We’re digging deeper into one of our most popular maps, New York Italian restaurants, to discuss the state of Italian dining in NYC. Now is as good of a moment as any, as new Italian restaurants seem to open every week. New York Italian spots — like many New York restaurants — also are becoming more corporate and less mom-and-pop, as the price of real estate, ingredients, labor, operations, and other costs continue to rise. Read on for a discussion on what’s exciting among New York’s Italian restaurants.
Melissa: Let’s start with the classics. What’s your favorite classic New York Italian American restaurant?
Robert: For me, that means an Italian American restaurant with roots in the late 19th century, that certainly came into its own in the early 20th century. Michael’s of Brooklyn near Marine Park. It’s been around since 1964. There’s a giant white piano on a raised platform playing Frank Sinatra continually. Another place is Villa Mosconi on MacDougal in the Village, featuring ricotta and eggplant and tomato sauce and veal.
My third suggestion for classic is actually very new — Cafe Spaghetti in Carroll Gardens, which is a kind of spin on the classic Italian American menu in a more modern idiom. Maybe you don’t want to sit in an old-fashioned restaurant surrounded by Roman statues and old paintings and all the signifiers of Italian restaurants, so you go to Cafe Spaghetti. It also has a nice backyard and makes you feel like you’re on a European vacation.
Melissa: My favorite classic NYC Italian spot is Emilio’s Ballato. Emilio is such a character. And I love the room: There’s a sign painted by Andy Warhol in the dining room. It’s like my favorite dining room, I think, in the city, for its hodgepodge on the walls — old newspapers, Italian certificates, classic photos of so-and-so who ate here. I love the fact that Emilio sits at the front table, and I love that it’s cash only. Everyone waits in line. There’s a doorbell to get in. And the food is good, too. I love the linguine with clams, the house wine, all of it.
Melissa: Next up: neighborhood Italian. I love Fiaschetteria Pistoia in Alphabet City for its lived-in dining room; the point-and-pick wines by the glass [they have an old-fashioned toolbox with opened wines to look at and choose from]; and the food, like the zucchini flan, the artichoke salad, any of the fresh pastas. (By the way, the restaurant apparently has a location in Amsterdam now?) I also keep meaning to go back to longtimer Al Di La in Brooklyn. And who doesn’t like Andrew Tarlow’s Roman’s? It’s such a great neighborhood restaurant, though it’s really far for me, so I go to my neighborhood BYOB, Corto, in Jersey City.
Robert: I Sodi from Rita Sodi and Jody Williams also fits in the neighborhood category: Even though there’s nothing that we can do about places that blow up to beyond what their expectations are. I like the small size of the menu; I know what I’m going to get there: a meat-and-cheese antipasti, the rabbit porchetta, and so on.
Melissa: I think that Il Buco Alimentari is kind of like that, too. It’s not a neighborhood restaurant exactly, but the Alimentari (as opposed to the flagship Il Buco) is more casual, where you can stop any time of day and have some snacks or a glass of wine and yet it’s a gigantic neighborhood restaurant. People also like Vic’s — even post-Hillary Sterling, who’s now at the great Ci Siamo.
Robert: I think we’re kicking around several interesting definitions of “neighborhood restaurant,” and they’re all true of course. Another neighborhood restaurant I’d like to call out is Pepe Giallo, which is in far West Chelsea, kind of in that art district area. There are 10 or so pastas on the menu. There are some appetizers. There’s some nice homemade focaccia; there’s cheap wine. They didn’t really fool around with secondi on the menu. [There are six, all under $25.] You know, nobody I know really eats the secondi course if they’re left to themselves in an Italian restaurant. They go in, they have an appetizer, they have a glass of wine, and they have a pasta, and that’s dinner.
Pepe Giallo is filled with artgoers, or people that have been to the galleries, or gallery owners. It’s not an expensive place, but it’s very neighborhood-y. Ditto with Pepe Rosso, which was formerly in Soho. Now it’s across the street in Greenwich Village.
Melissa: If you have money burning a hole in your pocket, and you want to try fancier places, what comes to mind?
Robert: My personal one — and I only have one — Via Carota. I live pretty near there, but I can’t afford to eat there on a regular basis. It’s always crowded, so I like to think I have figured out all these dodges as to how to get in. One of them is in the middle of the summer, at exactly 3:15 p.m., when the lunch crowd is gone and the dinner crowd has not arrived. The romaine salad is absolutely great and generous, the pappardelle with wild boar ragu thick and delicious, and I love the deep-fried bunny on toast. There’s always seasonal vegetables on the menu so you can feel good about yourself again.
Melissa: I like the seafood focus of Alice in Greenwich Village. I’m enjoying the new Roscioli, which is expensive downstairs, and more accessible in the upstairs alimentari and salumeria. I’d enjoy Misi or Lilia from Missy Robbins in Brooklyn more often if I lived closer — they’re both very satisfying experiences and you walk away remembering the dishes and the wine. There’s another place that I haven’t gone to but want to — the reopened Marc Forgione. His feels like a classic New York restaurant. Also, Marea, with PJ Calapa now at the helm.
Robert: I think a place like Peasant (reclaimed by Forgione) or yes, Forgione, or even Via Carota — there’s something to be said about the restaurants that have been around for like 15 years or whatever, because it gives us a through line for the kind of dining that used to be everywhere and that New York now has less of.
Melissa: There are also a bunch of places we’re not talking about because we can’t get in: Don Angie and Carbone. Maybe even Rao’s, but I’ve been to Rao’s through a very kind friend. It was probably the one and only time I’ll be able to go, and it lived up to the hype. Lots of characters, a singing bartender, great people-watching. I had chicken piccata and split a bunch of dishes.
Robert: It’s a different thing when you take idiomatic Italian dining and they’ve kicked the prices so high it’s like most people can’t eat there for these dishes that everyone knows. So if you can get in, you’re eating familiar and common foods, but they’re emptying your wallet.
Melissa: Especially when it comes to Italian, which can be so filling. If we’re talking prices, it helps to have a strategy. For some of these places with $56 mains and $37 salads, it’s expensive, but if you can be selective about it, it’s less daunting. I want to go back to Major Food Group’s Torrisi for a drink and some ham snacks at the standing bar, or as a solo diner for a plate and a glass of wine.
Robert: The objective is to walk away from your meal with your friends and not feel like an asshole for just having spent so much money.
Melissa: Are there others that are under the radar that you want to shed light on?
Robert: Yes, there’s Joe’s of Avenue U. It’s almost like an underground stream, the Sicilian restaurants of Brooklyn. Joe’s of Avenue U is one that dates back to the 1950s, but they’re timeless. The beauty of Joe’s — vegetarians take note — is that it has a glass case filled with vegetables: your broccoli rabe, your eggplant. There’s also seafood, like octopus salad and salt cod croquettes. The dining room is a trip, too. There’s a giant agrarian mural of people with carts, dragging food around the farm with the Roman ruins in the background, and stuff like that. It’s just magnificent.
Another place I want to shout out is Dominick’s on Arthur Avenue. It could fall into the cheap restaurant category. It could fall into the wild scene restaurant category, too, because all the seating is trencher tables with families and boisterous groups that are seated together. Everyone is having a blast. The food is inexpensive. I don’t think there’s a menu; they just tell you what they have. It’s an amazing, amazing place.