Robert Marani seems at ease when he declares that his last restaurant venture, La Bella Bistecca, was a mistake. It was a pricier affair that opened shortly before the economy went in the tank, he said. So it’s time to go in a different direction.
“This is all back to my roots,” Marani said just days before the scheduled soft opening of his latest reinvention. “I’m also embracing the economic climate.”
Replacing the steakhouse and wine cellar at 410 Circle will be a deli and tapas-style restaurant featuring inexpensive, casual foods, said Marani. Both will have a Creole-Italian flair, but the foundation of the business will be oysters. Raw or char-broiled, Marani said oysters have remained one of his favorite foods, and he hopes to turn customers onto a dish that he said can be downright addictive.
“It’s fun,” Marani said of slurping raw oysters off the half shell. “I consider them like crack.”
Years ago, Marani opened a tapas restaurant and deli in Forest Park at the same address, then renovated the space several times over. His reputation as a fast, creative – and sometimes sloppy – business man has been built over decades. He has fallen in and out of favor with local power brokers, and they with him. Through it all, Marani said people have held his name synonymous with good food and good fun.
“I’m like oysters. You either really love me or you think I’m the most disgusting thing in the world,” Marani said with a laugh. “Or you don’t know me. Either way, just try the food. It’ll keep you coming back. It’s like crack.”
Marani’s deli is slated for a quiet three-day opening starting July 1, at which point he’ll close it down and pour his efforts into promoting the restaurant during the park district’s July 4 celebrations. The Shuckin’ Grill, his new restaurant, is expected to open later this month alongside the deli.
The deli is expected to be the “workhorse” in the operation, said Marani, and will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days. The grill is likely going to be open for dinners only, and just four nights a week.
A preliminary dinner menu tops out at $12 for barbecue shrimp and grits. Deli sandwiches should run about $6, he said. Raw oysters will be available for $1, and his specialty grilled oysters vary depending on how they’re cooked. Beer will be served cold and in a can.
“We’re wearing T-shirts now,” Marani said of the change in atmosphere. “There are no servers trying to sell you an expensive bottle of wine anymore.”
Marani acknowledged he has reinvented his location at the corner of Madison several times over, but said this effort is for keeps. It’s a simpler approach and the menu includes food he has been passionate about his entire life. He’s also confident that the niche will set him apart from the list of dining options along Madison, and the prices will prevent him from having to play games with specialty offers to try and draw crowds.
As for the live music that shook the walls of his former incarnations, Marani said he’s not interested in hosting bands – for the time being.