Cool evening. Aboard the 934. Swinging east along Palm in I.B. Cruising past 10th, 11th, Florida.
1205 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach
I’m craning my neck. “Know any good places to eat along Palm?” I ask the driver. “Like, good, but cheap?”
He thinks for a couple of blocks.
“Oh, yes,” he says. “Italian place. You might say Italian comfort food. Marco’s. Been there forever.”
“Great,” I say.
“Next stop,” he says.
And where I get out, right across 12th Street is this terra cotta-colored place with a green overhanging roof and a sign: “Marco’s Bar & Grill.” Narrow pipe pillars hold up the roof. Potted palms and plants around the entrance give it a tropical look, and a kinda relief from the hardscrabble commercialism of Palm Avenue. The oval pole sign reads, “Marco’s, Fine Italian Food & Pizza. Since 1964. Cocktails.”
So you know one thing going in: old-school. No experimental food. Which is very okay with me tonight. I just wanna eat, drink, not think. And, down here in I.B., away from the hotshot heart of downtown is where you’re gonna find old-fashioned food shamelessly surviving, thriving.
So, happy hour? Don’t see nothin’, but just before the door, two sandwich-boards. First reads: “Monday and Tuesday, Spaghetti Special, $6.99.” Second says: “Ravioli Nights. Wednesday, Thursday. In House Only. $7.99.”
Okay. Sound like deals. Especially as this is Monday.
So, inside, nearest thing comes to mind is Café La Maze in National City. Plush red leatherette booths, high dark-wood skirting, white stucco ceiling, lanterns, mural of an Italian piazza, and, on the sound system, Dean Martin. Singing “Volare.” (Confession: Love that song.)
I sit down in a booth. Look around for deals. “Free beer tomorrow,” reads a plaque hanging behind the bar. Right.
Not many people, but, Monday night.
“We don’t have happy hour just now, but we will by May,” says the gal, Andrea.
What they do have are those sandwich-board specials. Tonight’s, the $6.99 spaghetti dish, comes with a choice of meat sauce, marinara sauce, or a veggie alternative. I’m going for the meat sauce. Mo’ better filling. But first I need to check out what else they’ve got. And the menu is big.
“And it’s the same as the one we had in 1964,” says Andrea. “Here. I’ll show you.”
She comes back with two full-size menus. Lordy. One’s from 53 years back. A torpedo sandwich cost $1.50 back then. A draft Bud cost 40 cents, a pitcher, $2. An Italian roast beef sandwich with bell peppers was $1.90. “Chef Frank’s Special Fiesta Dinner” included antipasto, soup, salad, and an entrée like mostaccioli with meat sauce. Chicken alla cacciatora cost $9.50. Sigh.
Today’s menu shows most of the meat dishes at the $13-to-$20 range. Like, linguine scampi Alfredo costs $15.75. It’s large shrimp sautéed with garlic and olive oil, then finished with butter, cream, and pecorino (sheep’s milk) and Romano cheese (the hard salty cheese that Roman legionaries chewed on to keep them going on long marches). The full dinner version (with soup or salad, garlic bread, and ice cream or coffee) costs $19.75.
So I figure if I stick with the $6.99 special I can go with one of the antipasti and maybe a glass of vino, too. Antipasti items start with garlic bread at $2.95; Italian sausage in gravy’s $4.95; then up to, like, chicken wings, $9.95. An appetizer combo plate (with wings, fried zucchini, mozzarella sticks, and onion rings) goes for $12.95. Two meatballs with meat sauce make a nice little dish for $3.75.
So, pretty good choice, but I can’t get beyond the potato skins I see on offer. Not exactly classic Italian, but certainly part of the 1960s coffeehouse shtick when this place was born. You get four pieces for $7.95. And, what the heck, I ask Andrea for a glass of house burgundy, too. Another $4.
The spread arrives — pretty quick — just as Dean’s singing “Ciao, Ciao, Bambina.”
I’ve spent exactly $20.40, and for that I’ve got a baked potato cut into four with melted cheddar and bacon on top, and a little bowl of ranch dressing; two big pieces of garlic bread sitting in a basket; and a plate of spaghetti totally loaded with a meaty meat sauce, plus a generous bowl of parmesan cheese to scatter over everything, and then the dried peppers to shake on. I lunge into the potatoes, fork up some pasta, slurp away at the wine, listen to Dean.
And, yes, I eat far too much. But feeling way better about the world as I come out, just as Perry Como’s singing “Strangers in the Night.”
Red-haired lady comes out. Esther. The cook/owner. Andrea’s mom. She says four generations have worked here. They keep it in the family. They’ve been in business 53 years. Moved to this spot 12 years ago, when another I.B. staple, Red Hawk Steak House, ended their run.
I ask Esther about the time-capsule music.
“I only play Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Andrea Bocelli. No other music,” she says. “My husband, Alex, loved them. Worked 42 years in this restaurant. He started washing dishes at 16. He died six years ago. They’ve been with us through all this time.”
What strikes me is that maybe only here, in modest-rent I.B., can family businesses establish and stay decades, become multi-generational, wiggle themselves into the fabric of a place. Think of the number of anniversaries, weddings, wakes that must have happened here. That makes Esther and Andrea pretty important to I.B.
1205 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m.–9 p.m.
Prices: Potato skins, $7.95; Italian sausage antipasto in gravy, $4.95; chicken wings, $9.95; appetizer combo plate (wings, fried zucchini, mozzarella sticks, onion rings), $12.95; two meatballs with meat sauce, $3.75; spaghetti special (spaghetti with meat sauce, marinara sauce, veggie alternative, Monday and Tuesday only), $6.99; “Ravioli Nights” special, Wednesday, Thursdays only, $7.99; linguine scampi Alfredo, $15.75 (à la carte), $19.75 (as dinner with soup or salad, garlic bread, ice cream or coffee)
Buses: 933, 934
Nearest bus stops: 12th Street and Palm Avenue