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.[Photo: Adam Lerner]
From the outside, Manducatis looks less like a restaurant than any restaurant in town. The angled storefront, on a triangle of concrete off Jackson Boulevard in Long Island City, is faced with fake stonework. There's no sign or awning above the plain white door. There are some small neon signs in the side windows, but they're obscured by gates and can barely be read. The property looks like a social club. Or a bar. Or maybe a mortuary. I'd walked by Manducatis many times over the years without knowing what it was. When I finally ate there recently, I told the owner's son that I hadn't realized it was a working restaurant. "Nobody does," he replied with a smile.
Yet the Italian eatery has been here since 1977, run by Italian immigrants Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone, and now their son, Anthony. (A granddaughter was cheerily busing tables the night I was there). How is this so? Are the locals fiercely loyal? "We get people from all over the city," said Anthony, thin, unerringly polite and bookish looking. "We get movie stars. Armand Assante ate here twice last week. And the Mayor just came. All our business is word of mouth. You can advertise till you're blue in the face. It won't matter if the food isn't good."
And the food is good. Ida is the cook. She learned her skills in Italy. A restaurant that makes its gnocchi with ricotta, not potato, and knows how to saute cabbage to tasty perfection has my respect. The food came on large plates that bear the photograph of a little girl. This was Ida as a child. When they got married, Vincenzo had the plates made. So I was basically eating off the Cerbones' wedding dishes.
This is the Cerbones' second restaurant, actually. They opened one in 1959, a couple blocks from here. Then they returned to Italy, returned to New York, and finally started Manducatis 34 years ago. It's a strange space. The front room, which contains the bar, looks like someone's rec room, with boxes piled up and papers spread out over the tables. Hang a right and there's a small dining area. Hang a left from there and there's a larger dining room. There's another room beyond that, but it was darkened and likely meant for private parties. Who knows? Maybe the rooms go on indefinitely. The red brick walls have all kinds of useless alcoves in them, which are filled with empty wine bottles. The upright piano is also covered with wine bottles, though they are full. (The wine list, btw, is notable.) There's a picture on the wall showing that the address was once a cafe called the Star Coffee Pot.
I saw no movie stars or mayors at table the night I went. Just a lot of fist-timers, all having a good time. I guess other people have figured out it's a restaurant, too.
—Brooks of Sheffield
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