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, 5/27/10]
One thing I've noticed about the time-marking restaurants I feature in these columns—the owners are almost always on the premises, usually somewhere near the bar. They're not making personal appearances somewhere or busy planning the opening of their next place. They're checking on the kitchen, checking on the customers. During my entire dinner at La Traviata—an improbably steadfast storefront (33 years and counting) on changeable Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights—I never lost sight of my host, Ralph Tommaso. He was rooted to a bar stool, talking to a couple of friends, an old guy in a white shirt and a woman in a blonde, Peggy Lee wig.
True, Ralph didn't greet his guests as they came in. Neither did any of the slew of tall, strapping Polish waitresses that work the place. But nobody greets you at La Traviata. You seat yourself at whichever of the well-worn four-tops you wish. Whatever your choice, you'll end up somewhere under the huge skylights and have a view of the odd, glassed-in Italian garden in the rear. No al fresco dining back there. It's a kind of still life.
The menu at La Traviata is extensive. All the usual staples. You won't get anybody to rave about the quality; people say things like "edible" and "meh"; the woman who exited as I entered called the food "average," even if her son's eyes went wide at the mere thought of the spaghetti and meatballs. Yet, despite the lackluster testimonials, the joint does a boffo takeout biz (there used to be a branch on Joralemon devoted to takeaway), and the tables on a recent weekday evening were nearly all full. The exceptionally low prices (entrees hover between $8 and $15) and big portions are an obvious attraction.
The room was almost evenly split between white and African-American couples. Most were obvious repeat customers, tired after their long days, and quietly thankful for the restaurant's utter informality and unrushed atmosphere. These diners aren't looking for adventure. They order mozzarella sticks, caesar salad, garlic bread, cheesecake and anything parmigiana. And a lot of cranberry and vodkas. They know La Traviata isn't special. But they think it's nice.
—Brooks of Sheffield