A new Mediterranean-inspired restaurant is expected to begin construction this week in the Naples location that was home to Russo’s Italian Neighborhood Ristorante & Bar, a local staple for 30 years until its closure in 2018.

The new restaurant, called Marlena, is expected to open this summer at  5854 E. Naples Plaza.

Owner Robert Smith said he hopes to “bring a new taste” to the restaurant, named after his late mother-in-law Marlene, who died in 2021.

“Marlene was a very salt-of-the-earth wife and mother who loved cooking at home and getting inspired by visits to her neighborhood Italian restaurant,” Smith said.

Breaking down the restaurant name into two separate Spanish words, “mar” for “sea” and “lena” for “firewood,” Smith said he felt it was the perfect choice as it also reflects the restaurant’s culinary mix of “the California coast and its European influences.”

A rendering of the new restaurant, Marlena, which is expected to open in summer 2023. Courtesy photo.

The menu will include eight small plates, two rotating pastas, two rotating grilled items and eight pizzas. The dishes are built around the restaurant’s Josper charcoal grill from Spain and a Mugnaini wood-fired oven from Italy.

A graduate of CSULB, Smith spent the majority of his college years and thereafter split among Italy, Germany, Spain, Huntington Beach, Long Beach and San Francisco.

Smith says the restaurant will be a “fusion” of all his culinary travel experiences.

In April, Smith departed from his most recent position as director of operations for Pizza Antica under the Bacchus Restaurant Group in San Francisco. Smith said his 25 years of experience in the business has laid the foundation for his new venture.

“We want to give people some great Italian-centered dishes with sprinklings of other Mediterranean cuisine using Californian ingredients and fresh farmers market produce,” Smith said.

He’s also excited to be part of the neighborhood.

“I know the locals want this restaurant space to be reactivated since it’s been closed for so long,” Smith said. “So bringing in good design is very important to me and to the community.”

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