This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.[Krieger, 9/22/09]
You can walk the length of the gentrified restaurant row that is Smith Street, Brooklyn, and about the only reminder you'll find of how the neighborhood used to eat is The Red Rose. It's one of Carroll Gardens' few surviving red sauce joints, and the crowd inside doesn't in any way resemble the one you'll see in Po down the block. Nearly everyone who walks through the door seems to be on friendly terms with the Romano family, who run the place and own the building its in. Dad Tony founded the restaurant and can be seen shuffling among the white-clothed tables or sitting near the door, and son Santo is your gruff but affable host.
The front half of the narrow space, in particular, is treated by regular patrons like a communal living room. A mildly cacophonous mix of TV noise, piped-in music and Italian and Brooklynese chatter fills the air. Men with ponderous guts perch at the bar and watch the tube, keeping up a running conversation with Santo and showing no sign of leaving anytime soon. Friends—in running suits; in t-shirts; in suit and tie—mill about casually, standing, then sitting, then getting up again, ordering drinks ("Here's to bow-legged women") and plates, asking who exactly among the staff mixed their cocktail. It's insular and friendly. The quieter back is more the province of civilians, with a surprisingly wide range of diners. A young couple here, a table of soccer coaches there, a dinner meeting of executives from the Citibank branch on Court Street. On weekday nights, the restaurant may seem like a ghost town early on, but it fills up steadily as the night goes on, and is sometimes packed on weekends.
The Red Rose is actually more Old School Carroll Gardens than it first appears. The restaurant is only 26 years old—a respectable age, of course—but the Romano roots reach further back. Before opening the eatery, Tony ran a longstanding deli pizzeria on nearby Cheever Place, buying it from his godfather (seriously) in the 1970s. It serviced the nearby Sacred Hearts school (now a condo), feeding the Roman Catholic kids slices and meatball heros when they spilled out for lunch. When the school decided to serve meals in-house, the pizzeria withered on the vine and closed.
The Romanos took the pizza oven with them when they moved east to Smith Street. They also took their recipe for rice balls, which remains one of the best things on the menu. Prices are pretty cheap, and there's almost no bottle of wine over $20. Nothing bowls you over, but, if you approach the menu with the right attitude, nothing disappoints, either. Mainly, the place makes you feel at ease. The very young waiter/busboys (everybody seems to do everything here) may be among the most breezily friendly I've encountered, answering "No problem" to every request. Very likely, they don't have any problems. For customers don't go to the Red Rose to get uptight about their dinner. They go for a meal out that sorta feels like a meal at home.
—Brooks of Sheffield