Legendary Nashville restaurateur Mario Ferrari died last week at age 80, leaving the community marveling at the big life of a very colorful force in Nashville’s hospitality business and beyond.
Ferrari died Dec. 11 in hospice care after a long battle with cancer. He had retired from the business a few years ago; his pioneering establishment, Mario’s Ristorante, reigned for 40 years before it was destroyed by fire in 2006 and never reopened.
Born in Trieste, Italy, Ferrari came to the U.S. as a young man of little means and worked his way up from the bottom of the restaurant business, said his daughter Gina.
He opened Mario’s in 1965, a time when Nashville restaurants couldn’t serve alcohol, and international haute cuisine was nearly unheard of. Mario’s Ristorante became a blockbuster, attracting Nashville’s business elite, politicians and journalists, as well as ordinary folks looking for a special-occasion meal to remember.
Over his long career, which included multiple establishments, Ferrari became a local celebrity in his own right, and anyone famous who came to town dined at Mario’s. Randy Rayburn, veteran owner of Sunset Grill and Midtown Cafe, called Ferrari the “king of restaurateurs” who was a “confidant to governors, senators, congressmen and mayors who frequented his doors.”
“He made everybody feel special,” explained his daughter, who worked for him for 35 years.
Ferrari was also charitable, according to friend Charles Strobel, founding director of Room In The Inn, which serves the homeless. “Mario had a big heart and loved Nashville and loved all of the energy and enthusiasm that living in this city brings, and he wanted to be a part of providing the very best hospitality that the city could offer. But he never forgot to help those in need,” he said.
Ferrari felt a mission to educate Nashville on fine wine and the cuisine of his native Northern Italy. (In the 1980s he had a wine column in the daily Nashville Banner.) The restaurant’s awards included four stars from the Mobil guide and a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
Not everybody was impressed; Ferrari had a couple famous tiffs with the Nashville Scene. In 1992, acting on a tip, the Scene sent samples of Mario’s veal dishes for analysis at a lab, which found not veal, but less-expensive pork. Ferrari didn’t dispute the results but maintained it was an accidental mix-up, not deliberate fakery.
Four years later, Scene restaurant critic Kay West reviewed Mario’s: She reported service glitches, mediocre food and a pricetag that shocked her: $500 for five people. In response, Ferrari enlisted a lawyer; the Scene ran a “clarification” noting, among other things, that the nearly $500 tab encompassed both food and wine, and that Mario’s wine prices might have been higher than some other restaurants, but did not surpass the price tags at comparable three-star restaurants.
But the controversy didn’t derail the restaurant’s popularity; it operated for another 10 years. Even after the fire closed Mario’s, Ferrari was scouting locations for his next restaurant, his daughter said. But ill health intervened.
Mario Ferrari is survived by his daughter and two grandsons, Eric Marlo Ferrari and Max Ferrari Pace. A celebration of Mario Ferrari’s life is set for 2 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, at Valentino’s Restaurant, 1907 West End.
• Marathon Village (the subject of this week’s cover story) has a new cafe: Garage Coffee Company, and last week it introduced a new menu of salads and sandwiches crafted by chef Arnold Myint.
Myint already introduced grab-and-go lunch items at his Nashville Farmers’ Market spot AM@FM. At Garage, wraps include the Italiano, with mortadella, salami, ham, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce and olive tapenade; and a vegetarian wrap with house-made hummus, lettuce, carrot, sprouts and cucumber.
Garage serves gourmet coffee and espresso drinks in a cozy hangout in the 100-year-old former Marathon auto factory at 1200 Clinton St. Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday with extended hours during Marathon Music Works events.
- ALEX B FRUIN INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDACE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDANCE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; FRUIN, ALEX B TRUSTEE; FRUIN ALEX B INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC, CANDACE F TRUSTEE; STEFANSIC CANDACE F INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC CANDANCE F INHERITANCE TRUST
- ROSS, BRIDGETT D
- COOKE, ETHEN LANYARD TRUSTEE; COOKE, ETHEN LEWIS ESTATE
- JACOBS, JESSICA ALEXANDRA; JACOBS, ERIKA BESS