When Marcello Fiorentino joined his family restaurant in 1996 following his father’s death, the wine list he inherited offered just 12 whites and 12 reds. “They were completely generic supermarket wines,” says Fiorentino. But business had been slow, and Fiorentino thought he could provide a spot where West Palm Beach wine lovers might congregate. Enlisting the help of his now-wife, Diane, Fiorentino started hosting weekly wine dinners and building out the list.
The couple's hard work paid off: Three years later, they’d expanded to 250 selections, earning their first Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 1999. From there, the selection gained focus and depth. In 2015, Marcello’s La Sirena achieved a Grand Award for the first time; today, it attracts guests from near and far with one of the richest collections of Tuscan wines in the United States.
Though the restaurant is currently closed for its annual summer intermission, it will reopen in September after Labor Day. Fiorentino, 51, chatted with editorial assistant Sara Heegaard to discuss the evolution of south Florida dining, his favorite Tuscan wine and his dreams of Italy.
Wine Spectator: How have you seen wine culture, and your own list, evolve since you decided to offer a more comprehensive selection?
Marcello Fiorentino: Going back, my father had restaurants in New York, and back then in the early ’70s there were no Italian wines that were consumed in nice restaurants. Everything was really Burgundy or Bordeaux. I remember my father and the guys after work sitting around drinking La Tâche and Château Lafite Rothschild. At that point, those were the greatest wines that you could treat yourself to, and you could actually afford them.
So that’s kind of the reason why we started with France and California—those were the wines that I was comfortable with. After we started with that, we felt that because we are an Italian restaurant, we really needed to focus on Italian wines.
WS: The wine list at Marcello’s La Sirena is known for its extensive collection of Tuscan wines. Do you have any favorites from that category?
MF: Our most personal and favorite wine is the Flaccianello by Fontodi. It’s a 100-percent Sangiovese from Panzano [in Chianti]. We’re very friendly with the owner, Giovanni Manetti—he’s done a few dinners here, and we spent some time with him in Panzano. We’ve put together a vertical going back to the early 1990s, so as far as our verticals go, that’s our baby. It was the first real world-class wine that we started to build a vertical selection of.
I'm not a fan of big, overblown wines. I like elegant, like Flaccianello, or Solengo by Argiano.
WS: Do you have any favorite lesser-known newer wineries in the region?
MF: We have another producer, Donatella Cinelli Colombini. It’s a Brunello. We met [Donatella's daughter] Violante Gardini last year, and she was able to send us the vertical selection from the winery. We just spent a couple of days with her and her family at Fattoria del Colle. Amazing place, amazing story, amazing wines. And the family is—amazing!
WS: Are there any favorite wine memories that stand out from your travels to Italy?
MF: One particular day in Panzano, we’d just had lunch with our family and we were on our way out of town. There’s a butcher shop by Dario Cecchini—he’s like the world’s most famous butcher—and we figured we’d stop in to say hello to him. [When] we went in, there was nobody in the store. He brought us through this hidden door and we walked upstairs and there were like 50 people having lunch—Giovanni Manetti and a few other producers—and we sat down and enjoyed a second lunch with the Bistecca alla Fiorentina and the Flaccianello. That was one of our greatest afternoons. [Panzano] is just a special place.
WS: Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing on the menu right now?
MF: Right now my favorite dish is our branzino, which is a Mediterranean sea bass that we pan-sear to create a crispy skin, with a light arugula salad. [With that] I prefer a wine from Campania or Greco di Tufo or Fiano di Avellino.
WS: How do you go about creating food and wine pairings?
MF: For a wine dinner, for example, we work very closely with the importer or producer to get an idea what they like. If we’re pairing a particular wine with a dish, we like to stick with a region.
We have evolved as a restaurant by going from classic continental to more classic Italian food. We do a lot of cooking of dishes that we eat while we’re away with our family [in Italy], which brings a little personal touch to our restaurant.
WS: How would you describe the dining scene in Palm Beach and West Palm Beach now versus in the past?
MF: I think [the] understanding [has become] that wine is the most important aspect of the meal besides the food. Who wants to go in and drink a Scotch with their dinner, with their buffalo mozzarella or their piece of fish? I think that’s such a drag.
More and more restaurants are realizing that you have to have at least 100 or 200 wines on the list in order to be taken seriously. In this area, all the new restaurants that open have at least 100 wines on the list; 20 years ago, nobody had more than a couple dozen wines.