While Mario Marotta reigns as chef/owner of Avon Lake’s Aroma Ristorante, his culinary journey really began years ago in Italy.

During the sixth G7 Summit in Venice, Italy, Marotta waited on President Ronald Reagan, French President Francois Mitterrand and actress Elizabeth Taylor. He rubbed elbows with heads of state and worked at Caffe Quadri, a restaurant with roots dating to 1775 as the first coffeehouse to serve Venetian high society.

Born and raised in Salerno, Italy, Marotta attended hotel management school in Europe. A stint with Royal Viking Cruise Lines (now Cunard) took him to Switzerland and France. “I became food and beverage manager and ended up in the kitchen,” he says.

After leaving Cunard, Marotta returned to Italy. At Caffe Quadri he met his future wife, Rachelle, a Strongsville resident who was there for a University of Michigan internship. A few months later, Rachelle received her degree, and Marotta moved with her to the states. He got married in Ohio, moved to Pittsburgh and, a few years later, landed in Cleveland. From 2000-2003, he owned and operated Il Balletto, a cafe and catering business on West Ninth Street. But Marotta’s current endeavor allows him to put his culinary philosophy to work — it’s one for which authentic Italian cuisine rules and freshness is mandatory.

Aroma is a 7-year-old, 54-seat restaurant housed in a 1922 railway station. The original brick arches remain, but the structure has been transformed. Clay work from Marotta’s hometown has been introduced. A 30-seat outdoor patio — the only one in Avon Lake — has been created. There is even a garden of fresh herbs and tomatoes in front of the restaurant.
“Guests will see me going outside to pick them fresh from my garden. I use tons of herbs — chives, basil, parsley,” says Marotta, whose cuisine has “a regional northern and southern Italian focus — light, white and creamy.”

Menu favorites include the signature fettuccine carbonara with smoked pancetta, eggs, cream sauce and pecorino romano; farfalle (bowtie pasta) with shallots, vodka, cherry tomatoes and smoked salmon and cioppino, a mélange of clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari; and scallops in a spicy red sauce served over linguine.

Aroma’s pasta is imported from Italy. “It is whole grain from southern Italy, where the grains are maintained by the sun.” His bread is flown in from New Jersey. “It’s made by Italian immigrants. The crust is great. I’m able to make bruscetta with it,” says Marotta.

He describes Aroma’s mood as European. “We don’t rush people when they’re dining. The interior is long and narrow — an intimate design that allows people to talk.

Diners can choose from more than 50 Italian wines as well as an “occasional French Pinot” in stock. Marotta says he “concentrates on great wine, great vintage.” Monday and Tuesday wine tastings allow guests to sample European-size small plates ($7-$11) with wine pairings ($5 per glass).

The atmosphere and food are not the only reasons for Marotta’s success. “I like to keep prices down,” he admits. “Money is not the goal in the restaurant business,” he says. “Once the passion goes, everything goes down the drain,” he says.