A new Mediterranean concept dubbed Marlena will take over the space at 5854 E. Naples Plaza, where the former Italian space Russo’s used to be before closing in 2018.
In a letter sent out to neighbors, restaurateur Robert Smith said he was “truly excited to be a part of the community” and is seeking as “smooth as a transition as possible” as construction begins on the space.
Smith, a graduate of CSULB, had been Director of Operations for Pizza Antica—not to be confused with L’Antica, the Napolitano pizzeria moving into the shore this upcoming year—under the much-respected Bacchus Restaurant Group in San Francisco, home to Chef Mark Sullivan’s Michelin star-awarded Spruce.
Smith plans to bring his experience of 25 years with Bacchus to the space that is Marlena, noting that he and his team are creating a “Mediterranean-inspired California restaurant” that will focus on wood-fired food during nightly service while offering pastries, coffees, and simple food during the daytime hours.
“We have returned [from San Francisco] to be closer to family,” Smith wrote, “but I have leased this restaurant space because I love the Naples neighborhood.”
It will be a welcomed addition to a building that has sat empty and soulless for over four years, when Russo’s stopped serving patrons after 30-plus years.
Originally opening under the moniker of Pasta al Dente in 1989 and later renamed Russo’s, the Italian-American restaurant often paid homage to Jack Russo’s family history based in Sicily. Classic dishes like cioppino—a seafood stew whose roots are based in Southern Italy and Sicily—and pasta di mare were of the rarity when Russo’s first opened, garnering a devout local crowd that kept the restaurant in business for three decades.
Marlena, should Smith play his cards right, could be a great addition to a stretch of the southern part of the city that has seen little in terms of an evolving dining scene. It is expected to open in 2023, with no other specific time provided.