Obscurely berthed in the Bronx’s Belmont section, Roberto’s boasts a facade that looks like a ship’s prow, with a row of eager customers extending out the door like a taut anchor line. If dinner were a lengthy affair, and the food expensive and mediocre—as with many of the nearby Arthur Avenue restaurants—the line might discourage you. But feeding people great food while turning thronged tables is Roberto’s forte, and the queue moves rapidly at this no-reservations enclave. The interior is more hobbit cave than ship’s galley, darkly hung with velvet curtains even where there seem to be no windows. Trencher tables traverse the room, so you’re likely to be seated next to strangers. It’s OK; the strangers are nice, and the fact that they’ve sought out the same out-of-the-way place unites you and them in a secret society.
Culinarily, Roberto’s also turns its back on its brethren, sailing clear of the red-sauce swell that one expects at these latitudes. But though the chow might be described as contemporary Italian, that doesn’t mean the chef ignores the local markets, where ricotta and mozzarella are sold within minutes of manufacture, dozens of olive oils vie for your custom, and fresh lamb, rabbit, and kid carcasses, fur-on, hang in butcher-shop windows. Taking full advantage, the mozzarella in insalata di bocconcini ($12) has the ethereal fluffiness of just-made. The little balls play hide-and-seek among roasted red peppers, slices of soppresata, cured olives, and sun-dried tomatoes in a salad so generous that four of us shared it as an appetizer. Enhancing the rib-sticking quality is a ring of browned wedges that the menu refers to as spiedini—not the toasted mozzarella sandwiches that go by that name in Rome, but polenta fried in fragrant olive oil.
The menu cavalcades well-executed Italian standards like penne alla vodka, linguini puttanesca, veal milanese, and a particularly good broccoli rabe and cannellini beans with sausages, but many regulars never open it. Rather, they gaze in wonder at the chalkboard propped on the windowsill, where specials exploit what is current in the market, while giving the chef’s creative whimsy full play. One day, there were pieces of thin duck sausage cavorting with artichoke hearts and porcini mushrooms in a light puree of tomatoes and red peppers. There was also an odd-sounding dish of penne and orange squash ($14, enough for two) that we tried out of curiosity. It turned out to be delicious, sporting a gooey, salty, and truffle-studded brown sauce that complemented the sweetness of the squash, which melted into the pasta as we ate it. An entire herby roast rabbit ($20), surrounded by potatoes soaked in basting juices, rounded out the meal. Though the bunny was a bit dry, the food had us making comparisons with repasts fondly remembered from trips to Italy.
Roberto’s induces a mania in its adherents, and subsequent weeks found me on the phone begging friends with cars to chauffeur me there. Those who accepted soon turned into enthusiasts themselves, as we continued pillaging the specials menu. One evening, a beef osso buco as large as an ocean liner, doused with a piquant red sauce that did a balancing act between smooth and lumpy, elicited ahs. On another, a porcupine-shaped pasta called radiatore came with crumbled fennel sausage and little matchsticks of artichoke heart, and mushrooms and pancetta smothered a veal scallopini in a wine-laced sauce.
Even now, my tongue hangs out just thinking about the specials at Roberto’s. Hey—you got a car?