Naples in Frederick

Mangia Bella at Manalu Italian Restaurant

By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 08.08.16 – Dining, Food & Drink

Naples is known for its great food. It’s the birthplace of pizza as we know it today; chewy, savory and laden with the sweet, slightly acidic tang of tomato, balanced by creamy, oozing cheese. Naples is the vibrant capital of Campania, Italy’s most densely populated region. It was capital of the Kingdom of Naples before Italy unified, the seat of power for Southern Italy. In fact, the Understanding Italy guide boasts that there are more royal palaces in Naples than in Paris, which is fair measure for a city surrounded by the riches of the bountiful Mediterranean Sea and plains of fertile volcanic soil from Mount Vesuvius.

For all Naples’ cultural pedigree, regional cooking is characterized as simple and unpretentious. Traditional dishes focus on natural flavors, thanks to the locale’s twin luxuries of freshness and abundance. A legion of farms, orchards and vineyards provide classic ingredients such as garlic and olives, artichokes and eggplant, lemons, figs, and almonds. This is where Europeans first dared eat tomatoes, the exotic New World cousin of poisonous nightshade. Now, Italy’s San Marzano tomato is a highly regarded variety. Maybe dwelling in the shadow of a famously destructive volcano reinforced citizens’ gusto for living and trying new things.

This is where Marco Pontecorvo, the owner of Manalù Italian Restaurant in Frederick, was born. Pontecorvo was baptized into the restaurant industry as a dishwasher/bus boy at 13 years old and was enraptured by the energy of the kitchen, working his way up to prep, then to sous chef. “Every day is something new to learn,” he says. Marco expanded his repertoire working in Germany and Northern Italy before getting an invitation from a friend in 1989 to work at an Italian restaurant in the United States (in Philadelphia). On a trip home in 1992, a friend brought him to Lucia Illiano’s 18th birthday party and the pair married in 1994, setting off to the states after just three days. A few trans-Atlantic trips later, they brought their Italian-born daughter, Naomi, back to Pennsylvania in 2001, finally landing in Frederick County in 2003. For more than 10 years Marco was a manager for New York J&P Pizza, a local chain owned by Lucia’s cousin.

His dream of having his own restaurant finally came true in November 2014 with Manalù, an amalgamation of the family’s three first names. “It was our email address,” says Lucia. “In all this time, with no family around, it was always just the three of us.”

Perched at the corner of Crestwood Boulevard and Corporate Drive, Manalù occupies the former site of Dominick’s Italian Kitchen, an eatery known for its casual atmosphere. The Pontecorvos transformed the space into a Tuscan-style retreat with warm, neutral tones and natural materials reminiscent of sunbaked earth. They expanded into a neighboring bay to add a sleek, espresso-toned bar that is separated from the main dining room by a stone wall with rustic brick archways. Recessed alcoves behind the bar frame Manalù’s selection of domestic and imported spirits. In addition to classic grappa, prosecco, merlot and cabernet, guests can sample several vintages with a wine flight.

The highlight of the main dining room is a wood-burning pizza oven, imported from Italy. It’s specifically designed to fire at a scorching 900 degrees, cooking a pizza in less than two minutes. The result is a delicate, lightly charred crust that is chewy and slightly puffed at the edges and just the right size for one or two people. This is serious business. The art of Neapolitan pizza making is revered, with controlled designation available, via the Italian government, for those who follow its strict tradition.

The dough for Manalù’s Pizza Napoletana is made with finely ground wheat flour, fresh brewer’s yeast, water and salt—usually by chef Marco himself. Pies are formed by hand then topped with pureed tomato, dollops of authentic mozzarella di bufala (water buffalo milk mozzarella), fresh basil and olive oil. Classic Margherita and Marinara (no cheese) pizzas springboard into other creative options: Diavola, with spicy salami and roasted peppers; O’sole Mio, with sausage and a bite of broccoli rabe; or Bella Italia, with prosciutto di Parma, arugula and shaved parmesan. The quirky Spiritosa has its fans, too, sans sauce and strewn with hot dog pieces and French fries. Marco grins, “It’s something you have to try.”

Even if you don’t order pizza, diners get baskets of the seared bread for dipping in seasoned olive oil. That’s a plus because there is much more to Manalù’s menu. Seafood stars in Naples’ cuisine, such as the Gamberi Grantinati appetizer. It’s heaven on a half-shell, as baby shrimp are tossed with shallots, herbs and lively lemon, topped with bread crumbs and baked on scallop shells. For variety, the Frittura Mista pairs gooey, fried mozzarella sticks with crispy potato croquettes and rice balls. Manalù’s Risotto del Pescatore entrée is a mélange of shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari and scallops with velvety Italian Arborio rice.

“We do all our own manicotti, stuffed shells, and ravioli,” says Marco. His personal favorite is Ravioli Mare e Monti, pillows of black (squid ink) pasta filled with lobster, served with scallops, crab and shrimp in a creamy white wine tomato sauce.  He’ll also make fresh pasta flavored with spinach or tomato, silky egg pappardelle and hearty gnocchi. Popular favorites like lasagna, baked ziti and eggplant parmigiana also beckon fans back again, eliciting numerous guest reviews calling the place a “hidden gem.”

Marco, Lucia, and Naomi are gregarious hosts, routinely canvassing the dining room to personally connect with patrons, and they’ve made fast friends. Every third customer seems to be a regular, greeted with a hug or a few cheery words in their native tongue. The staff has fun with birthday celebrations, too, belting out the song in Italian. Reservations are definitely recommended on weekends.

“When I brought my daughter to the United States,” Lucia quips, “she didn’t even know how to say, ‘Hello.’ Now she has an accent when she speaks Italian.” So many years later, and a long way from home, it’s clear that the Pontecorvos have found a new place to call their own. Even if their hearts still pine for loved ones an ocean away, a plate can bridge two worlds.