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Marco’s Island brings Caribbean vibes to Northside neighborhood in Iowa City
Founder of Marco’s Grilled Cheese opens trio of new restaurants as he delves further into brick and mortar
IOWA CITY — After years of delays, Marco’s Island has opened on island time, bringing a new atmosphere to Linn Street.
Owner Mark Paterno signed the lease for 121 N. Linn St. — right next to his brick-and-mortar location for Marco’s Grilled Cheese — on March 1, 2020. It wasn’t until Feb. 17 this year that he could finally open to offer new vibes that are a small reprieve to life in a post-pandemic world.
After toying with the idea of tearing down the wall between Marco’s Grilled Cheese and what is now Marco’s Island, Paterno decided to make the new venture a little more distinguished, modeling it after his own travel experiences.
“I decided to do this separately to replicate what you can get in the Caribbean,” Paterno said.
If you go:
What: Marco’s Island
Where: 121 N. Linn St., Iowa City
Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; will expand in the future
Phone: (319) 259-7555
Details: Open for dine-in and delivery through DoorDash, Chomp and Grubhub
A menu of island cuisine, designed by the founder of Marco’s Grilled Cheese, features jerk chicken, snapper fish tacos, shrimp tacos and fruit-forward cocktails. Jerk chicken, a signature item for Marco’s Island, and tacos feature spices and hot sauces sourced from Jamaica. Shrimp is cooked in searing cast iron skillets, giving them a unique flavor and texture close to charring.
And even in Iowa, you can get fruit-forward cocktails made with fresh ingredients — not powdered or premixed formulas — like pina coladas, fresh strawberry daiquiris and the Boozy Mangy.
“Even (many) bars in the Caribbean don’t do that,” Paterno said. “I’m doing the best I can for being in Iowa.”
But as the founder of Marco’s Grilled Cheese food cart continues to delve into brick and mortar with three new cart-to-storefront business openings this year alone — Marco’s Island, George’s Best Gyros on Iowa Avenue and Marco’s Game Day, which sells Hawkeye apparel — the target audience for Marco’s Island still is in limbo.
In an area that’s not quite downtown but doesn’t have the same appeal as upscale restaurants like The Webster in the Northside neighborhood, the fledgling restaurant still is finding its footing.
“I’m always guilty of wanting to get everybody,” Paterno said — one customer who loves the type of food, one who liked the ambience for a first date, one who loves the new place because they’ve been to the Caribbean a dozen times. “I’m not downtown, but I’m not on the Northside. I’m the hallway between the two.”
His first grilled cheese cart, which opened in 2000, was a near instant hit on the Ped Mall, with student nightlife. The move for Marco’s Grilled Cheese into 117 Linn St. was the next logical step as a home base for food carts after other restaurant concepts failed there.
As Paterno tries to expand into new cuisine, he wants to expand into new types of palates, too. But like most restaurants, the new opening is limited by labor shortages, keeping its business hours to Friday and Saturday, for now.
“I’ve been trying to go to the ‘grown-up’ palate, but I have to have the volume,” he said.
And as George’s Gyros, another food cart he acquired, opened its first permanent location on Iowa Avenue, he’s applying some of the lessons learned early on — before food trucks and carts were a trend in the Corridor.
“Those simple little lessons translate to every business. Having those lessons was a good start,” he said. “By the time I opened (Marco’s Grilled Cheese on Linn Street), I had almost 20 years’ name recognition.”
Waste reduction, cost control and reacting quickly to the demands of the environment are among the biggest lessons he applies to his restaurants now. In the 22 years it took to learn those lessons, Paterno, now 45, has watched the Iowa City restaurant scene mushroom dramatically.
What started as a “bluff that just worked out,” with his grilled cheese cart as a fresh college grad, has become an investment too big to turn away from. As his peers in real estate became landlords, he took what he thought was a more exciting route, even if it’s less predictable.
This restaurant, unlike his others, is more of a passion project. That aspect is visible in the thought out decor. Interior design, accessorized by Paterno, was started with a mural painted by a local artist.
“I want it to be a cool Northside option that people like to go to,” he said. “This is my artistic attempt.”
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