Mario Ferrari, whose Italian fine-dining spot Mario's Ristorante was a blockbuster on the Nashville dining scene for more than four decades, has died at the age of 80.
Ferrari died Tuesday night in hospice care after a long battle with cancer. He had retired from the business a few years ago; his pioneering restaurant at 2005 Broadway was destroyed by fire in 2006 and never reopened.
Ferrari's contributions to the Nashville restaurant community were recognized in May of this year at the Savor Nashville event, which gathers top chefs from Nashville and across the United States. The inaugural Savor Award was given to Ferrari to honor his long career, which started back in the late '60s, when Nashville restaurants couldn't serve alcohol, and international haute cuisine was nearly unheard of.
In August, after a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, Ferrari threw a birthday party for himself, which was also a celebration of his own life, said his daughter, Gina Ferrari, who worked in her father's business for 35 years.
The larger-than-life restaurateur had many friends across the Nashville community. Charles Strobel — the founding director of the charity Room In The Inn, which provides services to the city's homeless — was a longtime friend and lauded Ferrari's charitable generosity and civic spirit.
"Mario had a big heart and loved Nashville and loved all of the energy and enthusiasm that living in this city brings, and he wanted to be a part of providing the very best hospitality that the city could offer. But he never forgot to help those in need,” Strobel said.
Born in Trieste, Italy, he emigrated to the United States as a young man. "He had an amazing life," Gina Ferrari told the Scene today. "He came here with nothing, and he learned the business," she said. "He knew every aspect of the business, how to get customers, how to treat customers."
"He succeeded with good luck and hard work — he worked his butt off," she added, laughing.
Ferrari's connections among Nashville's business elite, politicians and journalists were wide-ranging. "He was a Nashville icon," Gina Ferrari said. "Everybody knew him. He made everyone feel special."
Untold numbers of chefs and wine stewards worked for and learned from Mario over the years — Mario's Ristorante operated from 1965 to 2006, garnering awards such as four stars in the Mobil guide and the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
In addition to Mario's, he often had a side project going, including an antique store. He launched the Stock-Yard restaurant in 1979 before departing that business. "He liked to open a restaurant, get it going and then sell it," his daughter said.
Ferrari's passion for the restaurant business was fiery, and his passion sometimes flared. He was involved in a couple notorious feuds.
As noted, Ferrari was a key figure in introducing high-end cuisine and wine to Nashville (in the 1980s he had a wine column in the Nashville Banner newspaper). But he clashed on occasion with editors and writers who covered his restaurant for the Nashville Scene. In 1992, acting on a tip from Ferrari’s kitchen, the Scene sent samples from some of Mario's veal dishes to a lab for analysis. The Scene's Bruce Dobie and John Bridges reported that the lab results indicated the dishes contained not veal, but pork. The story caused an uproar.
Ferrari, interviewed for that story with his attorney Jack Norman Jr., did not deny the test results but said it must have been an accidental mix-up, not deliberate fakery. He produced invoices to show he had purchased hundreds of dollars of veal in recent weeks.
As Kay West, then-restaurant critic at the Scene, noted four years later, the controversy didn't seem to hurt business at Mario's. In 1996, in an attempt to "bury the hatchet," West dined at Mario's twice. She reported encountering service glitches, mediocre food and a pricetag that shocked her: $500 for five people.
Ferrari sprang into action after the negative review, enlisting his attorney to consider libel charges over the piece. Lawyers representing the restaurant and the Scene hammered out a "clarification" that ran a couple weeks later without a byline. It noted, among other things, that the nearly $500 tab encompassed both food and wine, and that Mario's wine prices might have been higher than some other restaurants, but did not surpass the price tags at comparable three-star restaurants.
In a follow-up piece, media critic Henry Walker quoted Norman as saying that both sides agreed to “let bygones be bygones” and not to discuss the matter further. “There were some bruised egos,” Norman said, “but everybody’s satisfied now.” Walker said then-editor Bruce Dobie declined to comment on the clarification.
Despite the hubbub, once again controversy didn't derail Mario's; the restaurant continued to operate for another 10 years. Even after the fire closed Mario's, Ferrari was combing the city for a location for his next restaurant project, his daughter said. But ill health intervened.
In addition to his daughter, Mario Ferrari is survived by two grandsons, Eric Marlo Ferrari and Max Ferrari Pace. Gina Ferrari said there will be no burial service but she is busy planning a celebration of his life, which will take place at a local restaurant. The Scene will share those details as they become available.