Eater critic Robert Sietsema offers a list of five must-try Italian-American restaurants, places where this type of food originated, plus five more also noteworthy for food and atmosphere.
Last December we did a roundup of the best Italian-American restaurants located in Brooklyn — old-timers peddling the red-sauced cuisine that first arose when immigrant housewives adapted American ingredients to their Italian recipes over a century ago, highlighting things like spaghetti with meatballs, stuffed clams, baked pastas, eggplant rollatini, caesar salads, and cutlets of veal and chicken. The response prompted us to extend the list of recommendations to the other four boroughs and nearby New Jersey. Here are some picks for an exceedingly enjoyable retro-dining experience — call it Heirloom Eating, Italian-American style. Restaurants are listed in order of preference.
THE FIVE BEST
Anomalously located on a darkened side street near the entrance to the Queensboro Bridge, as if to permit a quick getaway, Il Vagabondo enjoys many distinctions among classic Italian-American establishments. For example, it’s the only place you can play bocce ball between courses. Founded as an East Side Italian social club in 1910 (at which point the indoor bocce court was installed), it became a full-fledged restaurant in 1965. While the outside is sleek and very 60s-Moderne, the interior — consisting of a full barroom and three separate dining rooms — is handsome and plain, with white walls, semicircular sconces streaming light, and wood wainscoting. You pass a gleaming open kitchen on the way in, and the staff wears crisp white shirts. An altogether delightful spot.
The caesar salad is exuberant, with just the right amount of anchovy in the dressing and pristine romaine torn into bite-size tidbits. Chicken scarpariello proves similarly luxuriant, gnarled pieces of dark and light chicken sauteed with thick nubs of pork sausage in olive oil and garlic scented with rosemary; and the restaurant is justly proud of its plate-flopping veal parm, smothered in a melted combination of cheeses. When ordered with both meat sauce and meatballs, spaghetti turns into a belt-busting ground-beef festival. Entrees come with a choice of red-sauced pastas or a big plate of steamed vegetables that seem almost French, and the volume of food in the entrees guarantees you probably don’t need an appetizer or dessert. 351 E 62nd St, (212) 832-9221
You may have spotted Rita & Joe’s in an episode of The Sopranos, a distinctive three-story green building next to a tangle of highway interchanges, with the name painted in big cursive letters high up on the facade. Inside is more intimate than you might imagine from the outside, with a bar up front and compact dining room in the rear — though the unseen banquet room must be much larger. The place is young in Italian-American restaurant years (founded 1985), but it seems much older, especially when it comes to the menu.
The baked clams sing with oceanic flavor, five delicate specimens heavily crumbed and tasting powerfully of garlic and oregano. A threesome of meatballs is offered as a side dish; an order graces nearly every table, which fill with local Jersey regulars around 7 p.m. each evening. The beef braciole (stuffed meat roll) is almost a baseball bat, served with rigatoni and easily enough for two as an entrée. Cheese raviolis, flooded with a bright red tomato sauce, are mind-bogglingly big and arrive decorated with a sprinkle of parsley, while eggplant parmesan is offered in a unique, unbreaded version — you’ll wonder if it’s intended to be low-carb or just a Jersey variation on a classic. Either way, the eggplant proves delicious. I went with a large table in a snowstorm, and really, we didn’t have a bad dish. 142 Broadway, Jersey City, NJ, (201) 451-3606
Founded in 1919 as a pizza parlor, Mario’s is the oldest restaurant in the Bronx’s Belmont neighborhood (aka Arthur Avenue), a sprawling palace of shabby elegance that will send you back through the decades. Oil paintings darkened by age line the walls, Michelangelo statuettes pose at intervals between the paintings, and white ionic columns are intended to suggest the glory that was ancient Rome. A look inside this kitsch-filled space might make you wonder if the food could actually be good. Don’t doubt it for a second.
A massive oiled heap of tentacles punctuated with black olives, the octopus salad tastes powerfully of the sea — squeeze on the lemon. Perhaps the most astonishing starter is the Roman spiedini (not to be confused with the Sicilian spiedini, which is a shish kebab). This spiedini is a mozzarella-filled loaf of bread, crumb-coated, deep-fried, then covered with anchovy sauce, a gut bomb if ever there were one. Don’t miss it. Two favorite entrees include the massive grilled veal chops — two to an order, served with potato croquettes — and the linguine with red clam sauce, heavy on the minced clams. And for dessert the waiter wheels over a trolley of outsize desserts. Perhaps better to opt for an espresso "corrected" with complimentary anisette. 2342 Arthur Ave, Bronx, (718) 584-1188
No Italian-American restaurant in town shows its decrepit age more picturesquely than Lanza’s, an East Village mainstay since way before the neighborhood was called the East Village. Founded in 1904, the restaurant’s interior is lined with such moody paintings as Mt. Vesuvius erupting. Surmounted by smirking figurines of chef and maître d’, the bar commands the center of the room, and a white-tableclothed formality pervades, despite the hipster vibe of the waitstaff. Lanza’s was a favorite of the Bonanno and Gambino crime families throughout the 70s, and Woody Allen used it as the setting for a mob restaurant in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). Wine is sold not by the bottle, but by the grape; if you like simple, un-oaked, inexpensive wines sold in carafes, this is your place.
