saying, ‘We heard Keith was here. Can he make us this? Can he make us that?’"

With enough notice, Watson would make a customer other Marconi’s favorites, such as the lobster Cardinale, and on rare occasions, the chocolate sauce. But more often than not, it was the chopped salad that customers wanted.

And even back in the day, the chopped salad was the only salad that customers wanted at Marconi's, Watson said. There was a Caesar salad and a plain garden salad, but the chopped salad, he said, was the only one that was ordered regularly.

A recent Baltimore Sun Recipe Finder column in which a reader inquired about how to replicate the famous Baltimore salad got Kinney's attention.

"I went to Keith and said, ‘Did you see that?’” Kinney said. “And he said, 'I can make that.'"

Watson said he was trained in the Marconi's tradition by the restaurant's longtime chef, Tony Sartori, who retired in 1999. "It has never been changed," Watson said. "That's the thing."

Kinney said he put in a call to Angelos, a regular Capital Grille customer, to get an OK to serve the chopped salad. Kinney remembers the phone call. When Angelos asked Kinney why he wanted to feature the chopped salad, Kinney told him, "Keith is here and Keith wants to do it."

Angelos replied, "If Keith wants to do it, he can do it."

It's not entirely clear whether Kinney needed Angelos' permission. Angelos, who did not return calls for this story, had trademarks for both “Marconi's” and “Marconi's Chocolate Sauce,” but both of those trademarks were canceled in 2012. (The attorney who handled those trademarks, Jeffrey J. Utermohle, declined to comment on why the trademarks were not renewed. However, generally, trademarks that fall into disuse are difficult to renew.)

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