Though the dining public remains preoccupied with Tuscan, Brooklyn’s ancient red-sauce palaces still beckon. Hunkered down in remote neighborhoods, eluding guidebooks and tipsters, they look to distant memories of Naples, Apulia, Sicily, and the Sorrentine Peninsula for inspiration. Nothing is more pleasant on a crisp autumn evening than scouring Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, and Bay Ridge for the neon glow of these fossil establishments. It’s like Saturday Night Fever in reverse. Thus it was that we stumbled on Romano Restaurant in Dyker Heights. Built in an era when Rome was synonymous with romance, the decor is right out of Roman Holiday, or maybe Gidget Goes to Rome: buckets of artificial flowers, acres of blond paneling and smoky marble, and masses of tiny white Christmas lights that hang from the ceiling like patriarchal beards in a Renaissance painting. A statue of Julius Caesar gestures approvingly at dating couples holding hands over bottles of chianti. Incongruously, the bottles are missing their baskets and the couples are mainly in their sixties. Otherwise you’d think it was 1961 and not 2001.
To further the illusion that you’re dining in Rome, there’s spedieni ($9.75). Not to be confused with the Sicilian shish kebabs of the same name, the Roman version is a lush double-decker mozzarella sandwich the size of a small dog, which is dipped in beaten egg and fried. A series of anchovy fillets lies seductively along the seams, giving the contraption a poontangy kick, and the moistness is maintained by a puddle of light buttery sauce that doesn’t interfere with the overall crispness. I want one every day. Skip the Roman-style egg drop soup ($6.25), however. Though the wads of spinach are tasty, the broth is bland. Anyway, the best starter is a very Neapolitan octopus salad—gluey, chewy, appealingly tentacular. Modest quantities of celery and olives provide contrast, and the oily dressing is applied with a mercifully light hand.
I suppose fettucine Alfredo ($9.75) is nominally Roman, too, created by restaurateur Alfredo Di Lelio in 1914 for a languishing postpartum spouse, although most parts of Italy have a version more modestly referred to as fettuccine al burro (“with butter”). Though awash in cream, Romano’s is notably deficient in cheese, and the fresh noodles have been overcooked. It was the least appealing pasta we tried from a menu that lists an amazing 37 varieties, reflecting the dependence of impoverished Southern Italians on pasta as a main course. The list dutifully incorporates a few fads—pesto, sun-dried tomatoes—as a sort of public service, but the best choices are found in the Baked Pasta section, code words for Southern favorites, many not actually baked. The homemade ravioli ($10) is a particular delight, stuffed with crushed broccoli rabe whose bitterness has been tamed. The baked ziti Siciliana with eggplant and melted cheese is another favorite. If you add a side of the intense garlic bread, the portions are enough for two or three.
The massive seafood, beef, chicken, and, especially, veal entrées attest to the prosperity Southern Italians found in the New World, and the range of choices is again stupefying. These entrées, though quite good, are mainly for the high rollers in checkered sport coats. Instead turn your attention to the tasty collection of wood-oven pizzas. It is here that, forgoing tradition, Romano dabbles in innovation. One evening we ordered the cryptic lasagna calzone ($11.50). It turned out to be a huge, crescent-shaped pastry bladder that could barely contain its bulging hoards of mozzarella, ricotta, sharp tomato sauce, and meatball fragments. Hoisting our knives like Roman legionnaires, we attacked.