"I just started ripping everything out and said, 'Let the place take on a spirit of its own.'"

Joseph Marazzo at Virgola - photo Brent Herrig

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Virgola is the kind of wine bar you selfishly don't want to tell others about, in fear that it will get so dangerously packed it will no longer be your little "I know a place" joint. Joseph Marazzo, the charming proprietor who can be seen pouring wine and chatting up customers six nights a week, probably wouldn't mind that, though. Marazzo's worn many hats at esteemed places within the hospitality industry, and his first solo excursion is one focused on precision and romance.

The space is 6 feet wide by 60 feet long, with a dramatic wrought-iron gate welcoming only 19 or so people at a time. The menu is restrained, with a few oysters to choose from, ceviches and crudos Marazzo creates himself, and a selection of salumi and formagi presented on long slabs of heavy stone. The wine list is also small but comes in healthy pours. The most dramatic thing about Virgola, though, is the story behind its creation. Here's a bit of the juicy history. For more, make a reservation and just ask Marazzo to start talking—he seems to have fun sharing what he's unearthed.

Joseph Marazzo at Virgola - photo Brent Herrig

Tell me about the epiphany in Italy that led to what Virgola is now. I had met up with a friend of mine and went to his house down in Sabaudia; a beautiful place down by the water. And on this trip I had an oyster, and it was like I had never had an oyster before. It was just five guys hanging out on the beach: I had brought a bottle of gin, another guy had brought a bunch of oysters, we had prosecco, and then we saw a fisherman going by with a giant swordfish and we made ceviche on the beach. And then we were sitting in the town square having oysters and prosecco and I said, "Aha! It's just oysters and prosecco and salumi and formagi and stuff like that."

And then how did you start making this place happen? I wanted to be in this area, and I thought this space was unique. It was an Indian takeout place with sheetrock and a couple of layers of flooring, and a big kitchen. So with respect I asked my father to go in and talk to the owner...

Why your father? I just thought it looked a little better for a gentleman to go in and say, "My son is interested..." rather than me go in and look like I'm trying to be a hotshot or something. And my father's the kind of guy that when he asks you something, usually you say "yes." So about 15 minutes later he called me and said, "The place is yours." It didn't take long. So I took over the space and really didn't know what to do, but I believe in "ready, fire, aim." So I just started ripping everything out and said, "Let the place take on a spirit of its own."

This used to be an alley? It was more of a tunnel, but the senior citizens that I met who grew up in the area and used to play in it call it the "alleyway." One of them is a regular now. The process was like urban excavation. We had spent a fortune on these big, beautiful stones we were going to use for flooring, and the day we started to put them down all the machinery was breaking as we tried to fasten it. So we pulled up one more layer and found the original Pennsylvania bluestone, which you can still see on some sidewalks in the West Village. We had to jackhammer three layers of tile to find it. And once I saw it, that led to the dark, castle feel that's here now.

Charcuterie spread at Virgola - photo Brent Herrig

And the gate? One of my customers told me there used to be a wrought-iron gate in the front and that the alleyway was open in the back. I said, "Can you tell me about this gate?" And she described what it was like, and pointed out where the posts were in the broken stone. So I knew I had to build a gate. I called everyone I knew, looking for a welder, and finally found this Greek guy who is a bit obsessive about picking his projects. He came here and we sketched out this gate, this dramatic entrance. It's elegant, but it's a little dangerous with the spikes on top. And the little V's for Virgola—that was my contribution.

I think what I'm really proud of is the usage of space. I really look up to Keith McNally, because if you walk into his restaurant you feel like you're looking at a stage. He said once, "I like to build places that, when you walk in, you think anything could happen." It stuck with me. So I thought, it's not just about textures and colors—anyone can throw a lot of money at a project. So I've broken the space into three zones: high tables with stools, a four-top, and this banquette, which is usually reserved for dates, for sitting next to each other. I usually embarrass my dates because I want to sit next to them. Each section has a different height, a different color and texture, and a different source of light. So you can almost have three different experiences here.

Tell me about the "love locks" clipped all over the space. This place was clean and smelled brand spanking new. I'm a perfectionist, but I like things that are a little bit off. I thought about this bridge called Ponte Milvio, where you sign your name on this padlock and clip it on this bridge, and it's for love or good luck. I was thinking that probably we're going to have a lot of dates in here, and so I thought, what better way to mark it up with the signatures and wishes and love locks of my customers?

Osyter Spread at Virgola - photo Brent Herrig

You just have a cold kitchen here. How do you choose what oysters and such to serve? It's a really silly answer. Do you remember Pulp Fiction?

Of course. So halfway through the movie Sam Jackson and John Travolta's characters have a dead guy in the car, and there's blood everywhere. And they go to Tarantino's house, and it's a mess, and his wife is coming home soon so they're in trouble. So they call Harvey Keitel, the Wolf, and he shows up and Tarantino goes into this typical dialogue about how his wife buys the crappiest coffee, but when he buys it he buys the Kona blend, and it's so great, and he pours it for Keitel. Keitel smoothes things over, Travolta shuts up, and Keitel takes a sip of his coffee and goes, "Hmm." And raises his cup, takes another sip, and that's it.

And if you don't do the same with an oyster or a glass of red wine, if you don't say, "Wow." then it's not good.

Where's your focus now? I came up with a concept where I don't need a major culinary guy. And I'm also an amateur fighter, I box. And training to be a boxer is so hard—it's a joke how hard it is. You have to maintain composure; you have to relax while someone's hitting you, and the time you do you're best is when you're down and you laugh it off, because you have to keep going. It's mentally challenging and a sports cliche, but boxing has helped me to succeed in business, because when things happen you just laugh it off. So definitely persevering. Keep going. Keep going.

About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. Read more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.

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