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Chef Michael Maroni, owner of Maroni Cuisine in Northport, dead at 57, police say

Chef and owner Michael Maroni poses for a

Chef and owner Michael Maroni poses for a portrait in the kitchen of Maroni Cuisine in Northport, June 1, 2016. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Michael Maroni, chef-owner of Northport’s Maroni Cuisine, has died, police said Friday.

Maroni, 57, suffered an apparent medical event while swimming in an indoor pool Thursday, Suffolk police said.  Northport Village Police went to his home about 10 p.m., and Maroni was transported to Huntington Hospital, where he was pronounced dead Friday, police said.

Maroni Cuisine, which Michael and his wife, Maria, opened in 2001, was unlike any other restaurant on Long Island, and perfectly expressed the contradictions of its chef, at once refined and raucous, high end and down to earth. The sole dining option was a constantly changing chef’s menu priced at $140-$150 depending on the night of the week.

But while most chef's tasting menus comprise tiny, artfully composed plates of rarefied ingredients, Maroni’s was a wedding-worthy onslaught of generous servings — lobster bisque, Thai spring rolls, Kobe beef sliders, eggplant Parmesan and, always, his signature “million-dollar potato chips" topped with caviar.

The atmosphere inside the 32-seat restaurant was just as exuberant. In the kitchen, in the dining room, even blasting out onto the sidewalk, was the persistent backbeat of rock and roll. The Dead, Pink Floyd, late Beatles, early Chicago.

While Maroni and his kitchen crew executed the day's menu, a cook was always processing takeout orders of an entirely different order: trays of penne alla vodka, linguine with clam sauce, and, most of all, pots of Maroni's signature meatballs. These meatballs got so famous that they goaded Bobby Flay into a Food Network Throwdown in 2007. Flay lost. The Maronis were planning to open a casual, meatball-driven location in Southold this spring.

Michael Maroni grew up in Locust Valley, descended from the Italian immigrants who moved to Nassau County and formed the backbone of the local food establishment. The Maronis attended St. Rocco's church in Glen Cove and, before Mass ended, Michael would run across the parking lot to get a loaf of brick-oven bread at the late St. Rocco's bakery. This would give him a head start to reach the next stop on the Sunday shopping circuit, the salumeria counter at Razzano's.

The only real cooking teacher he ever had was his father, Fiorentino "Fred" Maroni, who ran a beer distributorship in Glen Cove. The youngest of nine children, Fiorentino was his mother Maria's designated kitchen helper, and one of the many family recipes he passed on to his son was the one for Maria's peerless meatballs.

At the age of 8, Maroni knew he wanted to cook for a living. At 16, he was cooking at the Northstage Dinner Theater in Glen Cove; the next year he took over the kitchen at a neighboring pub, the Starting Gate.

"I would get home from school at four and headed right to the kitchen," he told Newsday in 2008. "I'm not proud of this, but I never took a book home from high school."

After a stint in the Navy, Maroni cooked all over Long Island at, among other establishments, Old Gerlich's in Glen Head, the Nassau County Bar Association in Mineola, the Ritz in Northport, the Sea Cliff Yacht Club — before opening Mirepoix in Glen Head in 1997. With its French name, fine linens and Mediterranean-inflected menu, Mirepoix soon came to be regarded as one of Long Island's best restaurants.

Around the same time, Maroni started to kick around an idea for a meatball business based on his grandmother Maria's recipe. So he and Maria (they married in 1995), took over a pizzeria in Northport with the goal of establishing a meatball-centric Italian takeout restaurant. Maroni Cuisine opened in May 2001.

Initially, his venture was ignored by the community. "People in Northport weren't ready to pay $10 a pound for broccoli rabe, or $5.99 for a quart of soup — even if they were homemade with the best ingredients."

Gradually — and somewhat counter-intuitively — he began to shift gears upward. He got rid of the pizza oven and stopped paying attention to prices. He put a lobster roll on the menu and charged $18. "People would say, 'I can get it cheaper Out East,'" and he'd respond, "so, go Out East and get it then. I don't know what else to tell you."

Meanwhile, Maroni had begun to tire of the whole white-tablecloth dog-and-pony show. "You get greeted by a snotty host," he observed, "then you sit there for 15 minutes without anything to drink or eat. A lot of restaurants just aren't fun."

And the traditional restaurant menu was another irritant. "I was so tired of having this thing that people open and then choose an appetizer and an entree and a dessert." He also was growing impatient with the myriad adjustments that diners want the chef to make, "the old 'I want the swordfish but can I have it prepared like the grouper?'"

Mirepoix closed in 2002, and Michael and Maria devoted themselves exclusively to Maroni Cuisine. At the very bottom of the increasingly eclectic menu, Maroni began to run this line: "Chef's crazy tasting menu: ask." And, gradually, the menu vanished, and all that was left was the crazy tasting menu, and the Italian takeout business, which had finally begun to take off.

It didn’t take long for the restaurant to reach the summit of popular opinion. For as long as the Zagat Survey covered Long Island, Maroni was never out of its top five. In its most recent review, in 2016, Newsday awarded it three stars.

In 2008, Maroni observed that his tenure at Maroni Cuisine was “the longest I’ve done anything” and that, on occasion, “I’d be happy if I never saw another chicken Milanese or baked clam again. But, he said, the bottom line was, “I've never walked in here and been bored. That's all I can ask for."

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