Decades ago, every New Yorker had his or her own Greenwich Village hideaway, a secret place on a hard-to-find street where the red sauce flowed like wine, and the wine flowed from straw-covered Chianti bottles.
Nowadays, most of these old Italian dives have been replaced by newer, more expensive trattoria, slinging small portions of lighter, Tuscan-style cooking, depending on balsamic vinegar, “fruity” olive oils, seasonal produce, handmade pastas, and summer truffles. Return with us now to the days of yore at Marinella, an overlooked corner spot on Carmine Street, where dating couples—some obviously contemplating their second or third marriages—sit side by side at the square tables as waiters perch like penguins in their vests, and the avuncular proprietor is likely to lean over your table with a joke or two if he thinks you’re the amenable sort.
The printed menu lists plainish Italian American favorites like penne with vodka and spiedini Romana, but as with the brilliant Roberto’s in the Bronx, the ancient red-sauced fare can’t compete with specials that are wheeled around the room on a chalkboard, featuring classic northern Italian fare and a few tentative chef inventions. Still, the food seems very old-fashioned, and the patrons love it that way. Here we have a giant artichoke ($8.75), standing up sheepishly on the plate, trying to shake off its muck of bread crumbs and garlic; there, a plate of three quails, deliciously salty in a dark broth dotted with pancetta and bacon—a simple dish, a peasant dish almost, and one that, in its density and salinity, bears little resemblance to anything you might find in a modern Italian restaurant.
One evening a special of shells with robiola and sausage ($14.75) that seems easily ignorable in its chalk description turns out to be a pasta of overwhelming power, so creamy and rich that it puts spaghetti carbonara to shame—and so abundant that the individual diner will bog down before making it halfway to the other side of the bowl. An appetizer special of crab cakes ($11.75) seems more like an entrée when the pair of bulging sea-born burgers arrive, pelted with so many rock shrimp you may find yourself leaving a few on the plate out of culinary fatigue. Though the meat-bearing entrées can soar to $25, the double-thick pork chop in a rosemary-cognac sauce is a great deal at $18.75, more meat than two could eat on a recent visit. In fact, you’ll have great difficulty pursuing the three-course meal plus dessert that is standard in Italy because Marinella’s portions are so huge.
Dessert represents a solemn occasion on the part of the penguins, and they ceremoniously bear out a large platter with five or six aftermaths displayed—a slice of cream-cheese-frosted carrot cake, maybe, next to a lump of dark-chocolate cake, a wedge of New York cheesecake, a pair of steroidal strawberries freshly dipped in chocolate and poised on a mound of white sugar, and the inevitable and often regrettable tiramisu. But many of the dates at the darkened tables are opting for more alcohol instead, perhaps to quicken their resolve or to obliterate one last scruple. As twin sambucas are served, pairs of hands grope and finally find each other under the table, as the proprietor looks on indulgently, his arms crossed over his chest.