We recently drove past Marino’s, an unassuming Italian restaurant tucked away in a strip mall just east of the Franklin Library. It’s easy to miss, especially when approaching from the west, and we assumed it was a new restaurant, seeing as how we’d never heard of it.
But Marino’s opened in 1997, has since doubled in size and is practically the textbook definition of “best-kept secret.” As we slid into a booth on a recent Friday evening, it was clear the other patrons entering the restaurant were regulars, as familiarity crossed their faces when the waitress greeted and seated them. Many were privy to the fact that the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, which means no corkage fees. While most were cradling bottles of wine, one couple was zealous enough to carry in a small cooler.
The décor is simple and tasteful, with wipe-able black-and-white damask tablecloths, red and white walls and scenic Italy- inspired paintings. The fluorescent lights dotting the drop ceiling tiles (perhaps the only internal reminder of its strip mall roots) remained off in favor of a warmer glow produced by several wall sconces.
The menu features Italian standards, including pasta, lasagna, pizza and calzones. Our waitress brought a basket of breadsticks, which tasted fresh and house- made and were brushed with olive oil. We appreciated the bread, as nothing seemed to happen in a hurry at Marino’s, even though we were at one of only a few occupied tables.
I opted for the fettuccine Alfredo with chicken, which came with a choice of soup or salad. My salad, consisting primarily of iceberg lettuce, arrived with a tangy house-made Italian dressing, cherry tomatoes and exactly two croutons. The fettuccine was, well, fettuccine. I immediately regretted my decision after I saw my dining partner’s lasagna arrive. That’s not to say that the fettuccine wasn’t good. It’s just that the thick and hearty red sauce smothering the cheesy slab of lasagna looked pretty amazing.
And it was. My dining partner had been lamenting the loss of his favorite lasagna in Des Moines after Nana’s Pizza and Pasta in Urbandale closed last year. He now has a new favorite. And I now know what I’ll be ordering next time I head to Marino’s. He also tried the Italian wedding soup, a light, chicken broth-based soup with chunks of meatball and tiny bits of pasta.
We capped off our dinner with cannoli, which arrived with crispy shells filled with a creamy ricotta mixture and topped with mini chocolate chips and a drizzle of chocolate sauce, a light and tasty cap to a leisurely Italian meal.
Find it: 4940 Franklin Ave.
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Fettuccine Alfredo with Chicken … $14.95
Lasagna Rolatini … $16.95
Two Cannoli … $8
Total with Tax and Tip … $51