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]
The general feeling you get upon walking into the dining room of Piccola Venezia —Astoria's middle-of-nowhere outpost of Northern Italian cuisine—is of rampant happiness. "Hello! Welcome!" boomed the smiling maitre d'. "I like that hat!" The tables are surrounding by people who are are happy to be with one another, and have obviously congregated here before.
There are a number of large round tables. One was surrounding by 13 members of an extended family celebrating a birthday. Another next to it hosted a group of eight former high school pals, now all middle-aged. At a four-top, four graying old men leaned forward over full glasses of red wine, filling each other in on the recent events in their lives. The wine bucket near them, full of empties, betrayed that they, like many other, knew the restaurant as a destination for those who follow Wine Spectator.
The wines are a relative bargain here. The food is not. Prices on most every entree soar above $25. But that doesn't stop the patrons from ordering heaps of seafood, a specialty here (name your fish and tell them how you like it—they'll prepare it), and osso buco, which my waiter and the owner told me was the best in town. I haven't tried every osso buco in town, but I'm going to go with them on this one. The meat was unbelievably tender, the sauce deeply flavorful, and the big, Trieste-style gnocchi peerless. It was $33, and it was worth it.
The waiters, who wear black pants and red vests, proclaim their experience through their careworn faces. These are career men. Some were very likely hired on when Ezio Vlacich opened the place in 1973. A native and tireless booster of Trieste ("The best food in Italy! A little Italian, a little Austrian, a little German!"), he still oversees the service. Dressed in suit and tie, Vlacich visits every table, whether occupied with regulars or strangers, to see if you're enjoying your self. Say something nice about Trieste, and he might kiss your hand.
If you want to know exactly who goes here, all you have to do is peruse the hundreds of little gold plaques that line the chair rail around the room. Come here often enough and you'll get one. (I've seen this sort of homage at only one other NYC restaurant: Midtown's Pietro's.) There are individuals (Eddie Goldblatt, Peter & Anne, Margie & Barry Forrest), clan names (The Rodin Family, The Welzs Family) and companies (City Ride Transportation Family, Julius Fine or Fine & Klein), indicating that this is a favored place for business meals.
In the men's bathroom, a couple of guys from the round table of erstwhile high-school chums were rhapsodizing about the meal that just was. "I'm gonna say something," slurred the ringleader of the group. "Yeah?" replied his friend. "I'm gonna make a bold statement. Maybe the boldest ever!" "Yeah?" "We came here. We all came here and got together and we did it. We made it happen. Here. On sacred ground. This is sacred ground."
—Brooks of Sheffield