Twelve years ago, when Roberto Restaurant first appeared in Belmont—the Bronx’s Little Italy—there weren’t as many good dining spots as there are today. Back then, proto-foodies trekked to Arthur Avenue for the purpose of purchasing fresh raw bunny, perfect cannoli, Calabrian cheeses made in Pennsylvania, and to visit a wine store that offered two dozen Brunellos. But they dined as an afterthought. It wasn’t that Roberto was so different in focus from the other restaurants there. Like the others, it still served a southern Italian menu. Roberto’s, though, originated in the recent past rather than more than a century ago. In addition to furnishing amazing food, the place provided a fascinating glimpse of what Italian-American cuisine might have been had the full range of raw materials been readily available to immigrants 100 years ago.
The portion size at Roberto was opulent, too, so that signatures like roast rabbit with juice-soaked potatoes, pasta and seasonal veggies baked in cartoccio, and sautéed broccoli rabe tossed with beans and sausages would easily feed a table of ravenous diners who had only ordered one dish per person. A couple of rave reviews (including the Voice‘s), and customers were soon streaming up to the Bronx—many for the first time in their lives. The chef was Roberto Paciullo, native of Salerno, a port city south of Naples.
Flush with the success of Roberto, Paciullo opened Zero Otto Nove (“089”) on Arthur Avenue in 2008, named after Salerno’s telephone area code. Riding a wave of Naples-style pizza fetishism, the place focused on pies, but a full southern Italian bill of fare was also available, delivered in belly-busting portions. More recently, a branch has opened in the Flatiron district with a similar menu. I decided to check out both for purposes of comparison.
The Arthur Avenue evocation boasts a narrow passageway that leads to a soaring space painted, rather effectively, as a trompe l’oeil Italian village. To one side, a beehive oven is clearly stoked with wood; from it issue some of the best pies in town. One need only go as far as the margherita ($13.95) to find an admirably firm crust with a fleecy crumb beneath, sterling cheese and tomato sauce, and fresh basil that sends its pungent odor to the very tops of those painted houses. As at the city’s ancient Neapolitan pizzerias, calzones are a second focus. Slice the Salernitano (“from Salerno,” $11.95), and out cascades glistening escarole sharpened with capers and anchovies. It’s like a warm hand-held salad.
Indeed, Zero Otto Nove functions nicely as a regional Italian restaurant specializing in the food of Salerno, and you’d do well to order anything so designated. Ragu Salernitano ($19.95) is a tour de force of tomato sauce and meat that might be a cognate of American “Sunday gravy.” The baking dish comes heaped with sausage, beef braciola, pork-skin braciola, and one humongous meatball. The salt-cod-and-potato casserole is another triumph, with an antique taste that will propel you back centuries.
While the service at the Bronx branch is omnipresent, but not entirely effective, the staff in the Flatiron branch pays careful attention to the tables—which are well-spaced for Manhattan. Rather than an Italian village, the 21st Street premises is more like a catacombs, with pale brick arches and real event posters for Italian concerts and political rallies plastered to the walls—many from the region around Salerno. With the exception of the pizzas—which are not quite as perfect due to the use of less wood in the oven—Manhattan proves it can furnish food every bit as great as that of the Bronx.
Scented with sprigs of rosemary, the coniglio alla cacciatore (“rabbit, hunter’s style,” $19.95) recalls the excellence of the hare at Roberto, and so does the radiatori in cartoccio—carburetor-shaped pasta oven-steamed in foil with porcini gravy. As at any Italian-American place in NYC, one is well-advised to seek out the baked pastas. Rigatoni Salernitana features grooved tubes interspersed with egg, soppressata, ricotta, and tiny meatballs, arriving thickly mantled with cheese. The combination is irresistible. Among pizzas, the one featuring pureed orange squash and big cubes of pancetta was a favorite, and so was the pie with potatoes, crumbled sausage, and smoked mozzarella.
At both places, the all-Italian wine list is wonderful, with lower markups than standard. Go for the expansive Chianti list, and specifically for those bottles from Colli Senesi and Colli Fiorentini (representing the Siena and Florence outskirts, respectively, two underappreciated producing regions). You’ll find Chiantis from those regions in the $34-to-$38 range. For many, a restaurant deal like that on great Italian wine is as rare as—a trip to the Bronx.