Chef Dena Marino says she will “never” change the preparation of the octopus she serves at her modern Italian restaurant, MC Kitchen, which opened in the Design District last November. And that’s a good thing: The restaurant, now celebrating its one-year anniversary, has been met with rave reviews and booked to capacity in its 145-seat dining room almost every night.
“It’s amazing,” she says of the dish. One bite of the roasted, meaty tendrils, which are served as an appetizer atop a bed of inky risotto, backs up Marino’s boast. The octopus is amazing, not one grain of salt away from perfection. “I learned to cook it 100 percent perfectly due to Mario Batali giving me [grief] one day,” Marino says, explaining that her culinary confidence comes from a long career of learning from some of the country’s best chefs, and also using those travels to come at Italian cuisine from a novel angle.
Marino graduated from the Culinary Institute of America when she was just 19. During a trip to Napa Valley, she impressed another celebrity chef and Food Network star, Michael Chiarello, during an impromptu cooking shift at his award-winning restaurant TraVigne. In short order, Marino became Chiarello’ssous chef, devouring his take on modern Italian cooking and falling in love with the locavore ethos of Northern California. She remembers looking for rosemary in the kitchen and realizing that she could clip all she needed from a wild plant on the restaurant grounds. “It taught you a natural way of [cooking],” she says.
Stone-oven-roasted octopus sits atop a bed of nero risotto forma with pancetta-sherry vinaigrette.
Eventually Chiarello dispatched Marino to Aspen, another foodie haven, to be the executive chef at his Ajax Tavern. (That’s where Batali, a regular, enlightened Marino about the perfect octopus preparation.) Marino went on to become the chef of D19, another acclaimed Aspen eatery that brought a Rocky Mountains influence to modern Italian cuisine. During this time, she solidified her “hot young chef” credentials by battling MasaharuMorimoto on the TV show Iron Chef America. Of her time on TV, Marino admits it’s a bit of a catch-22. She lost, but she says the experience opened a lot of doors, once stating, “Television is amazing PR, but some of the people on these shows are not chefs. Cooking on television is nothing like being a chef in a restaurant.”
After 13 years in Aspen, Marino and her family moved to Miami so she could take a chef position at the ill-fated Devito South Beach, which eventually closed amid a variety of kitchen scandals. Marino left the restaurant after two months and soon started looking for a space for MC Kitchen, named for “Marino” and “Coletta,” as in Brandy Coletta, her business partner and former Ajax Tavern coworker. She decided on her Design District location because it’s “very different from the beach,” she says. “We looked everywhere, and we just knew that we liked this area because it was more like a neighborhood.”
To Marino, the quiet, low-scale ambience of the Design District seemed like the best fit for a restaurant that would forgo frills to focus on serving simple yet surprising food. A perfect example of this is MC Kitchen’s house-made burrata cheese, which, in the summer, she served stuffed with English peas and topped with saba vinaigrette, crispy pancetta, and mint. Along with the octopus, it’s one of the dishes on her menu that Marino says speaks to her culinary soul, the expression of her Southern Italian roots coalescing with her experience in Napa, Aspen, and now Miami.
Dena Marino in her MC Kitchen dining room.
MC Kitchen has a conspicuously clean décor—open and airy with white tablecloths, wood-paneled walls, slate floor, and a white marble bar surrounding an open kitchen—as if the goal was to not distract diners from the food on their plates. “Having white tablecloths, we caught a little bit of flack about that for this neighborhood,” Marino says. “It doesn’t mean it’s super high-end; it just has a cleaner feel to it.”
Marino wants diners to feel comfortable with all of the ingredients on their plates, and she goes to great lengths to make that happen. Many of the items on her menu, from the burrata to various pastas to the prosciutto to the syrups in MC Kitchen’s cocktails, are made in-house, and she brings in local ingredients like Florida grouper and citrus as long as it doesn’t undermine the quality of her dishes. (Her lamb comes from Colorado, naturally.)
A chef whose career has sent her from coast to coast with stops in between, Marino says MC Kitchen is the restaurant she’s always wanted to run. “This is the baby,” she says. “This is the gem.”
As the baby celebrates its one-year birthday this fall, the menu may change with the season, but the octopus, thankfully, will stay exactly as it is.