Venice Restaurant and Pizzeria was founded 51 years ago by three relatives from Ponza, an island 50 kilometers south of Rome and directly offshore from Monte Circeo, where the witch Circe turned Odysseus's crew into pigs. Jagged and volcanic, the small island is skirted by a series of grottoes and canals that harbor all sorts of sea creatures. The area was settled in the 17th century by refugees from Padua, near Venice. Hence, perhaps, the restaurant's namethough the romance associated with the city of canals and gondolas is reason enough.
We first spotted it after a jaunt to Castle Hill Point, a mud-caked flat that pokes into Long Island Sound, revealing a dramatic panorama of abandoned dredges, wrecked boats, and planes landing at LaGuardia. Tooling down 149th Street, we noticed a faded billboard painted on the side of a tenement. "There's no way that restaurant still exists," I pontificated as we navigated a landscape of warehouses, bodegas, and housing projects. Yet, framed in red neon, Venice Restaurant eventually appeared. The front room doubles as a pizza parlor, limned with murals of the namesake city; if you prefer museum art, gaze at the Canaletto prints in the back room. Both spaces are brightly lit and filled with red formica tables, each sporting a vase of silk roses.
As you might expect from a restaurant with roots in Ponza, seafood dominates the menu, and the proximity of the Hunt's Point market guarantees it will be scintillatingly fresh. First to hit the table is a stunning scungilli salad ($8.95), made with fresh conch rather than the canned variety one often encounters in Italian places. The gastropod is sliced thin and heaped generously on a toss of iceberg, tomatoes, and giadinera, the puckering Sicilian salad of cauliflower, carrots, red bell peppers, and olives. The vinaigrette really puts the dish across, I reflected the next morning while enjoying the leftovers for breakfast. Next arrived the crumb-heaped baked clams, another high point of the menu, available by the half dozen or dozen ($6 and $11.95, respectively). The first bite will be disappointing if you expect tons of garlic. Gradually, though, it will dawn on you that the stuffing is intentionally bland because the clams are so damn good, briny and juicy in the way that made Little Necks famous the world over.
Where in the ancient Italian restaurants of Brooklyn the excellent pastas are often the most desirable second course, Venice's noodles tend to be unimpressive. One exception is the Roman classic fettuccine alfredo ($9.95), with plenty of cream, butter, and cheese, and a little minced parsley for color contrast, a dish so rich you dare not eat it alone. A good pasta substitute is the excellent meatball parmigiana hero, or the particularly flavorful entrée of sausage and peppers ($9.50), which comes with spaghetti in a plain tomato sauce. Seafood main courses run to shrimp, scallops, and fish fillets in a variety of interchangeable presentations.
Not listed on the menu, pizzas are available by the whole pie. The style is rudimentary Neapolitanthin crust, sauce with a bit of zip, modest amounts of good cheese. Nevertheless, the pie manages to be spectacular within the stated confines. Having relegated one to a between-course afterthought on our second visit, we found ourselves wolfing multiple slices despite the main courses to follow. In fact, the perfect pizza is one of the things we found ourselves talking about in the succeeding days. Not only the superb taste, but the way, Circe-like, it had turned our crew into pigs.
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