This is the sixth installment in a series called Is It Still Good? Eater NY will be revisiting long-established restaurants that have acquired towering reputations and still generate plenty of traffic to find out if the food quality justifies our continued admiration. The last review was Grand Central Oyster Bar.
Founded in 1900 by Pasquale Bamonte from Salerno, Italy, and still in the same family, Bamonte’s may be the city’s oldest Italian restaurant, and one that’s still frequented for both its antique charms and its classically Italian-American menu.
It occupies a two-story house in Williamsburg, faced with stone and red clapboards that give it an almost farmhouse feel. The setting is quite a contrast, however. The BQE looms overhead, and if you close your eyes, its rushing traffic might sound like a sylvan waterfall. Inside, a darkened barroom features a signed picture of James Gandolfini. Indeed, Bamonte’s proved a perfect setting for several episodes of The Sopranos. (Robert De Niro and Frank Sinatra visited, too.) Two wooden phone booths still stand in the barroom, in case, I suppose, you want to call your bookie.
Beyond is a deep dining room that can only be called baroque, with heavy red draperies, hanging chandeliers shining brightly, and Roman busts plastered on the walls, interspersed with gilt-framed sentimental paintings, one of which shows a woman looking forlornly toward the sea. At the end of the room, a glassed-in open kitchen is said to be one of the country’s first. As the legend goes, this innovation was created on behalf of crime figures who insisted on seeing their food being made to make sure no one was poisoning it.
The stately waiters are somberly attired in black suits and white shirts. They don’t wander among the customers so much as silently float, and there’s no background music, either. Come early on a weekday evening, as I did recently with a party of four to see if the food holds up, and you’ll be seated immediately without a reservation. If you’re 60, you may be the youngest person in the room. Later in the evening, the place fills with the young and trendy, intent on trying the Italian food from over a century ago. Even today, few modern or faddish dishes are found on the menu. Search the menu in vain for avocado toasts.
When Italian immigrants came to Williamsburg at the turn of the 19th century, they brought with them many recipes, but Bamonte’s is also a cradle of Italian-American cooking, so the menu is a mash-up of two interrelated cuisines. Stick with the stuff long cherished by the neighborhood, and have a fine meal. Luckily, this includes some of the more modestly priced dishes. Even if trying to overspend, the bill will likely hover around $50 per person, with food left over.
One can’t do better than begin with a dozen clams oregonata ($25.50), each little neck surmounted by a heap of herbed bread crumbs tasting of the pounding waves. Underneath the shellfish is a powerful clam broth derived therefrom, and I charge you to sop up every drop with the bread provided. One of the loaves, dense of crumb, resembles the famous saltless bread of Florence, making it perfect for the briny clam broth.
And don’t miss the eggplant rollatini (two rolls, $8.95). When Italian housewives first arrived from Italy, they found an abundance of cheap dairy products that had not been available back home. So they used them with a free hand, including this lush roll-up of eggplant slices around clean-tasting ricotta, smothered in a chunky tomato sauce. This sauce reappears in many permutations, leading to the conclusion that there must be a huge vat of it on the roof.
Other good starters include anchovy-festooned roasted peppers, and an artichoke the size of a prizefighter’s fist, topped off with garlicky bread crumbs that turn into a savory bread pudding. Race with friends to see who can peel off leaves the fastest and reach the hairy choke. But some of the apps fall short. The spiedini Romana, a sort of toasted cheese sandwich, came without the crisp demeanor or the tomato dipping sauce found at such other Brooklyn Italian old-timers as Michael’s of Brooklyn or Colandrea New Corner.
The square, hefty, homemade ravioli stuffed with that fluffy ricotta is fine with the plain tomato sauce, but once smothered in cheese and baked — a favorite Brooklyn practice — the mass becomes as dense as the core of a nuclear reactor. Since baked pastas are a big part of the Italian-American canon, go instead for the lasagna, which is delicious in its tomatoey plainness. That old warhorse spaghetti and meatballs is good here, especially if you specify the tomato sauce be a meaty Bolognese.
On my evening there, our white-haired waiter recommended the rigatoni with Italian sausage and broccoli rabe ($19.95), which formed a nice contrast with some of the red sauced pastas, with a bitter edge to the broccoli rabe that complemented the fennel in the pork sausage. And, oh those al dente rigatoni — groovy, man!
Normally, one is advised to go easy on the meat-bearing main courses, though classic stewed poultry dishes such as chicken cacciatore shine. But there are some “don’t miss” meats at Bamonte’s, including the famous pork chop alla Bamonte ($23.95) — a pair of browned and succulent beauties heaped with sweet or hot pickled peppers (ask for both). The veal’s good, too, whether fried in a schnitzel or done in Francese style, lightly breaded and deposited in a sauce of lemon, butter, and white wine.
Note that these entrees come with copious quantities of garlicky green beans and potatoes that are soft and salty. All entrees are shareable at Bamonte’s. Now it’s time for dessert, if you have room. Though not listed on the dessert menu, the cannoli here are fabulous, with no candied fruit and the ricotta filling ethereally whipped. And the pastry tube is crunchy as hell. Tartufo is another good choice, a hump of ice cream coated with chocolate and sporting a cherry in the middle.
Though you can find better Italian restaurants in Brooklyn, at least one or two in Williamsburg itself, nothing beats Bamonte’s for its clams, eggplant rollatini, and baked pasta classics; reasonably priced wine list (with a decent bottle of Multepulciano D’Abruzzo for around $25); and especially, atmosphere, atmosphere, and more atmosphere. Not a bad place for a birthday, betrothal, or betrayal — and you can see if anyone’s poisoning your food.