Nurturing Body and Soul – The Pure Joy of Dining at La Marea

by RONA MANN / Photos by Tracey Kroll

The bar

Juliana Pisanzio stares at her phone. She constantly flips through the myriad of stored photos while holding the phone close. It’s obvious these images are very precious to her. “This is my life,” she repeats as her fingers fly from snapshots of small Italian villages to those of her well loved family, vacations with friends, beautiful food presentations, and the remodeling and creation of the space that eventually became La Marea Ristorante.

La Marea. In Italian it means “the tide.” An apt choice in so many ways because of what the tide symbolizes…rising, receding, constant, never ending. To understand what La Marea truly represents and is all about, you have to know what Juliana and husband, Nino are all about. “Nino and I grew up the same way,” begins Juliana. “I was born in Stamford, but my family moved to Italy when I was young. Nino is from the Island of Capri and has had 27 years of restaurant experience. Both of us were always surrounded by food and family. We had a huge vegetable garden, we canned tomatoes in our garage, made our own sausage. We even had vats of oil in the cellar to help cure the sausage.”

It was a joyous household. “My parents had parties all the time. We constantly had guests over. There was always good food and drink and people and love and laughter. That’s what kept people together. My parents always taught me that food nurtures your body and laughter nurtures the soul.”

Nino went through culinary and hotel management training in Italy, then earned his chops working his way up in the business from washing dishes to making beds. “But he loved it all,” says Juliana. “He always said his most valuable lessons were working side by side with the owners, learning and doing everything.”

Nino’s mother, a cook and baker in her own right, was from Lyon, France; his father from Campania, so Nino also grew up with an inherent love of food. In 1994 he came to the United States and not long after met Juliana. Although they previously were part owners of Rustica Ristorante in Chester, they longed to have their own place and actively searched for the right piece of property for several years. They found that perfect spot in Old Saybrook, a location that had had a number of incarnations, most of them as Asian restaurants with dubious track records. It took dogged persistence from Juliana, but finally the owner agreed to sell the land that had been in his family for decades.

The dining room

Then the hard work began, but these two were no strangers to that kind of commitment. Hard work was inbred in them; it’s how they were raised. Nino and Juliana essentially gutted the existing restaurant, changing almost everything and did it with a lot of help from “wonderful local people who have now become good friends.” It began when they met local businessman, Bart Gullong, at the restaurant in Chester. “We had told him our dream of one day owning our own restaurant,” Juliana says. His reaction was swift. “Do you really want that? Then I want to help you make your dream come true.” Gullong became their major investor, and now Nino and Juliana refer to him as “part of the journey.” Others who were an integral part of that same journey are interior designers, Kristen Joyce and Lynn McGill, who collaborated with Juliana and Nino, creating a space that is Italian-village rustic, filled with a comfortable warmth. Fresh flowers adorn the reception area, “provided every week by one of our customers.”

Both Pisanzios were hands-on during the transformation to La Marea. “Nino was here every morning at 6AM, working right along with the construction team,” Juliana remembers. Acting as his own General Contractor, Nino’s attention to detail is evident from the custom designed tables and chairs to the wood tile flooring, light and airy entrance way, working fireplace, occasional pieces of decorative furniture found both locally and brought over from the families in Italy, and the beautiful paintings that hung in Juliana’s family home in Puglia, a remembrance of her beloved mother.

The small dining room

And then there’s the food! While some of the recipes originated with Juliana’s late mother who “fed all of Italy and taught Italians in Fairfield County how to cook,” Head Chef Antonio Barbi, originally from Naples, has created cuisine from all regions, complemented perfectly by a vast and varied wine list. He is supported by Executive Pizza Chef, Jordi, master of the Valoriani wood burning oven who turns out perfectly cooked pizzas in about two minutes with temperatures soaring as high as 1000 degrees.

The bar area, like the dining room, exudes the same kind of warmth with wraparound copper and lighting fixtures that enhance. “It is definitely a dining bar,” Juliana points out, noting that there is no lip to prevent comfortable eating at the bar. La Marea’s head bartender, Jeremy, squeezes their own juices and concocts both unique and classic cocktails. Under Nino’s watchful eye, wines are stored at specific temperatures to maximize their taste, bouquet, and body.
The menu at La Marea, while primarily “rustic Italian,” cannot be compartmentalized nor labeled. “We have a variety of what customers like;” and like it they do, as upwards of 300 people dine per night on weekends. Reservations are strongly suggested! While most of the pastas, pizzas, salads, and main dishes are stationary, the choices change frequently, reflecting the seasons, what’s fresh, and what strikes Chef Barbi’s fancy and culinary genius.

Looking throughout at what Nino and Juliana have created at La Marea, seeing their customers enjoying food, raising glasses in happy toasts, laughing, and talking, makes Juliana’s words echo once again, “There was always good food and drink and people and love and laughter. That’s what keeps people together. You have to recognize where you’re from and be grateful for it. That’s what makes you relate to people.”

Once again she looks down at the phone that has never left her hand, the images still visible, and quietly says once again to no one in particular, “This is my life!”

Make a reservation for lunch or dinner at La Marea Ristorante, 732 Middlesex Turnpike, Old Saybrook
(860) 391-8614

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