Gardeners aren’t allowed to touch any of the 44 olive trees at Chef Marcellino Verzino’s Phoenix home, unless it’s to tidy up. The pruning and harvesting are crucial parts of his morning routine.
“He gets up. I make him his cappuccino. And he goes to the garden,” Sima Verzino said of her husband, who owns Marcellino Ristorante in Old Town Scottsdale.
Born and raised on a farm in the Campania region of Italy, Marcellino is at home outdoors, surrounded by his mini but mighty citrus orchard, his expansive stand of olive trees and his raised-bed garden that easily holds more than two dozen boxes.
“He’s returning to the Earth,” Verzino said of her husband, who has been known to fill his pockets with olives before finishing his morning coffee. “He knows the deep roots of everything that is grown.”
And after harvesting all of those olives? He cures them, drowning them in a months-long saltwater bath before opening and pitting each of them individually. And when he pairs those homegrown olives with fennel seed, pepper flakes and oil — that’s the delicious payoff.
“It’s a huge process,” Verzino said. “He loves it. It’s his therapy.”
Without saying so exactly, Marcellino agreed. He doesn’t use a drip system to water the herb and vegetable garden that is set inside an enclosure in his backyard, choosing instead to own the errand himself. The same goes for harvesting his fig, lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange and Meyer lemon trees.
He taps his heart with one finger when asked if he gets help with that chore.
“It’s relaxing,” he said. “I like to do it myself.”
With his prolific orchard, it’s no small task. It’s not uncommon for him to see 300 oranges on one tree, and clusters of grapefruits — bunched together like massive grapes — on another. It is that orchard that supplies Marcellino Ristorante with an organic supply of citrus for several months, adding a local, fresh flavor to the cocktails created behind the bar.
“My niece says, ‘Uncle, this tree has more lemons than leaves,’” he said.
His garden is just as high performing. A rustic stone and concrete staircase that Marcellino built himself, takes visitors to the elevated garden that sits behind the home up against a rugged mountain landscape. The garden used to be open, but now sits inside a net and metal enclosure to keep it safe from hungry critters that wander in to snack after dark.
A few years ago, the Verzinos lost the entire garden in one night to a ravenous javelina.
“If I want to do the garden, I got to build Alcatraz,” Marcellino said of the protective measures he had to put in place after discovering what that javelina had done.
And inside his mini Alcatraz now grows fourth-generation crops, propagated from seeds he originally acquired from Italy, and herbs that supply his restaurant, from basil to oregano to rosemary — which actually grows under the citrus trees.
Boxes of different varieties of lettuce appreciate the shade of the palo verde tree behind the enclosure, especially on warm spring days, and leeks grow alongside Swiss chard, carrots, puntarella, cabbage and fava beans — which tasted sweet off the stem and offer useful nutrients to the soil in between growing seasons.
“Last week, I brought two bags to the restaurant and it’s already grown back,” Marcellino said of the colorful, salty Swiss chard climbing out of his garden boxes. “It’s not hard, you just have to have patience.”
Marcellino said he uses his greens for some tastings at the restaurant, but admits his garden could never offer a reliable supply of greens for everyday use at that scale. He just appreciates the fact that he can grow citrus and vegetables he needs right there, harkening back to his youth.
He loves being able to tell guests, who offer to run to the store for a needed fruit or vegetable, to take the stairs up to the orchard or garden in the backyard.
“The store? Go up,” he said, recalling those playful exchanges.
And when he walks his guests out, taking them past those olive trees, he admires them out loud, pointing to where he’s planted more or where he plans to plant seedlings in the future. He knows whoever owns his home after him will have to appreciate growing and gardening as much as he does.
“It’s a beautiful tree. It’s green all the time,” Marcellino said of the olive trees. “Nobody can touch.”