Dig In! – Marino’s, a mainstay on Schenectady’s State Street since 1970, still going strong — still cash-only

Owner Dan Marino makes a pizza at Marino’s Pizza and Restaurant on State Street in Schenectady and a Fresh Margarita pizza
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Owner Dan Marino makes a pizza at Marino’s Pizza and Restaurant on State Street in Schenectady and a Fresh Margarita pizza

SCHENECTADY – You have to do some work to get a pizza from Marino’s.

First of all, they don’t advertise. They also don’t deliver or work with any third-party delivery company. And they don’t take credit cards.

If it’s a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll have to wait up to two hours for your pie. Nevertheless, Marino’s has no trouble selling pizza.

You know Marino’s. It’s been in the same location on State Street in Schenectady since 1970, the year Mario Marino founded the business. It used to share space with an insurance agency. He bought the space. He expanded the back of the building and bought the neighboring properties on State Street, and put in a parking lot.

The secret to his success is that he is, as he puts it, “Very, very fussy.”

“I try to buy the best quality,” Marino said. “Grated cheese? I won’t eat it.” He buys 60- and 70-pound blocks of mozzarella, mostly whole milk, and drops them into a shredder in the kitchen. Then he blends the cheeses to his exact specifications.

“Customers don’t want it oily,” he explains.

Marino uses only extra virgin olive oil. It’s what he’s always used. He makes his own pizza dough in the restaurant’s 60- or 80-quart industrial-sized mixers. He makes his own sausage, trimming pork butts and grinding them in a machine he bought from Garofolo’s when the sausage shop in Schenectady’s Little Italy went out of business. And he makes 10 to 15 loaves of beautiful fresh bread each day.

Supply chain problems from the pandemic have affected Marino’s. Things are “getting better,” Mario said, pointing to shelves of 10-liter boxes of extra virgin olive oil and a mountain of canned tomatoes in the tidy kitchen. He bristles when suppliers suggest substitutes.

“They want to change things,” and he won’t.

Marino was 16 when he came from Salerno, Italy, to the United States, which he calls, “the very best country in the world. You can do anything here, be anyone here.” He came from a big family, and in Italy, he said, there was no chance to advance.

He ended up in Schenectady by way of Brooklyn, where he learned how to make pizza, and Amsterdam, where he said he “met the love of my life,” smiling at his wife, Maria. They’ve been married 54 years.

Marino knows every facet of how to run a restaurant because he’s done every job there is, starting at the very bottom. He washed dishes and worked in kitchens. Now he owns the place.

He’s still working today. Yes, he plays golf some days, but he’s usually in the restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays to help make 250 to 300 pizzas a night.

Also, “kitchen help is hard to get,” he said. “If someone calls in sick, I come in and cover.”

In the winter, Mario and Maria go to Florida for a time — but don’t get him started about the pizza down there. He’s tried to find decent options, without any luck.

Daniel, his younger son, runs the Schenectady business now.

“Call him the owner,” said Mario. “He does everything.”

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Customers can see Dan: He’s tossing pizza dough right there by the door when you go in.

He’s mesmerizing. First, he pats the dough into a circle, leaning into the counter a little bit, leaving it a little thicker around the edge. With the dough on the backs of his flour-dusted hands, he stretches the circle while he starts to slowly turn it. As the process gains speed, at some magical moment it’s time, and he raises his arms up and releases.

Momentum carries the dough higher into the air, almost to the ceiling; it’s spinning, spinning, spinning. He tosses it again and again. Just when you’ve got the camera up on your phone, the dough falls onto the back of Dan’s hands for the last time, and he eases it onto the counter.

It’s done. He arranges it on a wooden peel, swirls pizza sauce around, adds cheese and toppings, and hands it off.

But don’t worry if you missed it: He’ll be preparing another dough another shortly. He recommends you take a video, then choose the best shot to keep.

Dan’s movements are deft and smooth; working the dough has clearly become routine, but it’s also a balletic, graceful ritual. It’s a pleasure to watch someone do something they know they’re good at.

All the while, Dan’s eyes dart to the front door, the dining room, the kitchen. He keeps an eye on everything while he makes pies.

The biggest difference from when Marino’s opened 52 years ago to today is price. “Twenty-five cents a slice,” Mario Marino reminisced. “Now it’s $2.50.”

They don’t take credit cards — never did.

“We’ve always been cash-only,” said Marrio emphatically. He reluctantly allowed an ATM to be installed four years ago for customers who forgot their cash. “I don’t believe in them,” he said.

Credit card companies charge a small percentage for each transaction, and restaurants — averse to raising prices again — are starting to pass that along to customers. Some print it on the bill. Marino’s doesn’t have to deal with any of that.

He may be a picky guy, as he says, but he’s a welcoming, friendly host.

“It can be five minutes before closing and my dad is starting to fall asleep at a table, but he jumps up, wide awake,” said Dan. Whatever the customer wants they get from Marino, who is happy to supply it.

I experienced his hospitality when I arrived well before the place opened. He had a 12-cut pizza ready to cook, on each slice a different topping. Dan made two more pies while we were there.

In the dining room, the long table was set for his family and guests. He herded me over despite my reluctance, but he was so welcoming I couldn’t refuse.

Plates of Caprese salad made with fresh mozzarella cheese and basil atop ripe tomatoes were waiting, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic reduction, and on another plate gorgeous cured meats were arranged: just the right color soppressata and salami slices, and tiny mounds of prosciutto surrounding two kinds of provolone.

Then pizza. I tapped my fork on the underside of the slice of sausage and red pepper in my hand; it went tap, tap, tap. A crusty bottom. Just like Brooklyn, where Marino learned to make pizza.

“Try this margherita,” he insisted. “It’s my favorite.” And when I protested, “I’ll give you a tiny piece,” (he didn’t).

Marino’s hospitality has kept customers coming back, some since it opened. “I know their father, their grandfather, their families,” said Mario. “I know many, many families.”

Every Marino’s pizza is made by hand, which is refreshing in the time of pizza vending machines that make you a pizza in three minutes. How can they be as good as pizza made with homemade dough, toppings and sauce?

They just can’t. There’s no comparison. Marino’s is part of the fabric of Schenectady, started by immigrants who put the city on the map for its wonderful food. They care about what they make and what you eat.

Next time you go to Florida, just try and find pizza like this.

So plan ahead when you want Marino’s pizza. Call well in advance, get some cash and get in your car. It will be well worth the trip.

More: Dig In! Special Section – Eat up at these delicious local favorites

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Categories: Dig In! 2022, Life and Arts, News, News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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