She traveled south from the Amalfi Coast to Sicily, a master chef in search of how those on the largest island in the Mediterranean blend basil, oregano and other savory spices. A spot in the world where they think about food differently, season it differently, prepare it differently. Where the simplest of pasta dishes are created with incredible affection and care.
“The nostalgia of it is so powerful,” Gina Marinelli said. “I love the energy of it. The electricity. All the work that goes into it. You have to really think about what you’re doing. You see the camaraderie and teamwork and history, and it’s beautiful.”
Marinelli wasn’t talking about what occurs in a kitchen but across a 100-yard field.
This is a story about family, football and food — a daughter’s love for creating the most majestic cuisine and a father’s place among the very best coaches in the game — and how those worlds intertwine.
The football coach
Rod Marinelli and wife Barbara were set to visit Italy on vacation last year when the longtime football coach asked the younger of his two daughters for advice: Where, in a country whose infatuation with food, its ingredients and flavors dates to the Roman Empire, could he discover the most delicious … salami sandwich.
“She told us about one shop,” Rod said. “It was terrific. Just bread and cheese. They didn’t put a lot of stuff on it.”
A few feet from him, his daughter, the master chef, looked as if someone had just requested ketchup for a shrimp risotto.
“He,” Gina said, “is a simple man.”
They sit inside La Strega, a charming Italian restaurant in Summerlin born from Gina’s vision and inspired by her many trips through the regions of Italy. This is her happy place. Her destiny.
Her father’s place was cemented nearly five decades ago.
On any list of the best defensive line coaches in NFL history, Rod Marinelli will be included. His first coaching job was at his alma mater, Rosemead High School, in suburban Los Angeles. That was 1973. The school’s football field is named for him.
He has served as a college assistant, coordinator and assistant head coach, and in the NFL as an assistant, a coordinator, an assistant head coach and a head coach.
Now defensive line coach for the Las Vegas Raiders, Marinelli was hired in February after spending the previous seven seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. He also was with Raiders head coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay as a part of a Super Bowl XXXVII championship in 2003. Though he turned 71 in July, Marinelli hasn’t lost one hash mark of grit or passion.
“Rod has got to smell the grass,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. “He’s got to be out there getting his hands on the players, seeing what kind of motors they have. He coaches up the free-agent kid from some school that nobody ever heard of just as hard as he coaches the first-round draft pick from a big school. He loves football and he cares about the kids. He cares what kind of fathers they are, what kind of husbands, what kind of brothers. … They’re his guys.”
A life’s journey
Things were always a bit different at home.
The most intense and fiery of coaches on the field often are the most understanding and affable off it. That’s not to say Rod Marinelli didn’t impart the ideals of hard work and commitment to his daughters, because don’t all parents make running laps, doing squats and pushups a part of weekend sleepovers with friends?
Before her Summerlin restaurant was ranked among the nation’s top 12 to open last year by Thrillist, before it was named 2019 Restaurant of the Year by Eater, before she graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, Florida, in 2006 and moved to Southern Nevada to work alongside some of the most iconic chefs on the Las Vegas Strip, Gina sought clarity in her life’s journey.
Shortcuts, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, make for long delays. That’s not the way to develop a world-class chef or the NFL’s best players. In the Marinelli household, people were defined by the same principles as any defensive end or tackle: Commit to it. Work tirelessly at it. Never look back.
I love the energy of (football). The electricity. All the work that goes into it. … You see the camaraderie and teamwork and history, and it’s beautiful.
It was the same message when Gina broached the idea of becoming a chef with her father.
“There are a lot of similarities between being a chef and a football coach,” Rod said. “It’s about structure. Chemistry is everything. You need a certain amount of leadership. Everything must be coordinated, or it’s chaos. I know nothing about food, but I know there are no cutting corners on doing things the right way.
“Comfort is your enemy. Once you become comfortable, you stop learning. … The goal is what drives you. You can’t find it by being stationary.”
Gina was never that growing up, whether as a water girl, ball girl or one who raised the end zone nets wherever her father coached. If she wanted to run a certain distance but struggled, Rod would tell her to visualize small goals at a time. Get to the stop sign. Now to the mailbox. Now the lamppost. He never allowed her to accept defeat.
“He is methodical, encouraging, one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever been around,” said Gina, 39. “He’s a coach inside and yet so supportive and kind on the outside. He’s everything you want in a person.”
And there’s a whole lot of him in her when it comes to food. La Strega means “The Witch” in Italian, but in the manner of a caretaker or nurturer. It is a female-driven restaurant. Her general manager is a woman. Most of her staff are women. The design of it is purposely feminine.
She compares her kitchen to an NFL sideline, a male-dominated world that has slowly become more diverse. Since 2015, seven full-time coaches have been women and 15 coaching interns who are women have worked in the league.
Another of Marinelli’s goals: continuing to separate herself as a renowned chef, gender be damned. Never stop asking questions. Show up early and leave late. Become a voracious reader like her father. And if there is no crying in baseball, well, you’d better not shed a tear when overcooking the poached lobster.
“Gina is a grinder,” said sister Chris Barry, who is 11 years older, and married to Los Angeles Rams assistant coach Joe Barry. “She works constantly. It’s that influence from our dad and encouragement from our mom. Dad always told us the sky is the limit, that we could be and do anything we wanted. Gina knew getting into this meant a lot of work. It wasn’t a 9-to-5 job. She’s not fazed by an environment that is competitive and challenging and nonstop.”
The story of food
Barbara Marinelli is the wife, the mother, the rock. Her tireless love and leadership of the family dynamic made all of those moves work as Rod took various coaching jobs across the country.
She’s also one of the finest cooks Gina has known.
“Over the years, I’ve gotten more into finding different things to make,” Barbara said. “But Gina is the one who I watch and think, ‘How did she learn to do that?’ I’m strictly by recipe. She goes by her own vision, her own creativity.”
There are a lot of similarities between being a chef and a football coach. It’s about structure. Chemistry is everything. You need a certain amount of leadership. Everything must be coordinated, or it’s chaos.
That vision was discovered during those excursions across Italy, while watching laughing nuns walk the streets of Rome eating slices of pizza, at the farmers market she happened upon in Palermo, in the beautiful wine she sipped, the elegant pasta she enjoyed and the delicious smells wafting by. All within a few blocks of each other.
As with the distinctive characteristics that define a particular football game over 60 minutes, there is a story behind each plate of food. It’s why Gina makes time to leave the kitchen and relay such history to those who visit La Strega for its farm-to-table dishes.
“It’s the most important part in all of this,” she said. “It’s important to love and respect the food, from the farmers who grew and pulled it, from the truck drivers who transported it, where the fish were caught, who the fishermen were, what type of boat it was. I want people to realize how much work went into the plate of food in front of them.”
It has been 16 years since she lived in the same town as her parents, near the mother who taught her to cook and the father who taught her that if curfew was midnight, he better hear that garage door rising by 11:59.
This might be her dream, but it’s not the end. She envisions opening more restaurants, perhaps focusing on different Mediterranean recipes. Her specialty is seafood. More trips to Italy await. Even now, she’s always evolving.
“She can go as far as she wants to go,” Rod said.
He was reminded about the country’s top 12 ranking of new restaurants.
“Now you have to get top 10,” he said.
“She’s off to a solid start.”
Then he looked to his left and they both laughed.
You just can’t take the coach out of the man.