Relaxing on the breezy front porch of their soothingly Mediterranean restaurant, Chef Marc Dambax and his wife Shellie seem to embody joyful artistic expression. It’s simply who they are.
Large paintings, somewhat French Impressionistic, grace the walls of Marco Trattoria, giving diners a visual taste of Southern Europe while they sample the Italian fare prepared by Marc. The chef, born and raised in southwestern France, acquired much of his cooking skill in Charleston, S.C. Trained as a civil engineer, Marc was introduced to the food business while assisting at a friend’s restaurant.
“I came to Charleston to get a sailboat that had been damaged in Hurricane Hugo,” he explains. While there, he started working under a French chef and found himself drawn to the business. “Food became a passion for me,” he recalls. It was also in the restaurant business where he met Shellie, a graduate of the Art Institute of Charleston. The restored sailboat, by the way, sank and was completely ruined while Marc and Shellie were on their honeymoon in Europe.
By Matt Rose
But their shared dream stayed afloat. The restaurant where the couple makes their charming contributions to food as art occupies a site long associated with eating well in Brevard. Next door to Hobnob, a restaurant whose reputation they helped develop several years ago, the building hosting Marco Trattoria is the former location of Oh Susanna, a once popular restaurant.
While Shellie’s art uses earth tones, creative shadowing, and an appealing minimalism, Chef Marc paints with his carefully selected ingredients. He’ll take a relatively simple romaine salad, for example, arrange the ingredients with a painter’s sense of scene, and produce something pleasing to the eyes as well as the palate. A cob salad arranged on a long, rectangular plate becomes a scale of color and taste.
“The way I see food,” says Marc, “is that when it looks good, you’re 50 percent of the way there. Then, of course, it has to taste good. I like to mix foods from different cultures. French and Italian are so close in some ways, especially with their emphasis on fresh ingredients. Of course, anyone can claim fresh ingredients — it’s what you do with those ingredients that matters. I like to use local, seasonal ingredients when I can. That’s a lot easier in the summer.”
Evening diners at Marco Trattoria will find half a dozen specials representing regions in Italy, as well as other classical culinary locales. These may include a veal saltimbocca with roasted red potatoes and asparagus or perhaps a pancetta-wrapped monkfish over ratatouille. The specials run in the $17-$21 range.
The Saturday and Sunday brunch menu includes an interesting offering called “Eggs in Purgatory,” consisting of one “gently” fried egg served on creamy polenta and topped with marinara sauce. Or you might prefer brioche French toast or a vegetable-and-goat-cheese frittata. Other brunch menu items (all in the $10 range) are posted on the restaurant’s Web site.
Talk to Marc for any reasonable length of time and you’ll pick up some handy tips. When he broils New York strip steak for a steak salad, for example, he lets the meat “rest” for a while before slicing it. This keeps the juices contained in the meat, he says, instead of running out onto the cutting board. And you’ll discover that for his pizza crusts, he uses only un-bromated, unbleached flour. (Potassium Bromide is a common additive in baking.)
Speaking of pizza, Marc’s favorite item on his own menu is the meatball pizza (the star topping is made from veal, pork and beef, all ground by the chef). Pizzas are all under $15 and come topped with a choice of Italian sausage, prosciutto, grilled and diced chicken, sautéed onions and peppers, caramelized rosemary onions, mushrooms, ricotta cheese, goat cheese, kalamata olives, anchovies, spinach, Roma tomatoes, or fresh garlic.
For dessert, diners may choose from a list that includes traditional tiramisu, crème catalane, gelato, or an interesting olive-oil-and-rosemary cake (using local Theros olive oil) with roasted peaches and peach ice cream. The restaurant is a former residence as well as the site of previous eateries, and it offers outdoor seating and a full bar. Marc and Shellie also put together a series of themed dinners that have become so popular there’s a waiting list. In the past, these have included April Fool’s Day, Rivers of Italy, Valentine’s Day, regions in France, and Spanish tapas.
If Marco Trattoria was nothing more than a place to eat well-prepared food, it would still be well worth a trip to downtown Brevard. The combination of art and food makes it an extraordinary experience provided by two passionate people doing exactly what they love. “This is just a natural way for us to be,” says Shellie.