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Two Toms, a Red-Sauce Gem Off the Gowanus Canal

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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, 10/13/10]

There are few very few places left in the city like Two Toms, the out-of-the-way oasis of bygone Mom-and-Pop, Italian-American dining on desolate Third Avenue and Union in Brooklyn, a stone's throw from the Gowanus Canal. Mario's on Arthur Avenue in The Bronx is one. I'm talking about the kind of place where the waiter tells you what's available, and there's no menu; where the food seems based on some distant relative's yellowing recipe cards, and is cooked by someone's mother; where the decor—if you could call it that—is equal parts social club, American Legion hall and grandpa's rec room.

Now that nearby Monte's on Carroll Street has folded, Two Toms is just about the last vestige of the Italian community that once lined the eastern streets of the Gowanus. The two actual Toms who founded it 62 years ago are long gone, but the joint is still in the same family, name of Catapano. The bent old man who walks the single, small, wood-panelled dining room and pokes about the kitchen is the current patriarch. His polite son waits the tables with a quiet officiousness. (He's been rattling off the same specials and serving the same food for decades.) There's a cook in back manning steaming pots of sauce. And that's about it for the staff.

Two Toms—which is closed Sunday and Monday and otherwise has a brief window of dinner opportunity—seems to have two levels of operation: nearly empty and packed. The latter evenings usually denote a private party, sometimes for New York's Finest or New York's Bravest. The restaurant books many of these affairs. Otherwise, the place is frequented by locals and regulars from other Italian Brooklyn neighborhoods, as well as the occasional questing foodie in search of authenticity.

Most often touted among the regular dishes are the baked clams and the double-cut pork chops, both of which are simply prepared, and delicious. Pasta tends to be overcooked, and the complimentary garlic bread can come burnt. Wine? There's a "Burgundy" and "Chablis," from California. The carafes are kept with the beers and sodas in a fridge by the small bar. But the people who go out of their way to eat here—and you almost have to go out of your way to eat here—do so as much for the simple, easy, ur-New York atmosphere as for the food.

Part of that atmosphere is an aural cacophony that one associates with a sports bar. There are two TVs, usually playing different channels, plus a radio station (and maybe a stray argument) in the kitchen. It's part of the basement-den aesthetic, but too bad in a way. With nothing electronic playing, the scene at Two Toms could be occurring in any of the past seven decades.
Brooks of Sheffield