Recently, as summer ceded to fall, I was stricken by a bout of culinary wanderlust. I had recently moved and my fridge and pantry offered no respite: extra-crunchy peanut butter, yogurt, a single egg. What to do?
Fortunately, an atlas of ethnic eateries awaits us in Tidewater, from Peruvian to Puerto Rican to Szechuan and more. But that afternoon, I craved Italian.
At the dinner hour, without question I would have pointed the ragtop toward one of my trusted standbys—Isle of Capri (oh, that tableside Caesar salad!), Mannino’s (I could drink their marinara sauce!), Rigoletto Italian Bakery & Cafe (oh, those meatballs!), and Zia Marie’s (eggplant parmesan, please!).
For a lunchtime or breakfast Italian fix, though, there’s no question of where to go: Marchese Italian Market adjacent to the Thoroughgood neighborhood in Virginia Beach.
Funny thing about this little gem. It’s located in a busy-ish shopping center across from a boisterous taphouse that always sports a crowd. Meanwhile, just a short journey across the parking lot would transport patrons across the pond to a slim slice of Italy. To my mind, discovering Marchese was akin to finding that little locals joint while traveling abroad, truly one of life’s great pleasures.
I walked in the door that day as the owner, Annamaria Marchese, leaned across the counter of her tidy little eatery and seemed to be in a serious discussion about wine with a customer—in Italian.
The elegant and effervescent Annamaria Marchese, at the time a military spouse, opened the spotless bistro and market in 2011. She is a native of southern Italy and is glad to take your order in Italian, if you wish, and many of her regulars do.
That afternoon, my sister and I walked past the wall of carefully curated Italian wines, gawked for a bit at the cheeses, meats, and tempting pastries in the deli case before turning our attention to the menu.
When I have Marchese in my sights, I always anticipate biting into one of the hot, crispy panini sandwiches ($12.50) filled with all sorts of imported Italian goodness from that deli case—think fresh mozzarella, porchetta, prosciutto crudo (unsmoked, dry cured ham), mortadella, provolone, and such.
I’ve sampled most of the 11 offerings—the Parma, layers of prosciutto crudo, roasted sweet pepper, Parmesan cheese with a schmear of pesto. And the Palermo, ricotta, ham, black pepper, and spicy mustard. And the Milan, coppa salami layered with tomatoes, mild provolone, and lettuce.
This day I opted for the Trentino panini, named for the northeastern Italian province of snow-capped Dolomite mountains. It’s a region known for speck, a type of lightly smoked ham. For my panini, translucent slices of speck layered with melted fontina cheese were nestled between crusty focaccia bread with the requisite cross-hatch of grill marks. The mushroom glaze added just a hint of earthiness to the crunchy, salty goodness.
Meanwhile, my sister craved a pasta fix. She chose the Four Cheese Ravioli in White Cream ($15). Her lunch arrived on a beautiful rectangular platter with a school of blue fish around the rim. One end of the platter had a half dozen sand dollar-sized ravioli, thick pasta pockets filled with a savory combination of cheeses made even more decadent by the dreamy creamy sauce on top.
To temper the pasta, the other side of the plate was filled with a fresh, crisp, lightly dressed salad. A slice of toasted bread separated the yin from the yang. My sis, a well-traveled epicure, declared it one of her most memorable pasta dishes.
On my next visit, I’ll ask Annamarie to suggest a glass of wine, having learned long ago that Italian wine plus Italian food is a combination where the sum is much greater than the parts.
So that was lunch, our wanderlust sated. But Marchese also offers up salads, soups, and other main courses, such as the unforgettable cavatelli drenched in butter, sage, and parmigiano cheese. Or stop by for a leisurely espresso, latte, or cappuccino and perhaps a biscotti or pastry from the deli case.
Whatever the time of a day, it’s a trip well worth taking.