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.[Bess Adler]
Yeah, it's called Lee's Tavern, not Lee's Restaurant. And it is a tavern. An old one. It's got an old wooden bar, tin ceilings, tile floors, TVs showing sports matches, serves Bud and Coors, the whole nine yards. So what's it doing in this column? Because Lee's also serves what some think is the best bar pizza in the five boroughs, and has been doing so for decades. And because there are plenty of tables. People find this place and sit down for dinner every night of the week—despite the fact that the blonde-brick building, in this lonely corner of Staten Island known as Dongan Hills, has no signifying features, least of all a sign.
Lee's has been around since 1940, when it was founded by Leroy Moresco, known to all as "Mr. Lee." Diego "Dickie" Palemine (everyone has a nickname) bought the place in 1969. After Diego was killed in a hotel fire while vacationing in San Juan in 1986, his family continued to run the bar. Today, his strapping son, also called Diego, does double duty, manning the bar, and walking out to the floor when someone makes a food order.
The Lee's menu includes salad, garlic bread and scungilli—all of it cheap—but pizza is the thing here. Bar pies are an odd subset of the American pizza world that typically connote a smaller size, a thin crust and sub-standard ingredients. All of that is true here, except the last one. The ingredients here are good and the skill with which they're put together is considerable. Lee's cheese pie is sweet, subtle and tasty. And the clam pie is as good as anything I've had in New Haven. If you think you're gonna get better at $5.75 and $8 a pie, respectively, you're a putz.
I suppose Lee's gets a questing foodie like me every now and again, but mainly this is a Staten Island-sustained joint. If any of the patrons were from outside the immediate area, my social antennae didn't detect them. All the customers strolled in like they had just come from around the corner. Lotsa back-slapping going on here. Fat hands on sweatshirted backs again and again. Everyone knows each other. Everyone knows each other's sister or mother, and they all ask how that sister or mother is doing. Ninety percent of the drinkers and diners were dressed in athletic gear: track suits, warm-up jackets, sweat pants, basketball jerseys, athletic shoes. That not a single one of them had just come from doing anything athletic was a dead certainty. Staten Island folk don't seem to know that they dress like extras from "The Sopranos" and "Working Girl." Or they do know it, and don't care. Or they do, and are proud of it. I don't know. If I could call Lee's my local pizzeria, I'd be kinda proud too.
—Brooks of Sheffield