All this week, as a Classics Week special, Eater is sending correspondents to classic New York restaurants and their newer counterparts, to see how the two compare. They'll report back on the scene at both, suss out the differences, and maybe even shed some light on what makes the classic a classic. Up first, Eater Features Editor Helen Rosner, with a look at two red sauce Italian restaurants:
The story of Italian food in America is, in many ways, a story about the color red. There's the wine, the waiters' jackets, the checkered tablecloths, the cherries punctuating the ends of cannoli, and most of all, there's the sauce. Much of the credit for this redness belongs to the south of Italy: its agricultural and gastronomic embrace of the tomato, for one part; for another, its pervasive poverty and — at the tail end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth — the subsequent flood of emigrants to the United States, who brought their propensity for tomatoes with them.
Among this wave of newcomers was a man called Pasquale Bamonte who left his home in the tiny Campanian town of Felitto and, in 1900, opened up a restaurant on Withers Street in Brooklyn. One hundred and fifteen years later, Bamonte’s is still standing, run by Pasquale's grandson Anthony and great-granddaughter Nicole. The restaurant is a study in scarlet, with oxblood floor tiles in the bar, red carpeting in the dining room, and burgundy walls and ceiling. Evenings are when the dining room is really happening, but the restaurant is open for lunch, and even on afternoons when the sun pours in the (red-draped) windows, there’s a ruddy gloom in the air.
The well-worn rug may have been pulled out from under many of the archetypal red-sauce joints from the back half of the previous century (thanks to an increased American interest in culinary regionalism, and a pervasive fascination with the cuisine and culture of Northern Italy that took root in the ‘80s and ‘90s), but sit down at a table in the back of Bamonte’s high-ceilinged dining room, and you’ll stare down a menu that hasn’t changed much since the restaurant was last remodeled sixty years ago.
The food at Bamonte's may be classic, but it's not very good.
That menu doubles as a primer on Italian-American food, the specific school of gastronomy that came about when those Southern Italian immigrants of a hundred years ago adapted their recipes and techniques to the ingredients available in American markets. Bamonte’s opened its doors early enough in this timeline that some of the dishes the kitchen is known for postdate the restaurant itself, among them clams casino, a preparation invented in Rhode Island in 1917 that involves tomato-sauce-basted littlenecks broiled on the half shell under a cap of crisp bacon.
Most of what lands on the table when you visit Bamonte’s involves some variation on that rich tomato gravy. It’s pinkened with cream for the spicy vodka sauce ladled over rigatoni, studded with ground meat for a bolognese that blankets tortellini, and it’s the star performer on a platter of veal parmigiano, shining sweet and acidic and true under a gooey white mantle of cheese.
But let’s not be coy: the food at Bamonte's may be classic, but it's not very good. The pasta is watery, the clams are rubbery, the waiter-recited wine list is a crapshoot most likely to land on a bottle of it'll-do plonk. But at this restaurant — where the ghosts of Frank Sinatra and James Gandolfini drink sambuca alongside a brace of yeah-okay-fine-they’re-probably-mobbed-up regulars at the bar — the food was never what mattered. The point of Bamonte’s is the family, the room, the stories, the blood, the warmth. The soul of the red sauce matters more than the actual sauce itself.
Speaking of red: In physics, there’s a phenomenon known as redshift. An aggressively oversimplified explanation of the concept might be this: the farther away from us something moves, the redder it appears. Objects that are moving towards us are subject to the opposite effect, blueshift, moving along the color spectrum the other way until they’re a brilliant azure. This applies primarily to very big things moving at very high speeds, stars and galaxies and the universe as a whole. Lately, I’ve started to think that it also applies to restaurants.
When Carbone opened in the West Village in 2013, it was carefully engineered to feel like it had been there forever. The owners — chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, and their business partner Jeff Zalaznick — promised that the restaurant would be a time warp to the pinnacle of 1950s Italian-American luxe, an elegant, extravagant midcentury setpiece inspired by exactly the kind of feel Bamonte’s would have had in its heyday. The music is swingy and jazzy. The drinks are stiff. The mood is clubby. The garlic is sizzling. The walls are impossible to ignore: they're painted a rich, saturated, renaissance blue.
The soul of the red sauce matters more than the actual sauce itself.
The blue walls aren’t the only difference between Carbone and Bamonte’s, but they serve handily as a symbol of their fundamental divergence. Carbone may be meticulous in its references to the classic red sauce joints of yore, but at no point did the restaurant promise fidelity. This is an elevation of the form, not a replication. The hodgepodge of family photos and signed headshots that crowd the walls at Bamonte's are, at Carbone, a millionaire's gallery of contemporary pieces. The salads at Bamonte's are whisked from the refrigerator straight to the table; at Carbone, ordering a caesar salad means a server wheels a cart through the restaurant to your table and composes the whole thing right there for you and all the dining room to see. It's a nod to the salad's origins as a tableside preparation, but with a theatrical Rat Pack flourish that pushes the procedure into the realm of performance.
In fact, the whole restaurant might veer into the decidedly performative, if it weren't for the fact that the food at Carbone is astonishingly good. The menu draws on the same references as Bamonte's — to the point where the task of ordering an identical meal at both restaurants leaves you a wealth of options — but the recipes couldn't be more different. Carbone's clams casino are tender and smoky, finished not with bacon but with a melting, translucent rectangle of lardo. The rigatoni alla vodka is a study in thoughtful contrasts: silky sauce and springy pasta, sweet tomato and fiery chili. The veal parmesan is thick-cut, tender, and ambitiously portioned; it's doused in a note-perfect tomato gravy and a layer of blistered, melty cheese so rich it threatens to puddle into butter. Even the pork chop with peppers — a reverent if unsubtle nod to the pork chop alla Bamonte famously served across the East River — is a masterpiece, a hunk of arrestingly flavorful meat draped in a velvety coat of red and yellow peppers that play a deep, sweet counterpoint to the chop's spiced and charred exterior.
If Bamonte's is the immigrant kid made good, Carbone is the movie star playing him.
It is, in short, a production. If Bamonte's is the immigrant kid made good, Carbone is the movie star playing him in the inspiring Hollywood adaptation, all chiseled jaw and poreless brow. Sure, the accent is right and the costumes are Oscar-worthy, but it's not quite reality. It's a little brighter, a little more saturated, just a little bit more gorgeous than should be believable. The blue walls are part of this: they're the precise shade against which the waiters stand out most vividly in their sharply tailored maroon tuxedos; against the ultramarine of the walls, the red sauce on the meatballs dazzles like fire. This is no accident: last April, when Torrisi and Carbone cooked a menu of Carbone's greatest hits for a fundraising dinner in Beverly Hills, they painted their one-night-only dining room the exact same color as the walls in New York.
Back to the oversimplified physics, though: Older things, slower things, and things with less energy are red. Faster, more powerful, younger, more aggressive things are blue. But these assignments aren't static. The red and blue shifts are along a spectrum — it all depends on the relative vantage point from which we observe. We move around, things move around, they look redder, they look bluer. The history of Italian-American restaurants in New York is ongoing; the food, the drinks, the decor, the music, the ebulliently mafioso mood — all of it is an evolving story, one that starts with nineteenth-century immigrants and leads, so far, to house-infused fig grappa and a $55 veal parm. Carbone could never have existed without Bamonte's. In some ways, taking the long view of the layered legacy of Italian food in America, they're the same restaurant seen from different sides, different places on this spectrum of old and young, looking back and looking forward. Bamonte's is red to its very soul, and — at least from where we're standing right now — Carbone is blue.