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1100 Selections at Marea with Francesco Grosso

T. Edward Wines, New York wine importer/distributor, Francesco Grosso, Marea, Karen Ulrich for T. Edward WinesFrancesco Grosso at Marea

“I wanted to open my own wine bar,” said Francesco Grosso, the soft-spoken Beverage Director at Marea. “I fell in love with wine and there was a place on the Lower East Side called ‘inoteca. I went a few times and said I’d love to open a place like this. It was my then plan to go to school and open a place like that, but instead I said, why don’t I keep my money in savings and work for the people that know how to do it. I got a job there after completing my degree at the Culinary Institute of Education and took it from there.”

Assisting the Wine Director, waiting tables and bartending for three months, Francesco slid into position at ‘inoteca when the Wine Director left. What should have been a temporary job, lasted for four and a half years. “As far as I’m concerned, Italy is one of the hardest countries to tackle. There are plenty of tough regions around the world to take in, but my business was Italian wines. I had to sink or swim. Immerse myself in it. Taste as much as I could. Read as much as I could.”

In 2008, Francesco worked at Alto for a year, while Marea was being constructed. But it was then 2009 when it opened, just a year after the market had crashed. With a bar made from Egyptian Honey Onyx and walls made of lacquered Indonesian rosewood, Marea wasn’t, in the minds of many, destined for success. “The majority, and in the press especially, didn’t think we would make it because of the timing,” said Francesco. “The wine list when we opened was 300 selections, and with very few exceptions was focused on wines just for our food, that were not very expensive. We didn’t have Super Tuscans and that was on purpose. We didn’t have a huge selection of Barolo. We had very few white Burgundies. It was an international wine list, but it was really about relatively inexpensive wines from the regions of Italy that our dishes are inspired by, and that list still exists within the Marea wine list now.”

Since then, Francesco has grown the list to 1100 selections. As Marea now hosts the Acker-Merrall auctions, the auctions have become a great source for Marea’s offerings. “We’re very customer driven,” he said. “There’s nothing on the wine list that I don’t like, but it’s a reaction to what guests want. If someone comes in and says, I don’t understand why I can’t come in and drink Montrachet and eat Dover Sole,” then Francesco makes that happen. “That made my job even more fun because now I get to go and hunt down some of the greatest wines in the world and put them on the list here, but when someone like me comes in, I can still drink Fiano di Avellino.” Which just so happens to be his favorite pairing of all time when served with langoustines.

T. Edward Wines, New York wine importer/distributor, Francesco Grosso, Marea, Karen Ulrich for T. Edward Wines

With a father from Campania, Francesco was first drawn to wines from this area, including Greco di Tufo, Aglianico and Fiano di Avellino. “I love mineral components in a wine. Precise fruit. I love acidity and I don’t really like wines that are too extracted or cloying,” he said. “I’m on my feet a lot and am always moving, so I think the need to be refreshed is there. When I think about wines that have struck me the most, they’re the wines that when I’m in a really bad mood or not in the mood to taste something, and I taste a wine that brings me out of that, those are the wines that I gravitate to most.”

Francesco speaks fondly of his early days at ‘inoteca, which closed just last year after a ten year run. Owned by Jason Denton, it had become something of a destination. “It was a club house for people who love Italian wine, or wine in general,” said Francesco. “The first few years I was there, we would pour the last bottles of wine at 4 AM and let people drink until whenever. Everyone getting out of work at New York restaurants all over town would come there and hang out late night. I’d be selling serious bottles of wine to people coming in at 2 AM, and they’re the same people that I see today. They’re a lot of my peers and people who helped me out in the industry.”

New to the industry at the time, Francesco gives great thanks to the Denton brothers for giving him his first start; and also to his biggest regular at the time, Levi Dalton, who was working at Convivio. “He had me come and help him out while I was working for the Denton brothers, because they were very busy there. On my night off, I’d help him out and that put me in touch with the right people, and that’s the reason why I’m here.”

And while he doesn’t get to traveling much these days, winemakers come to him at Marea. Francesco is “blessed that I’m in a restaurant where, even after five and a half years, people want to come to every time they’re in New York and they bring their friends who are other winemakers.” However, as the gentlest of souls, he’s not always comfortable when brought face-to-face with a wine that might not suit his list. “If constructive criticism is dragged out of me, I’ll give them my opinion, but I’m not a wine critic,” he added. “I buy and sell wine. I’m an enthusiast. But I’m not a critic. I don’t claim to be an expert. I know what I know, and if I don’t know something, I’m very honest about not knowing it. I have an opinion that has worked in all of the restaurants I’ve worked. I run a successful beverage program, but past that, I’m not a critic or claim to be. I don’t want to offend someone whose hard work is in front of me. Those are the people I look up to.”

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