247 North Collier Boulevard, Marco
There are days when it pays to hang loose and listen carefully: especially if it turns out there’s a great food story about a maverick chef who closes the place for two hours promptly at 2 p.m. and cooks-up a kettle of Manhattan clam chowder he serves in 16-ounce bowls ONLY on the First Friday of Lent!
“Sit down; have a bowl of soup — escarole and bean or Manhattan clam chowder?” Chef Jim Barney, inquired, when this reporter walked into The Italian Deli and Market on that Friday. I’d heard the place had expanded its menu and was now open in the evening. So, I called a few days earlier that week to set up an interview.
“Come and have lunch, bring a friend,” said Chef Barney. We’ll sit and talk and you’ll get a taste of the kind of food I make that we serve here.” What caught my attention were the three little words “talk,” “taste,” and “food,” which are terms of endearment to food writers worldwide. Even more intriguing, the words were uttered with the same accent and tone of voice I last heard from the counterman at Carnegie Deli, asking me if I wanted the fat left on the corned beef brisket he was slicing for my sandwich. Did I mention that New York’s deli countermen can carve steamed brisket into 1/16-inch thick slices and pile them two inches high between two slices of Jewish rye? Yes, really!
Well, that was there but here on Marco Island, I was enjoying that bowl of Manhattan clam chowder and listening while Chef Jim Barney talked and created his ‘Italian” hero. Truly heroic, it was a 4-inch-high Mount Etna of assorted Italian cold cuts, really fresh roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomato and a splash of vinaigrette on a huge, puffy ciabatta roll — one bite and the exquisite balance of flavors almost made me cry — really! There were four more cold heroes listed on the menu along with seven hot heroes, one of which was the equally luscious and large eggplant parmesan requested by my friend, and truth be told she was as equally impressed with her eggplant sandwich as with the Manhattan clam chowder. The menu lists eight kinds of soup du jour but the Manhattan clam chowder was missing. We inquired if it was a Friday special and Chef Barney answered he only made his Manhattan clam chowder on the First Friday of Lent. We remembered that our grandmother observed similar traditions.
Nevertheless, it’s no accident that quality, not quantity defines the kitchen here, although “large” isn’t far behind — just wait until you hear about the 16-inch pizza! Chef Barney was the Marriott’s banquet chef/manager for five years from 1990 until 1995: That’s when he opened for business as the consummate chef, caterer and overlord of the tiny fiefdom called The Italian Deli and Market!
“Arturo’s opened two years before, on January 3, 1993,” Chef Barney explained. “Myself, Susan, my wife, my sister Judy, and Arturo.” However, he’s quick to point out (and the menu states): “All catering is provided in conjunction with the high quality service at Arturo’s Italian Restaurant,” and that’s one reason why the Italian Deli is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 9 p.m. weekdays, 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday and closed on Sunday. We inquire if he doesn’t think that’s an odd way to run a business, especially one focused on food? The chef explains they need those two hours to re-stock and clean up because most of the catering events occur on weekends. “Catering is all done here — catering is our specialty. Another reason, we get our deliveries from two to four — this a small place, we want our customers to be comfortable.”
Some customers, apparently, were not!
“Jackie Mason came in at 10 of 2 — we made him sit outside!” Chef Barney declared emphatically as he related the comedy of errors and we kept on sipping our Manhattan clam chowder. “These guys dressed in black come in and I tell them you’ve got 10 minutes to order and eat; we close at 2 p.m. sharp! One guy asks me ‘You know who I am?’ and I answer, you’re a Jackie Mason look-a-like and you still have 10 minutes to eat! He asks ‘You’re going to close the door on me?’ Well, we did take his order and told him to go sit at one of the tables outside and closed the door. “We have a format – a routine – the regulars know it. My customers are people who live here year-round. True, we’re like fishes, sometimes you catch us … ”
In the meantime, our Manhattan clam chowder is getting cold, and it reminds me to ask about the mega-sized pizza oven that’s emanating warmth as well as taking up prime space in the front left corner as you enter the Italian Deli & Market.
“I got the new pizza oven in April — then with permitting and all, I began making and selling pizzas Nov. 1, and started staying open until nine Monday through Friday. I gave away almost 600 pizzas to everyone in the community.” Chef Barney’s right hand assistant and delivery man, Bucky (no pictures, no last names), who’s been sitting in a far corner, speaks up: “People said it’s a joke! He gave the store away, to the bank, the beauty parlors, and even all the stores. How are you going to make money if you give the food away?”
Chef Barney grins “We make the best pizza in Florida” he declared proudly, noting that the commercial brick-lined, gas-fired oven exceeds 600 degrees — we’re on of the few guy’s on the island that have a direct gas pipeline into the store — we make an authentic, thin crust 16-inch pizza that’s charred on the bottom and has blackened blisters just like New York”
“Some of the old-timers come in and have one of the 16-ounce bowls of soup with two ciabatta rolls and that’s their meal. “The older ones call me the “Soup Nazi of Marco Island” he says, looking lost in thought.
“I never thought I’d come to Florida and make a living selling soup!”