Leave the Gun, Take the Marinara

Umbertos moves its tasty crustaceans and shellfish to the Bronx

On April 17, 1972, a lone gunman appeared in the doorway of Umbertos Clam House—a gleaming new establishment in Little Italy—and fired three shots into Joey Gallo, who was gobbling a pre-dawn breakfast with his young bride and stepdaughter after a night of dancing at the Copacabana. Hit in the elbow, back, and buttocks, the Gambino crime boss staggered out the front door and was picked up by a passing cop car and taken to the hospital. He expired on the way. "Crazy Joe" had made the fatal mistake of sitting with his back to the door. Time magazine reported that blood mixed with spicy marinara on the blue tile floor that day.

The same spicy marinara is still an important feature of Umbertos, which opened an expansive new branch in the Bronx two years ago, right on the corner of 188th Street and Arthur Avenue. A line of umbrella-sprouting outdoor tables traces the restaurant's exterior, occupied on a sunny Sunday afternoon with families, the kids eating linguine while the parents dine on lobster. The interior is capacious and high-ceilinged, done in dark woods and shades of blue, with predictable nautical motifs that include framed knot displays and wooden frigates.

There's steak and chicken on the menu too, and plenty of conventional pastas, but stick with the seafood and you'll have a spectacular meal. I've never had a better cold seafood salad ($15.95)—squid, conch, and shrimp heaped on an oblong plate interspersed with big chunks of garlic and fronds of parsley, flanked by a pair of lemon wedges. There's no stinting on the olive oil, and each aquatic item has been perfectly poached so as to be succulent and unrubbery—quite a feat where conch and calamari are concerned.

The seafood at Umbertos is prepared in the style of the southernmost part of Italy—Calabria—and Sicily in particular, which means megatons of garlic and the hot dip mentioned above, which doubles as a pasta sauce. It has a gritty burn so severe it's a wonder so many diners request it. (There are medium and mild versions too.) The menu offers other surprises. Shaped like a pair of flying saucers, shrimp balls ($12.95) are masses of diced shrimp packed tightly with herbed crumbs, reflecting the Sicilian penchant for extending a sparse larder with breading. They come oddly matched with two very hard biscuits, which you'll need all of the dipping sauce and a well-glued pair of dentures to masticate. For an extra $2, you can have linguine instead.

In the Sicilian style, the menu tends toward crustaceans and shellfish rather than whole fish and fillets, and the best illustration of this is the wonderful zuppa de pesce ($15.95), a bowl so packed with seafood (shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, conch, and fish fillet) that you can barely discern the broth, available in white or red versions. Pick the white, made with garlic and white wine. Anything featuring clams is wonderful too, including fried clams, clam chowder, linguine with white or red clam sauce, baked clams, and the New York favorite of raw clams on the half-shell. In fact, every meal should begin with a luscious plate of raw clams or oysters. When you slurp them, just be sure to face the front door.

 
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