A dozen times I’d passed the storefront deep in the shadow of the W and the gates were always pulled down. Flanked by fading plywood cutouts of Coke bottle caps, the rickety sign “Luncheonette” also proclaimed the place moribund. Then a friend surprised me by saying he’d eaten there recently. I’d never seen it open because the café closes before suppertime.
Known as Tony’s and Elena Ristorante, the interior is as beat-up as the sign, anchored by an undulating beige counter flanked by stools. When we dropped by the next afternoon a quarter of the counter seats and a couple of the tables were occupied by locals from this aging Italian neighborhood, where many trace their roots to Sicily or Apulia. Like the fixtures, the diners seemed transported from another time—the women with modified beehives, the men trailing tools from the belts of their blue or gray jumpsuits. Italy’s newest saint, Padre Pio, competes with the pope for pictorial supremacy on one wall, while a fierce rubber Godzilla faces off against Mr. Potato Head in the corner.
As befits a ’50s luncheonette, the menu offers such American classics as burgers, meat loaf, hot open-faced sandwiches, omelettes, and salads. Fully half the bill of fare, though, is devoted to Italian chow, reflecting the tastes of a population that craves food from the old country as well as the new. “Hot plates” features dishes ladled over big oblong plates of spaghetti, served with bread and a salad or soup. The first choice instantly reveals the menu’s deep Italian roots: honeycomb tripe swimming in red sauce ($8), a dish impossible to imagine in a typical diner. As I sat at the counter, several plates of this old-world delicacy sailed by, perfuming the air with its funk. Other diners were enjoying the Italian American working-class specials like meatball parmigiana and egg-and-potato heroes ($4.75 and $4, respectively). The modest quantity of filling suggests that the excellent bread, with its gleaming egg-brushed crust, remains the focus of the sandwich.
The Italian pastas, seafood, and meats are rather subdued in their spicing, maybe because the patrons have come to desire all their food as plain-tasting as the American half of the menu. They are delicious nonetheless. My favorite is cheese ravioli with an oddball accompaniment of both meat sauce and meatballs ($8). It’s a pitched battle between vegetarians and carnivores. The meat lovers win.