When I meet Mike Mollé, chef and proprietor of Marie's Italian Restaurant in Stevensville, he's delicately arranging his freshly made cannelloni while periodically checking the cheesecake in the oven. He works alone in an open kitchen that looks out into a dark restaurant with muted pink walls, photos of his Sicilian grandparents and aunties on the walls and a grand piano in the corner. For 32 years, Mollé has spent 50-plus hours a week in this kitchen whipping up stellar Italian food from scratch, just like his mom and his grandma used to.
"The course of hospitality was always followed," he says. "I don't think we ever went a weekend when my parents didn't invite folks over for a meal. We've tried to do that with the restaurant, tried to follow through with that."
His mother Marie, who first worked the kitchen, actually came from a Polish family, but learned Italian cooking from her mother-in-law on their farm. "My father, he insisted on that, and my mom was such a phenomenal Italian cook," says Mike, who still uses his mother's original meatball recipe.
When Mike and his wife Denise first moved to Montana, Mike started a small construction and drywall business. Food had always been Mike's love, and between jobs he built the little single story building on Highway 93 that now houses the restaurant.
"It was difficult in those days," he says. "We were outsiders, you know. Unless you were born in the valley, you were outsiders. There were some unkind people. Little by little, some of the ranchers would come in and taste the food and they would enjoy it. Some of them have been coming in for years and years."
Things have come a long way since those days—Mike says he often has to turn away as many as a hundred diners in a week. He has travelers tell him that they've never eaten better food or that he should go teach cooking classes in Italy. I've never been to Italy, but I've never had better Italian food than at Marie's, and I don't just throw statements like that around.
A lot of Mike's dishes are familiar, but they include an extra two or three layers of flavor that make you brain-numb and eat too much.
A few tips: Always order the soup. The seafood is as fresh and flavorful as anything you can get in western Montana, or even much of what you get on the coast, so don't skip it. Most items on the menu come with a choice of pasta, and I'm partial to the marinara. Also, get the tiramisu.
Marie's isn't just one man's labor of love, it's been a family affair for more than 30 years. When Mike was still trying to catch construction jobs to make ends meet, his mom cooked and his wife waited tables, as well as baked fresh bread and many of the desserts. Mike and Denise's three daughters grew up welcoming customers, and now a granddaughter sometimes stops by to help out.
The result is far from a typical restaurant experience and more like you're being invited into someone's home. As soon as you walk in, you aren't handed a menu. You walk to the open kitchen window where the day's offerings are posted, handwritten, along the wall. If you have questions about anything, Mike is there to answer. (Another tip: Don't ask him what's good. "Everything's good. It depends on what you want," he says). Once you make your choice, you pass the assortment of bread, wine and dessert options on the way to your table. Remember what looked good, because you'll tell your server, who will likely be Mike's daughter Vanessa.
Mike chose to set up the restaurant this way because when Marie's opened in 1983, folks in the Bitterroot weren't at all familiar with traditional Italian food. Mike was serving up spinach gnocchi, osso bucco and chicken cacciatore and needed to be able to show his customers what they were ordering. "Visual contact with the food is good," he says.
Mike and Denise continue to keep the operation small. They're only open Thursday-Sunday, from late March to late November, and only accept cash and checks. Their enormous entrees run about $18-$28, including soup or salad, and the wine is reasonably priced, with most bottles around $30. During their off-season, the Mollés winter in Florida and do volunteer work. Marie still comes and visits, but these days it's Mike and Denise who do most of the cooking.
One last tip: If you do make it down, be sure to come with a reservation. You'll thank me, especially after a couple bites of the tiramisu.