A little more than three years ago, Raj Dagstani and his then 13-year-old son, Sebastian, started selling their homemade pizzas and focaccias from their tiny hole-in-the-wall kitchen, Marmellata, in a sleepy corner of Abu Dhabi.
Only open one night per week, winding queues would form outside their hatch in Mina Zayed Port as people attempted to get their slice of the action before they sold out, which they always did.
Marmellata had just begun to establish a cult following when the pandemic hit. Like so many small businesses, particularly those within the food industry, its impact was crippling.
Still, the father and son adapted, opening a drive-by focaccia pick-up service, and scheduling collections in 15-minute intervals.
And now with the pandemic fading, Marmelleta has been reborn, returning to its original spot with more days, more seating and, most importantly, more pizza.
“In the beginning, it was supposed to be a project that was about family and building something in the neighbourhood,” Dagstani says. “But then it turned into this popular thing, we couldn’t have preconceived it, not at all.”
With 25 seats inside and a further 25 on an outdoor terrace, the new Marmellata is, Dagstani says, an extension of the family’s home.
“People come along and they say how many branches do you have and my response is ‘branches are for trees’," Dagstani says. "This is a restaurant, it’s an extension of our home. It’s really personal, the menu is personal and the pizza is personal. We are not building a concept, we are not building branches. We’ve got a little neighbourhood restaurant that doesn’t really have a neighbourhood, so it’s open to everyone, which is kind of nice.”
As for the menu? That’s had a makeover too. The new Marmellata is a mixture of pizza and focaccia, to honour both chapters of its legacy so far, with new flavours and ideas inspired by locally sourced ingredients. After a farm in Liwa contacted them to say they had kilos of fresh figs, they added fig pizzas and sandwiches to the menu, served with gorgonzola. When they discovered a mushroom farm in Abu Dhabi growing "incredible" oyster mushrooms, they came up with kale and oyster mushroom creations. And for long-time Marmellata fans, the pepperoni pizza with garlic confit and spicy honey is a permanent menu fixture.
“We are not an Italian restaurant,” he says. “We absolutely want to be an Abu Dhabi restaurant and be known as a restaurant that’s unique to this city.
“A lot of people know us as this focaccia place, so when we reopened, we honoured that piece of our history, but we do them differently. We do them stuffed and with toppings – so we have evolved as time has passed. And then we decided to do round New York-ish pizza, I’m calling it New York-ish because it’s a little crispier. Most places here do Neapolitan style pizza, it’s very soft in the middle, ours is very crispy more like New York style — it’s designed to be shared, we want people to be able to eat with their hands.”
Marmellata is now open four nights a week Thursday to Sunday, from 4pm to 8.30pm or until it's all gone — whichever comes first.
“When we were only open one day a week, we only had room to cook 50 kilos of dough which would sell out because it was a finite thing, we couldn’t physically fit any more dough into the chiller,” he says. “So we’ve tried to bridge that approach into a restaurant that is now open five days, building a team, working it into something that is financially sustainable. We try to guard against being sold out as much as we can without trying to generate waste. We are trying to do something that’s high quality and made fresh.”
And Dagstani also had to build a business model that prepared for the inevitable too — his son and business partner Sebastian, now 16, leaving to pursue his studies.
“I’ve got Sebastian for another year and a half, he works with me two nights per week on the weekends,” he says. “It’s just the most fulfilling thing ever, when it’s he and I working together.”
In fact, Sebastian was the whole reason Dagstani started Marmellata in the first place. When the family moved to Abu Dhabi from their native Colorado in the US, he wanted to ensure his son was able to gain experience and life skills, centred on the food they loved to eat as a family.
“I wanted him to work,” he says. “I wanted this project that I could work on with Sebastian, have him learn the ropes and understand the pressures of a restaurant.”
And it clearly worked; he is now hoping to study hospitality at the prestigious EHL hospitality and business university in Switzerland.
“He’s discovered that he’s a good problem solver on his feet and he thrives under pressure. It’s really blossomed for him,” he says. “When you are looking out the window and there’s a line of 30 people waiting for their food, it’s a lot of pressure but he really navigates that well. It’s very cool as a family to have experienced that together.”
It’s not just Marmellata that’s evolved either. Its location, Mina Zayed Port, is currently being redeveloped, and is starting to build the neighbourhood vibe Dagstani hoped for when he first opened in 2019.
“Who doesn’t want to have pizza by the sea?” he said. “It’s slowly but surely coming to life around here. We knew the location was somewhere special, it turns out that there’s a load of people who are rediscovering the area and telling us they haven’t been out here since they were kids when the used to have picnics, so it’s really neat to be a part of that.”
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 4pm to 8.30m; Mina Zayed Port, Abu Dhabi. More information is available at marmellatalove.com