It might take a while before the crowds return to Marmellata.
For now, no one is gathered around Raj Dagstani and his teenage son and business partner Sebastian, 13, as they work away in their small open kitchen in Abu Dhabi putting out pies and focaccia.
There is not a patient horde of people lined up outside, each patron waiting eagerly for pizza in flavours such as smoked duck breast with radicchio and fig and Swiss chard with garlic sauce.
This used to be the hottest pizzeria in the capital.
Instead, Raj, Sebastian and older brother Emile are masked up like everyone else, delivering their sought-after goods in carefully wrapped takeaway packages to cars arriving in pre-booked time slots, each five minutes apart.
They are still selling out items each week, but they are doing it through online orders.
“It’s a balancing act,” says Raj. “But I’m excited by the learning curve and determined to make something beautiful during this time.”
How Marmellata came to be
So how did the New Yorker, 50, and his teenage son come to open a tiny Italian restaurant together in the UAE?
Raj spent two summers in Italy learning marble carving, before going on to divide his career between the art and restaurant worlds, as a sculptor and director of operations for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.
He earned his keep cooking for everyone, becoming a quick study in the art of Italian food. Years later he took a random pizza-making class and no matter where they have lived, the family have always loved a good pizza night.
The name Marmellata, which is the Italian word for marmalade, and a lasting spirit of family entrepreneurship was born out of a stint living in Colorado in the US.
Father and son keeping Abu Dhabi in dough
In an effort to use up orange slices Raj had prepared as a snack for Emile’s soccer team – “everyone wanted a Fruit Roll Up instead”, says Sebastian – they made jam. Their first flavour was named after the opposing team, which Emile’s side had unexpectedly trounced.
“We made these labels that said, ‘Orange you glad we beat the Mighty Chivas?’” says Raj. “And we gave it out to the other parents and everyone loved it.”
Raj started looking for a new project when the family moved to Abu Dhabi in 2014, after mum, Martine McManus, took a job at Cleveland Clinic. Now head of pathology and laboratory services at VPS Healthcare, she is the one who picks Sebastian up from school on Thursdays and drops him off at Marmellata.
It's a family affair
As the idea of opening a restaurant took shape last year, Raj enrolled in a course at Dubai’s International Centre for Culinary Arts taught by Angelo Iezzi, a chef from Rome who is famous in the pizza world.
Focaccia went on the menu as a result of the many conversations Raj had with residents from a variety of backgrounds, all on the hunt for better baked goods.
“You can really bring people together over bread,” says Raj. The pair took great care in choosing their location, settling on the sea-facing Mina Port for its neighbourhood vibe.
The strip mall they are in is also home to a few other trendy food and beverage outlets, including Flavors Grill, Brisket and Auro coffee.
“I felt like Mina was this really visually beautiful place, and it was a slice of old Abu Dhabi that was rapidly disappearing,” says Raj. “And it did not have a definite community, so you could build one.”
Why it's only open one night a week
The main goal, always, was that Raj and Sebastian would do it all together.
That is why Marmellata is only open on Thursday night, so Sebastian can join in, earning Dh10 per hour for his efforts (Dh15 for overtime). “It’s the last day of school, so it’s time to go out with your friends,” says Sebastian. “Every Thursday I am like sorry, ‘I got the bakery’.”
Raj, on the other hand, works all week to prepare for only a few hours of service. He starts making the pizza dough on Monday, while focaccia is prepared the day before.
“There is a terrific amount of work that goes into opening a restaurant, even if it’s just for the one night,” he says.
When Marmellata opened on September 27 last year, things were slow at first. Then, on National Day, Hussain Al Moosawi, a photographer and die-hard foodie, came in.
Al Moosawi spent a lot of time talking with Raj and Sebastian about their pizza, tasting it and later posting about the experience on Instagram.
A frequent traveller to Italy, Al Moosawi became a fan of Marmelletta’s famous cold-fermented dough, which is allowed to rest for 48 hours, thus creating a crispy, chewy and gut-friendly crust.
“It’s a story that was worth being told about the place, the food and, most importantly, about the amazing people behind it,” says Al Moosawi.
How an institution was created
Word spread quickly among and lines began forming – often several hours before opening. For a while, Marmellata’s customers were almost exclusively Emirati, although the balance of nationalities had evened out right before the pizzeria had to shut down because of the pandemic.
At its height, Marmellata was processing 45 kilograms of dough for pizzas and nine kilograms of focaccia, baked with ingredients such as butternut squash and sage or grape and fennel seed.
Pre-coronavirus, once the doors opened, it was a blur of cooking and serving.
“At the end of the night, when there is nobody there and you see how many pizza boxes you went through, it’s really cool,” says Sebastian. “I would not say it’s stressful, but you do have to be very fast in the kitchen.”
Not only did Sebastian calmly handle the pressure, it has brought out the best in him.
“He is really attracted to people,” says Raj. “If I start talking to a guest, he sits right next to me and he contributes and he joins in.”
Marmellata is only the start for Raj and Sebastian’s ventures in the capital. Raj was asked to co-mentor a group of food and beverage start-ups as part of New York University’s StartAD incubator programme, which is sponsored by Aldar and opening later this year at Mamsha Al Saadiyat.
There is a plan afoot for a second “proper” restaurant, also at Mina.
Based on the success of Marmellata, that will be a father-son operation, too.
“We have this whole other dimension of each other’s lives that we would not get access to otherwise,” says Raj.
“It just so happens that we work well together.”
Raj and Sebastian may have made lots of mistakes in launching their business, but that has been part of the experience, along with each not wanting to let the other down.
“We manage it together,” says Raj. “It’s an amazing father-son opportunity, and we are taking full advantage of it.”