Go for the simpler things on the menu. The escarole side – which may be treated as an appetizer – is nicely oiled and studded with gaeta olives and garlic cloves, while the fried calamari couldn’t be crisper. Spaghetti and meatballs is available in a doctrinaire version, which is really just what you want out of that dish — no aggressive or unexpected seasonings. Pollo al patrone (the name excited our curiosity) turned out to be little bone-in pieces of chicken fried with potato cubes and curls of sweet, hot red pepper. For dessert, head for the spumoni. (Note: For this piece I also checked out John’s of East 12th Street, having had a great meal there years ago. This time around, Lanza’s was substantially better.) 168 1st Ave, (212) 674-7014
In an Italian neighborhood in Queens’ Corona that boasts a bocce court park as its focus, strung on summer evenings with colored lights, Park Side is a monster-sized restaurant on the north side of the park. The place is owned by mobster Anthony "Tough Tony" Federici. It was founded in 1980, though you’ll swear the decor, hairstyles, and fashions of the men and women who dine there look more like the 60s. (It might be a perfect place to have that final Mad Men party.) The service is elegant and the staff couldn’t be nicer, whether you sit in the regular dining room, or the atrium annex, flooded with light and turned jungle-like with potted plants.
Nicely browned in the salamander and generous in size, the eggplant rollatini is one of the better versions in town, not stinting on the cheese either inside or out. The bulbous round wild mushroom ravioli in a porcini gravy is worth ordering, especially when shared as an appetizer rather than as a main course, but even better is Park Side’s take on Sicilian spiedini — not the deep-fried Roman cheese sandwich mentioned earlier but a veal roulade stuffed with pine nuts, raisins, and cheese. It’s served with mashed potatoes and batons of perfectly cooked asparagus. And you don’t have to order dessert — because you get a free plate of biscotti. Check your handgun at the door. 107-01 Corona Ave, Queens, (718) 271-9321
HERE ARE FIVE MORE
Gene’s (73 W 11th St, 212-675-2048) — Founded in 1919 as a "continental" restaurant (half Italian/half French), Gene’s finally settled down to red-sauced Italian sumptuousness sometime in the 50s, with no modern Tuscan fripperies. The place has always served a Village clientele, now grown white-haired but still dedicated to the restaurant. The roasted peppers with anchovies and generous boxcar of lasagna are particular favorites.
Venice (772 E 149th St, Bronx, 718-585-5164) — This modest establishment, which persists in a Dominican and Mexican neighborhood, dates to 1951, when this area benefited from its proximity to the Hunts Point Market. The seafood at Venice still shows it: there are no better or fresher baked clams in the Bronx. The heros are also exemplary — and cheap! — and you get free garlic bread with every meal.
Joe’s Lobster House (1898 Hylan Blvd, Staten Island, 718-667-0003) — Located in Midland Beach, this picturesque spot specializes in seafood from an Italian-American perspective, glorying in its baked clams, raw oysters, Manhattan clam chowder (an Italian-American classic), and linguine with scungilli (conch in red sauce). The decor is pleasantly utilitarian, and don’t miss the fried calamari hero.
Piccola Venezia (42-01 28th Ave, Queens, 718-721-8470) — The waiters dress in dapper red jackets and black bowties at this 1973 Italian-American restaurant deep in the heart of Astoria. Quoth Frank Bruni: "If you’re after a certain kind of red-sauce outer-borough cliché, it’s the best of the bunch I’ve tried." Go for the pasta e fagioli (bean and pasta soup, a real peasant classic), three-cheese ravioli, or veal chop Sorrento style with eggplant, prosciutto, and mozzarella.
Monte’s Trattoria (97 Macdougal St, 212-228-9194) — Since 1918, this classic spot favored by NYU staff and students has been feeding Villagers abundant servings of minestrone, bread-crumbed baked artichokes, stuffed manicotti, and veal pizzaiola (with mushrooms and peppers). The walk-down premises shows every year of its age, and the menu is a tad too ambitious, so stick with the Italian-American standards.